Rethinking “Person of Interest”  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Letters
From AJR,   April/May 2006

Rethinking “Person of Interest”   


In my employment as a police department spokesman in Clearwater, Florida, it's been my experience that it's the media that push on law enforcement the appellation "person of interest" ("Dilemma of Interest," February/ March). I frequently teach media relations/public information dissemination from the platform of the National Information Officers Association (www.nioa.org), of which I am a past president, and I work often with public safety PIOs from across the country.

I've worked diligently for the past 17 years to make it clear to reporters and local television news-entertainment talents that a "suspect" is someone this department believes committed a crime; consequently, if we (I) identify a person as a "suspect," then that person has been charged and arrested, or a warrant issued. No one else qualifies for that description. This "person of interest" description is fraught with much too much innuendo and way too little clarity for me to even consider embracing it. "Person of interest" is absolutely not a euphemism for "suspect," and I know of no agency anywhere where its legal counsel endorses the usage.

I realize some law enforcement agencies (mis)use the "person of interest" description, but it's up to the journalists and talents to make the decision to use it or not. I would — I have! — admonish the media that if neither you nor the law enforcement agency identifying a person as a "person of interest" can adequately define the term — and its precise application in that specific case — then don't use it! Dang simple.

People are hurt when unfairly painted with the patina of suspicion. And saying "the cops used that term" is an impotent argument.

Wayne Shelor
Public information officer/
Office of the chief
Clearwater Police Department
Clearwater, Florida

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