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LINGUIST List 25.128

Thu Jan 09 2014

Review: Discourse Analysis; Sociolinguistics: Carter (2013)

Editor for this issue: Rajiv Rao <rajivlinguistlist.org>

Date: 24-Sep-2013
From: M. Gruber <katiegruberyahoo.com>
Subject: Analysing Police Interviews
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/24/24-2622.html

AUTHOR: Elisabeth Carter
TITLE: Analysing Police Interviews
SUBTITLE: Laughter, Confessions and the Tape
PUBLISHER: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
YEAR: 2013

REVIEWER: M. Catherine Gruber


In ‘Analysing Police Interviews’, Elisabeth Carter employs the method of
Conversation Analysis (CA) to reveal dynamics of interaction in police
officers’ interviews of suspects. She focuses her attention on the varied
functions of laughter by both suspects and officers, the ways in which the
tape recording of interviews shapes officers’ talk, and underexplored aspects
of suspects’ confessions. Carter hopes that this research will address both
theoretical and practical gaps in knowledge, in addition to serving as a
resource for training officers in interview techniques.

After the introduction in Chapter 1, Chapters 2 and 3 provide background for
the upcoming analyses. Chapter 2 describes the context of police interviews
from criminological and sociological perspectives. In Chapter 3, Carter
describes the methodology of CA and explains how this approach to the
interaction between police officers and suspects yields new information about
what is going on here. She describes the corpus of data used for this project
-- 150 pre-recorded audio tapes of interviews -- and explores some of the
challenges of using recordings that lack demographic information about the
participants, not to mention non-verbal visual information.

Part One (Chapters 4 & 5) discusses the uses of laughter by suspects and
officers in police interviews. It begins with an overview of the research on
laughter and humor in ordinary conversation and institutional settings.

Chapter 4 focuses on the laughter of suspects during the interviews. Carter
notes that the occupation of the relatively powerless role of suspect “makes
disagreeing with an officer, avoiding answering questions, and other
interactionally disapproved acts … more difficult” (p. 41). The multiple and
varied meanings of laughter, however, make it an effective tool in
institutional contexts because it allows participants to express things which
may be difficult or unacceptable due to the contextual role that they occupy
(pp. 38-39). Carter argues that suspects use laughter to highlight some aspect
of the immediately preceding turn. For example, after an officer read a
statement in which the suspect’s wife claimed that he hit her over the head
with a statue, the suspect laughed as he stated that the opposite was true:
“n(hh)o I-I I’ve had the statue over my head” (Extract 2, line 427) (p. 43).
[N.B. Book review publication requirements prevent me from including many of
the transcription symbols Carter uses to convey emphasis, quiet voice, falling
intonation, etc.].

Chapter 5 explores the laughter of officers during police interviews. Similar
to the laughter of suspects, Carter argues that the laughter of police
officers functions to highlight some aspect of the immediately prior
utterance. Just as suspects may use laughter to challenge the truthfulness of
a statement about them, officers use laughter to challenge the truthfulness of
suspects’ versions of events. Carter proposes that officers also use laughter
to mitigate a potential breach of protocol. Thus, in Extract 7 (p. 55),
laughter occurs immediately after an officer makes a disparaging comment in
response to a suspect’s remark of “no comment”:

Selected transcription symbols
..hh speaker inbreath
> < this portion of speech spoken more quickly

58 Officer 1 okay is it your intention (0.5) to (0.3) offer no comment to (1.8) any
59 further questions ..hh I should put to you (0.4) with regard to this
60 Suspect no comment
61 Officer 2 tk- he can’t even say yes t[o that eh hu hu hu he he ha ha
62 Solicitor [>mr. gou<- mr.gould will be exercising
his right to silence obviously yes

The comment by Officer 2 in line 61 could be viewed as a breach of the Police
and Criminal Evidence (PACE) Act, which protects suspects’ rights to make no
comment. Carter writes: “The laughter, having not begun until after the
solicitor’s interruption, may therefore be being used by the officer … as a
reparative measure to attempt to absolve his production of the (then
reprimanded) utterance” (p. 55).

