LINGUIST List 16.1545|
Sat May 14 2005
Review: Discourse/Pragmatics/Forensic Ling: Heydon (2004)
Editor for this issue: Naomi Ogasawara
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The Language of Police Interviewing
Message 1: The Language of Police Interviewing
From: Kerry Linfoot-Ham <knkhamyahoo.co.uk>
Subject: The Language of Police Interviewing
AUTHOR: Heydon, Georgina
TITLE: The Language of Police Interviewing
SUBTITLE: A Critical Analysis
PUBLISHER: Palgrave Macmillan
Announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/16/16-209.html
Kerry Linfoot-Ham, doctoral student, Department of Linguistics, University
of Florida, USA.
This book aims to analyse closely a much under-researched aspect of
institutional discourse -- the police-suspect interview. The book is aimed
at discourse analysts and those interested in Pragmatic theories, as well
as sociologists, criminologists, forensic linguists, and law enforcement
professionals. While the analysis is very detailed, it is accessible to
those with a limited background in linguistics, but is also highly
beneficial to researchers whose studies focuses on institutional discourse
at any level.
Chapter 1: Police Institutional Discourse
In the introductory chapter of the book, Georgina Heydon introduces her
reasons for analysing the police interview, her approach to the analysis,
and her justification for claiming the police interview as an example of
institutional discourse. The main reason for analysing this particular
language patterns is said to be a curiosity in the 'voluntary' nature of
the confession. The author clearly state her aims as the following:
"...this book provides a detailed investigation of the role of police
institutional discourse in the construction of a police-suspect interview,
both in terms of the negotiation of power relations between participants
and the successful fulfilment of institutional requirements" (p. 3).
The approach to the analysis is three-fold: i) a descriptive analysis of
recorded police-suspect interviews, ii) an uncovering of the discursive
practices common to such interviews to reveal the functional aspects of
the interaction, and iii) the exposure of underlying social and cultural
expectations of the structure of such interactions, and how they affect
the resulting communication.
Heydon goes into great detail in giving reasons for classifying the police
interview as institutional discourse. She states that the beginning and
end of such interactions are consistent, as is dictated by the legislature
surrounding the event. The intermediate interaction, however, may be
highly variable for a number of reasons, including gender/race constructs,
and the expectations of both the interviewers and the interviewees. The
special perlocutionary force (cf. Austin, 1962) of the police caution as a
declarative speech act (i.e. it brings about or 'creates' a certain state
in the world, cf. Searle, 1969, 1979) is given special attention, and the
author gives the history and evolution of this act, as well as expressing
a belief that it may be an insufficient gesture given the nature of the
interviewing event. Again her focus is on the 'voluntary' nature of the
criminal confession, and how police officers interpret this aspect, and
how it may also be interpreted in other fields of the criminal justice
Chapter 2: Tools for the Analysis of Police Interviews
This chapter introduces the conventions that the subsequent analysis
follows. Heydon selects Conversation Analysis (cf. Sacks, Schegloff, and
Jefferson, 1974), Goffman's (1981) participation frameworks, and Critical
Discourse Analysis (cf. Fairclough and Wodak, 1997) as her tools for the
investigative process, and gives a detailed introduction and history of
each method of analysis. As her goal in the book is to highlight the
institutional aspects of police interviewing, however, she also goes into
three major themes: 'power', 'discourse', and 'structure'.
'Power' is seen as the relationship between the police interviewer and the
citizen interviewee, and how this is manifested during an interaction, and
is, in fact, part of the interaction. Both parties have some degree of
power in the exchange, though the amount is limited by their role, as well
as their access to other discursive resources. Heydon defines 'discourse'
by following conventions created by Fairclough (1989), i.e. " 'orders of
discourse' [...] describe sets of conventions that underlie discourse
[...] and 'discourse types' [...] describe a particular convention,"
(Heydon, 2005: 15). 'Structure' is used following Giddens (1982) to define
the replication and creation of societal and systemic rules.
