The Discourse of Police Interviews
edited by Marianne Mason and Frances Rock
University of Chicago Press, 2020
Cloth: 978-0-226-64765-4 | Paper: 978-0-226-64779-1 | Electronic: 978-0-226-64782-1
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226647821.001.0001


Forensic linguistics, or the study of language and the law, is a growing field of scholarly and public interest with an established research presence. The Discourse of Police Interviews aims to further the discussion by analyzing how police interviews are constructed and used to investigate and prosecute crimes.

The first book to focus exclusively on the discourses of police interviewing, The Discourse of Police Interviews examines leading debates, approaches, and topics in contemporary police interview research. Among other topics, the book explores the sociolegal, psychological, and discursive framework of popular police interview techniques employed in the United States and the United Kingdom, such as PEACE and Reid, and the discursive practices of institutional representatives like police officers and interpreters that can influence the construction and quality of linguistic evidence. Together, the contributions situate the police interview as part of a complex, and multistage, criminal justice process. The book will be of interest to both scholars and practitioners in a variety of fields, such as linguistic anthropology, interpreting studies, criminology, law, and sociology.


Marianne Mason is associate professor of translation and interpreting studies and linguistics at James Madison University. She is the author of Courtroom Interpreting. Frances Rock is a reader in the Centre for Language and Communication Research at Cardiff University and a founding member of the forensic linguistics research network Cardiff Language and Law.


The Discourse of Police Interviews is poised to make an important contribution to forensic discourse analysis and language study. The book is useful in that it brings many approaches to and analyses of policing and police discourse in one place, making it useful for teaching and research alike. The topic is timely, the chapters are well written, and the analyses are tight and compelling and sophisticated while remaining clear.”
— Jennifer Andrus, University of Utah

“To my knowledge, there are no other edited volumes devoted exclusively to the discourse of police interviews and interrogations. This book is thus essential reading for scholars and students of language and the law. All of the chapters are empirically grounded, drawing their data from actual police interviews and interrogations. A number of the chapters investigate what the editors refer to as the ‘institutionally endorsed’ methods and techniques; others examine specific discursive practices that have an influence on the kind of ‘evidence’ to emerge from police interviews/interrogations, including the way that police officers and interpreters can shape the trajectory of these interactions. Still others examine the changes that occur when police interviews are transformed into written police records, records which in some jurisdictions play a substantive role in trials.”
— Susan Ehrlich, York University

"Mason and Rock. . .interweave police interviews, discursive transformations in bilingual interviews, and the discursive journey and institutional applications of police interviews throughout their book. The. . .contributors here expertly define forensic linguistics, or the study of language and law, and how it is applied and studied in society today."
— Kevin Cassidy, Criminal Law Criminal Justice Books