The transcription practices surrounding laughter have the potential to breach
suspects’ rights in an additional way. Carter observes that laughter is
typically excluded from official transcripts, which focus on the words that
are uttered and exclude paralinguistic elements of communication (cf. Walker
1990; Bucholtz 2001). In the example above, the officer’s challenge to the
defendant would presumably appear in an official transcript of the interview,
but in cases in which laughter alone was used to challenge a suspect’s
statement of “no comment”, the challenge to the suspect would be effaced from
the record of the interview.

Part Two, comprised of Chapters 6 and 7, explores the ways in which the
presence of a tape recorder (“the silent participant”) affects interactions in
interviews. Carter lays the groundwork for her analysis with a review of
literature on the effect of the silent participant in other institutional

Chapter 6 explores the ways in which the silent participant functions to
represent the institutional constraints that apply to the interview, such as
Codes C and E of the PACE Act of 1984. Ironically, Carter argues, adhering to
the requirements of these Codes meant to protect suspects actually functions
to draw officers’ attention away from them. This is evident in several
extracts where officers produce semantically or legally redundant statements
in order to adhere to the constraints of the protocol (p. 74), such as
informing a suspect that he is entitled to legal advice even though he is
currently accompanied by a solicitor. Officers respond to this redundancy in
different ways, such as by explicitly acknowledging the redundancy or by using
it as a launching pad for eliciting additional information. Orientation to the
silent participant can also be seen when officers make mention of the tape
after an unusually long pause by the suspect or when they justify their
articulation of preliminary cautions despite believing that the suspect is
already aware of them.

Chapter 7 explores another feature of the impact of the silent participant –
third turns. An uninitiated third turn is an extra turn in the interaction, as
when someone repeats the answer given to a question. In this data set, third
turns by police officers are argued to function in different ways; one way is
as a means of highlighting a source of trouble (such as incompleteness) in the
suspect’s previous turn (p. 94). Carter argues that the failure of such a
third turn, immediately followed by a more explicit request by the officer,
supports her interpretation of the third turn as an indirect method of
elicitation (pp. 92-93).

Officer 1 how d’you know harry
Suspect because he’s my neighbour
Officer 1 he’s your neighbour
Officer 1 >is he a< (0.3) ..hh (.) >what would you describe yourl-<
(.) relationship, a friend, or (.) >just a< neighbour (p. 91)

Carter observes that third turns can also be used to emphasize some element
for the benefit of the silent participant. This kind of third turn is typical
in a courtroom cross-examination. Thus, she sees a fundamental difference
between a third turn functioning as an individual request for clarification
and a third turn that is oriented toward the silent participant (and thus
reflects its institutional context). The institutional context in which
individual requests for clarification are produced, however, may account for
why the indirect requests fail in these examples; suspects may view them as
being used for an institutional purpose as opposed to being a true request for

Part Three (Chapters 8 and 9) focuses on interviews in which suspects produced
a confession or revealed other information that they had been withholding.
Although much attention has been given to confessions in the literature
(unlike the elements of laughter and third turns), Carter notes that very
little empirical investigation of this phenomenon exists. The introduction to
Part Three reviews techniques for obtaining confessions from a variety of
sources -- research, cultural beliefs, police manuals, and common

Chapter 8 explores the elicitation of confessions by means of claims of
knowledge – for example, facts about the events in question provided by a
witness. Carter shows how knowledge claims elicit responses from subjects
which they were previously unwilling to provide. Even suggestions of a claim
to knowledge can elicit more information from a suspect, as when an officer
cautions a suspect to “think carefully” (Extract 29, line 333).

Chapter 9 focuses on officers’ techniques of minimization of the offense in
order to obtain a confession (or a part-confession, Shuy 1998). The
minimization can take different forms such as offering a justification for the
crime, softening the referring term for the crime, or minimizing the
consequences of admitting guilt for the crime. In this data set (as in
others), confessions are relatively rare. Carter observes that although the
techniques of using knowledge claims and minimization can be effective,
sometimes they function to elicit confessions from suspects who are innocent.

In Chapter 10, Carter summarizes and extends the discussion of her findings.
Her examination of language in the context of police interviews reveals
similarities to and differences from the findings from research in related
contexts -- for example, similar to other findings, laughter functions to
mitigate a dispreferred event, but in contrast, uninitiated third turns, which
were shown in one study to be rare, were quite frequent in this data set (p.
146). Carter identifies the tensions between conversational needs and
institutional requirements, with the institutional requirements generally
winning. These findings support her claim that, “paradoxically, police
interview talk is at once interpreted as flexible and highly restricted” (p.