The next section in the chapter gives a brief introduction to the field of
Forensic Linguistics, and highlights the fact that the language of police
interviews is a hugely under-investigated sub-field of this discipline,
not least due to the comparative inaccessibility of data, as compared to,
for example, courtroom discourse. She emphasises that it is especially
novel that this study focuses on the simple structure of the interview, as
opposed to communicative difficulties, or mismatched in cultural
backgrounds (e.g. gender, race, etc.) between interviewers and
interviewees. Her analysis is said to show that, despite - or perhaps
because of - strict regulations defining the function and organisation of
the interview, and the societal and political expectations placed upon law
enforcement agencies, "preferred version[s]" (p.34) of an interaction are
produced in the transition between the verbal and written forms of the
interviews. This is a direct reflection of the power inequality and the
institutional nature of police interviews.
The final parts of the chapter provide details of the data collected and
transcription techniques to be utilised throughout the analysis.
Chapter 3: An Analysis of the Interview Structure
In this chapter Heydon addressing the formalised structure of the police
interview, dividing it into three distinct parts: the Opening, the
Information Gathering stage, and the Closing.
Both the Opening and Closing are easily identifiable, says the author, due
to official constructions that are required by the legal institution
within which the exchange takes place to validate the interview as a
whole. These consist of formulaic utterances on the part of the
interviewing officer to clarify charges, the rights of the interviewee,
identification, and other background information, interspersed with
responses from the interviewee where required. The information was
consistently provided in all of the interviews examined by Heydon, almost
certainly due to legal requirements. By using Goffman's participant role
guidelines, Heydon assigns the role of 'author' and 'principal' in the
exchange to the police institution (and the surrounding legal
requirements), and the role of 'animator' to the interviewing officer. She
states, "the institutionally defined goals are themselves responsible for
the structure of the interview as having an Opening and a Closing," (p.57).
The Information Gathering mid-section of the interview has more variety,
but Heydon manages to put forward three main prototypes of sequence.
Critical to her analysis is the common thread throughout the book that the
suspect's confession holds much more power if it is made voluntarily. For
this reason, Heydon highlights the lengths that interviewing officers take
to ensure this outcome. The over-riding structure sought is what she
terms 'S3R', i.e. the suspect assumes all three roles
of 'principal', 'author' and 'animator'. By giving a detailed analysis
that illustrates her three prototypes, Heydon shows how the interviewers
use different questioning techniques -- some more successful than others --
to shift into the S3R framework, thus negotiating a voluntary confession
that would hold more validity as the case progresses through the criminal
Her conclusion is that the three parts of the interview are readily
identifiable by their structure, and that each reflects in its
organisation the institutional goals of the exchange.
Chapter 4: The Institutional Embedding of Authority
Through a careful Conversation Analysis approach, Heydon uses this chapter
to illustrate the aspects of the interview process, and to show how they
serve the goals of the overarching institution within which they occur,
i.e. the criminal justice system. Her analysis demonstrates the difference
in roles between the participants in the interview (the primary
interviewing officer, the secondary interviewing officer, and the
suspect), and how their access to various conversational resources are
limited systematically by the interviewing sequencing, power
differentials, and expectations.
The main structure of the event is that of a question-answer chain, with
topics being strongly controlled by the primary interviewing officer, with
disjunctive questions being a common feature. Suspect-initiated topic
changes are relatively infrequent and attempt to introduce mitigating
circumstances surrounding the events about which they are being
questioned. Interviewers often ignore these topic shifts, and the entire
sequencing serves to create a "deference structure" (Frankel, 1990:235)
within the interview.
Heydon then goes on to show how the police version of events may differ
from that of the suspect's. The police version, she claims, is created
through a series of accusations, followed by denials, acceptance, or a
response which is neither a denial nor agreement, but which is treated as
an acceptance by the interviewers. Her analysis illustrates the tactics
employed by interviewers faced with denials, such as 'fishing devices' (p.
126), and 'formulations' (p. 131), both of which control the interview,
and attempt to maximise the voluntary nature of any confessions. The
suspect's version is, however, treated differently, with criminal aspects
of the events accented through vocabulary choice (e.g. "closed"
vs. "slammed"), and devices utilised that "include aspects of the
narrative which were not mentioned by the suspect," (p. 136). Overall,
Heydon states that her results show "that police authority is embedded in
the institutional allocation of discursive resources," (p. 148).