- Marianne Mason
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226647821.003.0001
[police interviews;institutional discourse;asymmetries;discourse analysis;negotiation;ethnolinguistics;metalanguage;multimodality;transmodal;discursive psychology]
This chapter discusses leading debates, approaches, and topics in contemporary police interview research. The chapter situates the police interview as part of a complex, and multistage, criminal justice process, and explores key concepts that are particularly relevant to, and addressed in, the chapters of this volume, such as those intersecting discourse and the institutional, psychological, ethnolinguistic, and metalinguistic. The chapter also provides an overview for the various sections and chapters in the volume. It concludes with suggestions and recommendations, based on the volume’s findings, for future areas of research. (pages 1 - 18)
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- Elizabeth Stokoe, Charles Antaki, Emma Richardson, Sara Willott
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226647821.003.0002
[police interview;sexual assault;intellectual disability;communication guidance;communication training;conversation analysis]
This chapter presents an analysis of investigative interviews with victims of reported sexual abuse. The data analyzed are 19 videotapes of interviews from archived cases involving complainants with intellectual disabilities. In particular, the chapter compares what is recommended in UK national guidelines to ‘achieve best evidence’ in such victim interviews and, on the basis of conversation analysis, how police officers adhere to and depart from recommended practice in ways which are both effective and less effective. The analysis reveals a restricted sense of rapport, and occasional use of questions implying blame. The chapter considers the implications of the analysis for published guidelines for interviewing victims and witnesses as well as for the training of officers and those who work with vulnerable adults and children to achieve a fair and supportive criminal justice system. (pages 21 - 41)
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- Ray Bull, Bianca Baker
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226647821.003.0003
[coercion;investigative interviewing;PEACE method;rapport;empathy]
In a growing number of countries, crime investigators, such as the police, are moving away from using oppressive and coercive tactics with suspected persons toward a more humane, information-gathering approach. This chapter describes the evolution and content of such an approach devised by detectives with input from psychologists more than 25 years ago. A key element of this approach, now supported by extensive research world-wide, is the use of rapport. However, as with many of the most important aspects of life, rapport is not easy to define and operationalize. Furthermore, one key component of rapport in the obtaining of discourse from suspects is the ethical use of empathy – which itself is also far from easy to define. Nevertheless, in a very substantial 2016 United Nations report the use of rapport is emphasized. This chapter examines the use of rapport in police interviews using a discursive and psychological approach. (pages 42 - 64)
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- Marianne Mason
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226647821.003.0004
[police interrogation;Reid method;discourse analysis;confession;guilt presumptive;minimization;confrontation]
This chapter examines the discursive features of three of the interrogation strategies most commonly used in the Reid interrogation method: the sympathetic-detective/minimization strategy, confronting the suspect with evidence of guilt, and appealing to the suspect’s self-interest. The data for the chapter includes the police interrogations of two suspects who were charged with murder and rape respectively. The analysis shows how the police officers in each case dismissed the invocations of the right to counsel of both suspects and proceeded to use the three aforementioned strategies to direct the suspects to provide a confession, while taking ‘innocence off the table’ and ignoring the suspects’ frequent denials. Removing the option of a suspect’s innocence, particularly if it leads to a suspect providing information or a confession, may substantiate (partially or fully) the police officers’ construction of a suspect’s alleged guilt. (pages 65 - 84)
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- Philip Gaines
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226647821.003.0005
[false confession;police interrogation;maximization;minimization;Reid technique]
Most American police interviewers have traditionally employed a range of manipulative interrogation techniques on suspects whom they deem to be guilty in order to extract a confession. Scholars of police interrogation and confession have identified two overarching approaches—maximization and minimization—used by police to, respectively, induce a sense of hopelessness in view of the dire consequences of not confessing and provide mitigating justifications for the suspect in order to make confession more palatable. One such minimization technique is the mitigation of blame—the focus of this chapter. Discourse analysis of the patterns of questioning in the interrogation of a 16-year-old accused of smothering her baby shows the development of a number of themes that are combined to mitigate the suspect’s blame for the alleged murder: the discursive construction of provocation, spontaneity, and responsibility. In summary, interrogators mitigated blame by constructing a narrative in which the suspect 1) was provoked to act because of resentment toward her mother over being burdened with excessive child care, 2) acted spontaneously rather than premeditatedly, and 3) suffered from mental and relational dysfunction for which she was responsible. (pages 85 - 110)
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- Gary C. David, James Trainum
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226647821.003.0006
[police interrogation;false confession;coercion;storytelling;narrative;conversation analysis]
Stories are a primary mechanism for communicating and sharing information. A confession is a certain type of storytelling. As a storytelling, confessions are unique in that the listeners (i.e. law enforcement) typically have a sense of what the story is supposed to include, and thus whether or not the story is being told ‘correctly.’ This chapter examines how law enforcement agents try to elicit confession narratives, as well as the conversational mechanisms used to shape those narratives. While a confession might be ascribed to a suspect (e.g. the confession of John Doe), they are the product of a conversational collaboration between the suspects and police. We explore how this joint production occurs in the interrogation encounter. This chapter has importance for understanding the origins of stories and details as they emerge in police encounters, especially in relation to claims of false confession and conversationally ‘planting’ crime details for the purpose of recounting during the recorded interview. (pages 113 - 135)
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- Tatiana Tkacukova, Gavin E. Oxburgh
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226647821.003.0007