Carter would like to see the findings of her study applied to improving
interviewing techniques in police interviews. For example, officers would
benefit from seeing how “[t]he overarching presence of the silent participant
… can leave the suspect legally protected but interactionally neglected” (p.
104). Officers would also benefit from seeing how rare confessions really are.
Suspects would benefit as well if officers understood the functions of
laughter, the role of the silent participant, and the ways in which attempts
to elicit a confession can result in the elicitation of confessions by
defendants who are not guilty. In this way, officers would become better able
to meet the needs of the suspect as well as the institutional requirements
which apply to the interview.


‘Analysing Police Interviews’ makes a valuable contribution to the field of
sociolinguistics in multiple ways; hopefully, the careful attention it gives
to the interactional dynamics of police interviews will be appreciated by
those in the field of policing, as well. In addition to presenting a strong
justification for the kinds of insights CA can provide, Carter’s study sheds
important light on the ways in which the contextual frames of conversational
exchange and institutional exchange overlap in different ways. When the
conversational requirements of the police interview conflict with the
institutional constraints of this context, Carter acknowledges that the
institutional constraints typically win. I would propose that this point can
be made even more starkly; with two entirely different sets of rules in play
-- conversational and institutional, the suspect’s difficult position is made
even more difficult because he/she can be criticized for not following
whichever mode the officer deems to be in play at any given moment. Thus, the
defendant is in a lose-lose position; he can be criticized for believing that
the conversational mode is the dominant one (e.g., in Extract 36, page 148,
Carter shows how a suspect is criticized for being too conversational and
overlapping his own speech with that of the officer’s), but if he thinks that
the institutional mode is dominant and doesn’t reply to an officer’s third
turn that was conversational in nature, he misses the opportunity for giving a
preferred response to an implicit request for information. Carter acknowledges
that the institutional context in which requests for clarification are
produced may account for why indirect requests fail. I’m not convinced that a
conversational third turn that seeks clarification of an incomplete response
could ever (without a lot of additional support) be free enough from its
institutional context to function as such. If the incomplete response has any
connection to the crime in question, I would imagine that the institutional
frame would always predominate from the suspect’s point of view.

CA can yield insights about language in any context. By focusing her attention
on a site in which the spirit of a law intended to protect suspects can be
subverted, Carter provides the kinds of analyses that can lead to improved
protection for those whom the criminal justice system processes. Mismatches
between well-intended laws on paper and actual practices in criminological
settings are especially worthy of study. Along similar lines, Matoesian (2001)
shows how rape-shield laws fail to protect rape victims due to the ways in
which language, law, and culture interact, and Tiersma (1993) identifies ways
in which legal justice fell short due to a lack of understanding of how
language actually works. I argue in Gruber (2014, to appear) that
understanding allocution at sentencing as a protection for defendants has made
it more difficult to see how allocution really functions.

Overall, I recommend this book to linguists and anyone interested in language
in criminal contexts.


Bucholtz, Mary. 2000. The politics of transcription. Journal of Pragmatics 32:

Gruber, M. Catherine. In press, to appear 2014. “I’m sorry for what I’ve
done”: The Language of Courtroom Apologies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Matoesian, Gregory M. 2001. Law and the Language of Identity. Discourse in the
William Kennedy Smith Rape Trial. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Shuy, Roger W. 1998. The Language of Confession, Interrogation, and Deception.
Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Tiersma, Peter Meijes. 1993. The judge as linguist. Loyola of Los Angeles Law
Review 27: 269. Available at: http://digitalcommons.lmu.edu/llr/vol27/iss1/11

Walker, Anne Graffam. 1990. Language at work in the law. The customs,
conventions, and appellate consequences of court reporting. In Language and
the Judicial Process, edited by Judith N. Levi and Anne Graffam Walker,
203-244. New York: Plenum Press.


M. Catherine Gruber earned her Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of
Chicago in 2007. Her revised dissertation, 'I'm sorry for what I did': the
language of courtroom apologies,' is currently in press with Oxford University
Press. Her interests include the performance of emotion, language and law, and
context effects on language.
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