Chapter 5: Interviewing Children: the VATE Approach
In this chapter, Heydon examines differences and similarities between
adult and child interviewing techniques. Whilst she finds that certain
aspects of the interview remain the same, for example the Opening and
Closing sections (due to the legal requirements mentioned above), she
observes that there are different strategies employed by interviewers
throughout the Information Gathering stage that aim to collect the desired
One major finding is that when officers adopt the role of animator in
reiterating the child's statement, the child feels more comfortable
interrupting and adjusting the information given, whereas when officers
appropriate the child's narrative, no changes were offered.
Other differences observed include the use of discoursal markers that
delineate the boundaries of the interview (e.g. the time frame) and serve
to maintain the interviewer's dominance in the situation, receipt markers
that maintain the neutrality of the interviewers, and also naming rituals
that differed between adult (more formal) and child (use of first names,
and other informal attributes) interviews.
The final part of the chapter investigates the use of Can you...?/Do
you...? questions, and Heydon proposes a hierarchy of those that will
receive substantial answers, leading down to those that will be replied to
with a simple yes/no.
Chapter 6: Myths about Police Interviewing
Three widely held myths about police interviewing: the myths of
comprehension, threatened authority, and persuasion are investigated in
this chapter. Heydon justifies her research by stating that "... a number
of forensic linguistic studies of police interviews with non-native
English speakers were found to be based on expectations about interviews
with native English speakers that have not yet been investigated..." (p.
The myth of comprehension addresses the fact that 'policespeak' is not a
common factor in ordinary life, and may, therefore, be seen as a potential
problem for the interviewee -- a fact that is recognised by the police
institution. However, two further problems were encountered. The first is
that, when suspects did express problems comprehending the 'policespeak',
interviewers failed to deviate from the formal, legal terms that were used
originally in trying to explain meanings. The second was that, whereas the
institution anticipated problems with 'policespeak', problems with more
mundane expressions were not, and these often caused confusion and the
potential for frustration on the parts of both the interviewer and
The myth of threatened authority drew on the earlier analysis of
participation frameworks in chapters 3 and 4 to show how successful
manoeuvring into the S3R framework (the one preferred for a voluntary
confession) was often hindered by the police interviewers' perceptions of
threats to their authority. Whereas the more successful interviews, i.e.
those that allowed a more conversational tone to persist, and thereby
permitted the suspect to engage fully in the S3R framework, elicited more
complete and desirable (from the point of view of the interviewing
institution) responses, those that attempted to maintain authority failed
to allow the transition into the S3R framework, or interrupted it once it
had been initialised.
The myth of persuasion addressed the previously researched notion (cf.
Baldwin, 1993; van Dijk, 1987) that it is almost impossible to 'persuade'
a suspect to change their story from that initially elicited to one that
aligns with the police version. Heydon's analysis, in fact, showed that
attempts to achieve this outcome by interviewing officers (such as
the 'fishing devices' mentioned above) served only to strengthen the
suspects' commitment to their original versions, and to harden rejection
of the police versions.
Chapter 7: Institutional Power
In the concluding chapter, Heydon addresses issues that arose in the
previous analyses. Firstly, she expounds the issue of police power within
the discourse of the interview. She finds that, while the control of the
interview is never held by the interviewing officer (the police
institution holds it in the Opening and Closing phases, and the suspect
(ideally in an S3R framework) holds it in the Information Gathering
stage), the interactional resources to which the interviewer has access
ensures that she/he remains the powerful figure in the process as a result
of the "deference structure" (p. 198). This conflict is a frequent problem
in negotiating the success of the interviews analysed.
The second part of the chapter examines the negotiation of suspect
identity, and how the identities constructed by interviewing officers and
the suspects themselves may again conflict and create interactional
problems with regard to the desired institutional outcome of the
interview, i.e. a voluntary confession. By imposing a 'standard' morality
on the suspects actions and painting them in a bad light, the police
officers' views of the suspects actions are incompatible with the suspects
version of events, which attempts to mitigate the circumstances of the
alleged crime. Both participants are at odds in the apportioning of blame,
and it is apparent that this is undesirable in this particular context.