[co-operation patterns;sex offenders;PEACE;conversation analysis;interview dynamics;turn-taking]
Over the past decades, the research on police interviews has produced a number of different categorizations of questioning techniques and question typologies. However, one aspect that remains largely ignored is the impact of two interviewers. Having two officers conduct the interview creates unique interview dynamics and distinct co-operation patterns, which ultimately influence the questioning process and interview strategies. In the UK, the official guidelines on co-operation between the interviewers are vague and it is thus up to individual officers how they manage the interview and their co-operation during the interview. The analysis of interview dynamics and co-operation patterns (e.g., turn-taking patterns, ratio of questioning turns between the two interviewers, coherence links between the interviewers’ turns) from twenty investigative interviews with suspected sex offenders illustrates the different approaches to co-operation adopted by interviewers. The chapter comments on turn-taking management between interviewers and the function of second interviewers’ questions. The authors argue for clearer guidelines on co-operation between the interviewers for investigative interviews. (pages 136 - 155)
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- David Yoong, Ayeshah Syed
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226647821.003.0008
[Membership Categorization Analysis;identity;morally-implicative categories;undercover sting;police interview]
This chapter examines identity-related categories that emerge in a post-sting operation interview between an undercover officer (and his colleague) and a high-profile detainee, who had allegedly solicited sexual activity in a public bathroom. Using the Membership Categorization Analysis approach, we show how officer and detainee use identity categories and predicates to perform actions, including providing accounts, making accusations and denials, and eliciting a confession. Drawing on morally-implicative, physical and institutional categorical resources, the speakers support their own version of events and reject the conflicting version preferred by the other. (pages 156 - 176)
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- Ikuko Nakane
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226647821.003.0009
This chapter discusses the impact of interpreter mediation on the construction of narratives in police interviews. Constructing versions of events is an important aspect of police interviewing as a legal process. Through an analysis of interpreter-mediated interviews of Japanese-speaking suspects in Australia, two aspects of tri-partite interaction relevant for narrative construction are discussed: turn-taking and questioning and resistance strategies. The analysis of turn-taking suggests that the timing of interpreters’ rendition of primary speakers’ turns at times affected coherence and completeness of the narratives. The chapter also demonstrates how the primary speakers’ diversion from the ‘normative’ format of turn-taking poses challenges for interpreters. Following this, distortion of questioning strategies through interpreter-mediated interaction are discussed in terms of how it could affect the narrative construction effort by police interviewers and suspects. The chapter then illustrates how the pragmatic force of suspects’ resistance strategies may not always be rendered, resulting in weakening of suspects’ versions of events. It concludes by highlighting the importance of recognizing those challenges posed by the tri-partite structure of interaction and a layer of mediation in gathering evidence. (pages 179 - 199)
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- Sandra Hale, Jane Goodman-Delahunty, Natalie Martschuk
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226647821.003.0010
[interpreter interactional management;interpreter contract;interpreter role;interpreter professional ethics;trained and untrained interpreters]
Past empirical studies comparing the performance of trained interpreters and untrained bilinguals in police interviews have focused on the accuracy of the propositional content. Little is known about the relative skill of these two groups. These skills were empirically tested in a simulated police interview. A total of 100 English-Spanish bilinguals and trained interpreters in the greater Sydney area interpreted while professionally-trained actors role-played the detective and suspect parts. Convergent results from quantitative analyses and discourse analysis of 17 illustrative excerpts confirmed that interpreters with specialized training outperformed the untrained bilinguals. Ad hoc interpreters were less confident, used inappropriate colloquial and powerless speech styles, failed to explain their role or establish ground rules that all statements would be interpreted, used first and second person, breached ethical guidelines on impartiality, and did not interpret all utterances. The trained interpreters were rated as more trustworthy, confident, likeable and knowledgeable than their untrained counterparts. Although skills in managing turn taking and ethical dilemmas fall outside the scope of propositional accuracy, they are integral to professional interpreting and distinguished the performance of the two participant groups. Implications of the findings for interpreter training and police policy and practice in investigative interviews are discussed. (pages 200 - 226)
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- Bethany K. Dumas
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226647821.003.0011
[custodial interrogation;discourse analysis;Miranda rights;non-native speaker;proficiency;syntax;warning]
U.S. criminal cases involving non-native English speakers are inherently complex, often requiring assessment of whether the accused has understood Miranda rights. Deciding whether a speaker has understood the Miranda warnings in English or in another language, necessarily involves detailed linguistic analysis. Adequate assessments of proficiency must take into account all available linguistic and contextual evidence. This chapter describes approaches used by linguists in three cases in Tennessee involving non-native English speakers as defendants. The 2003 case involved the English competence of a native speaker of Spanish accused and eventually convicted of murder; the 2012 case involved the English competence of a native speaker of German (with competence in Spanish, Polish, and Ukrainian) who was accused of attempted first-degree murder of his wife; the 2015 case involved the English competence of a Spanish-speaking woman from Mexico convicted of possession of a controlled substance (containing heroin) with intent to sell or deliver. Analysis by both prosecution and defense experts is discussed. Observations are made about how discourse analysis can aid in assessing proficiency in particular cases. The chapter concludes with recommendations for the giving of Miranda warnings to non-native English speakers and for assessing the adequacy of strategies used to deliver them. (pages 227 - 246)
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- Nicci MacLeod
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226647821.003.0012
[formulations;reported speech;reflexive language;rape;participant roles]
