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Review of  Analysing Police Interviews

Reviewer: M. Catherine Gruber
Book Title: Analysing Police Interviews
Book Author: Elisabeth Carter
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Issue Number: 25.128

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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 contexts.

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 clarification.

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 understandings.

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. 149)

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: 1439-1465.

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:

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.

Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 9780567129093
Pages: 216
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