The final part of the chapter gives an explanation for the continuation of
police behaviour that has been shown to be counter-productive given the
institutional goals of the interview, i.e. the successive actions taken
within the criminal justice system. Police interviewers feel themselves to
be restricted by the requirements of courts and lawyers in the discourse
that they may engage in with suspects. Variance may lead to cases being
dismissed if legislatively required aspects of the process are omitted. It
is this that contributes to the thesis and conclusion of Heydon's analysis.
The final conclusion drawn in this book is that it is imperative for
police interviewers to be aware of different discourse styles available to
them, and to be able to adjust according to the individual requirements of
the interview, rather than feeling themselves to be trapped into a
particular, required pattern by the criminal justice system as a whole. An
understanding of the myths surrounding police interviews held by both the
suspects and the interviewing officers and police institutions themselves
will, ultimately, benefit the system as a whole, maximising the
interviewing process, and allowing desired, institutional goals to be
This is an excellent, detailed analysis of an important area that will
continue to be the focus of other young researchers in the future.
Heydon's presentation is, for the most part, clear and accessible. There
are always problems in line-by-line enumeration and referring to such
transcriptions, and the book deals with these quite well. Her overview and
use of references in this young field is encompassing, and the underlying
theories utilised in the books are obviously very well researched.
The one criticism that could be made of the book is the inclusion of the
VATE research, and chapter 5 as a whole. The analysis used for this part
of the study differs to that used in the rest of the book, and the data is
not presented in the same style - some is, in fact, referred to but not
included (see section 5.5.1 of the book). It is apparent that this
information is from previous research undertaken by the author, and the
main reason for including it is to illustrate that different discourse
styles are available to interviewing officers. This could have been
achieved without this chapter, however (for example, the data beautifully
analysed from Interview 2 is sufficient), and the jarring effect of the
different writing, transcription, and analysis styles presented in this
chapter could be avoided.
Overall, this book is a very valuable contribution to the young and
expanding field of Forensic Linguistics. It is well researched, and
expansive in its elucidation of previous research on institutional
discourse, and provides and broad and encompassing bibliography. The
analysis is detailed and accessible, and the conclusions are important to
both police interviewers and to discourse analysts. This work is highly
worthwhile, and both entertaining and educating.
Austin, J. (1962) How to do Things with Words. Oxford: Oxford University
Baldwin, J. (1993) "Police interview techniques: establishing truth or
proof?", in British Journal of Criminology, vol. 33:3, p. 325-352.
Fairclough, N. (1989) Language and Power. Harlow: Longman.
Fairclough, N. and Wodak, R. (1997) "Critical Discourse Analysis", in van
Dijk, T. A. (Ed.) (1997) Discourse as Social Interaction. London: Sage, p.
Frankel, R. (1990) "Talking in interviews: a dispreference for patient-
initiated question in physician-patient encounters", in Psathas, G. (Ed.)
(1990) Interaction Competence. Washington D.C.: University Press of
America, p. 231-262.
Giddens, A. (1982) Profiles and Critiques in Social Theory. London:
Goffman, E. (1981) Forms of Talk. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania
Sacks, H., Schegloff, E., and Jefferson, G. (1974) "A simplest systematics
for the organisation of turn-taking for conversation", in Language, vol.
50:4, p. 696-735.
Searle, J. (1979) "The classification of illocutionary acts", in Language
in Society, vol. 8, p. 137-151.
Searle, J. (1969) Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Kerry Linfoot-Ham is a doctoral student at the University of Florida. Her
research interests focus on police-citizen interaction, with particular
reference to how Pragmatic theories may be utilised to describe and
account for suspicions of lying of guilt in suspects and witnesses. Her
current work involves observation of 'first-contact' interviews between
uniformed deputies and officers in response to calls for assistance, and
how the application of linguistic theories may maximise and harmonise the
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