Police interviewers must be cognizant of the needs of multiple audiences in relation to the talk that unfolds in the interview room. Simultaneously, they must negotiate an account which is both institutionally appropriate and fits the criteria set out by law on the one hand, and, according to current training models, is in the words of the interviewee on the other. Drawing on a small corpus of police interviews with rape victims, the chapter focuses on ‘formulation’ and ‘reported speech’ as reflexive speech devices through which interviewers orient to the absent audience, and as interactional resources they draw on to fix meaning and establish institutional salience. The chapter shows that reflexive language has the potential to be revealing not only of institutional priorities, but also of the ideological assumptions on which those priorities are based. The chapter further demonstrates that the types of reflexive language used may be problematic for interviewees to refute, in that the words, or force of the message, have been attributed to themselves. Given that rape victims often face criticism during cross examination based on inconsistencies between their statement and their testimony, this chapter demonstrates two of the means by which these supposed inconsistencies might arise. (pages 249 - 267)
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- Alison Johnson
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226647821.003.0013
[audio-visual;dramatized formulation;embodied talk;evidence;gesture;multimodality;police interview]
Interviewers in criminal investigations engage suspects in forensic questioning to transform from unsettled to settled ‘the facts’ in relation to alleged crimes. In questions such as “Are you saying xxx?” or “You say xxx” officers challenge suspects’ versions of events, treating them with doubt and disbelief to transform their accounts and ‘fix’ the facts for the record. Combining insights from previous research on reported speech, formulations, and gesture, the chapter looks not just at what is done in these questions but how actions of settling on agreed evidential facts are accomplished through the coordination of the reported talk with bodily interaction. Two video-taped police interviews are examined, to understand how institutional practices of evidence production are multimodally accomplished, through synchronizing embodied action and speech. Focusing on a micro-analysis of the linguistic environment of the verb SAY, the chapter shows how facts and their denial are multimodally co-constructed. While current monomodal interview records produced for linguistic analyses or summarized for court cases, ignore or overlook the multimodal, the analysis shows that implications for the justice system are that evidence is compromised. Dramatized multimodal formulations produce more powerful evidence for both prosecution and defense than logocentric ones. (pages 268 - 298)
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- Frances Rock
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226647821.003.0014
[metalanguage;transmodal;modalities;textual transformation;witness statements;written text]
This chapter examines a police officer’s use of metalanguage in the course of taking witness statements. This use of metalanguage emerges as a concerted and creative part of collaborative writing practices in the statement-taking task. Through metalanguage, the officer is able to: organize and position the interactional activity; attend to the witness’ interpersonal needs; justify textual work and intervention; fulfill legal objectives and facilitate the writing process. The chapter considers how these functions are accomplished and how they are integrated into the wider literacy event of interview through negotiation between police officer and witness. The metalanguage examined in this paper is described as transmodal in that it mediates between modalities. The study of such metalanguage provides a window into processes of textual transformation in institutional contexts and accordingly offers new ways to understand them. Sense-making in police interviews entails telling, listening and scribing framed by legal norms and the social practices of police writing and realized through co-creation of written text. This chapter argues that use of metalanguage enables witnesses to become informed about what is being written in the statement and why, in real-time and, accordingly, to become relatively actively involved in the text creation process. (pages 299 - 328)
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- Tessa (T. C.) van Charldorp
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226647821.003.0015
[police interrogation;police record;monologue;question-answer;recontextualized;style;storytelling]
Police interrogations in the Netherlands and Belgium are written up in police record format during the interrogation itself. The written version is written in different styles: a monologue style, recontextualized style and/or question-answer style. This chapter shows that the suspect’s spoken stories are transformed in various ways, depending on the style used by the police officer. In the monologue style it appears as if the suspect has volunteered all the information in the written text in a drastically summarized, coherent format. The complicated recontextualized style mainly looks as if it was volunteered by the suspect, but does show traces of the officer’s questions. However, not only the suspect’s words are reformulated in the written text, so are the officer’s questions, creating a false sense of accuracy. The question-answer style most accurately reflects what went on in the interrogation. However, not all questions and answers are written up, again creating a false sense of being complete. Therefore, future readers of police records must remember that it is always a reconstructed, summarized version of what went on in the interrogation. (pages 329 - 348)
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- Fleur van der Houwen
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226647821.003.0016
[courtroom interaction;police statements;judges;reported speech;narrative;foregrounding and backgrounding;deictics;evidence]
In Dutch inquisitorial courts police records play an important role. In most proceedings, witnesses are not heard again in court but instead a statement based on a question-answer interview at the police is used. Similarly, statements by suspects may take precedence over the oral statement they give in court. The immediacy principle, which requires witnesses’ and experts’ direct presentation of evidence has been weakened since the Supreme Court ruled that hearsay evidence may be used instead. Witnesses are rarely heard again in court and judges, instead, selectively read from their statements. Based on a corpus of 34 criminal trials, three broad linguistic strategies were found that invoke the content of police records: 1) summaries or paraphrases, 2) indirect reports, 3) direct reports. These different forms have different functions and this chapter investigates when, in what narrative and sequential context, and with what kind of information judges use what strategy and how. The chapter shows that referring to the case file is not a neutral activity and that different strategies allow a judge to put information more or less prominently ‘on record’ while constructing a new narrative of what happened. (pages 349 - 366)
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