Person of interest

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I suppose sometimes it's only natural for us to use words or phrases even when we're not quite sure what they mean. Or maybe we have our own individual notion of their meanings. But one might expect law enforcement to use words that have some clearly agreed upon meaning when they talk openly in criminal investigations about the people who are their suspects, targets or even possible witnesses. In recent years, person of interest seems to have been added to this list of descriptors. But what, you may ask, is a person of interest?

Google provides 412,000 hits, so the phrase is not exactly a new kid on the street. We don't know exactly when person of interest elbowed its way into use by law enforcement but it's likely to have shown up sometime in the 1970s, and then it really got noticed about the time of the 1996 Olympics bombing in Atlanta. You may recall that at that time the FBI leaked the name of Richard A. Jewell as a person of interest. Jewel was  eventually exonerated, sued the media rather successfully for tainting his reputation, and got a public apology from the then Attorney General, Janet Reno. The phrase, person of interest, seems to be filling a lexical gap these days, undefined and vague though it may be, indicating a person who is somewhere between a suspect and a pure guess. You'd think law enforcement might have learned a lesson from the Jewell case (and a few others since that time), but not so. They've used it several times since, most noticeably in the news when the Department of Justice used person of interest to describe Steven J. Hatfill's possible involvement with the 2001 anthrax attacks that killed five people and caused the serious illness of 17 others (see the Washington Post article here).

In the anthrax investigation of Hatfill, the then Attorney General, John Ashcroft, violated DOJ's own policy about keeping private the names of suspects or persons of interest in order to prevent smearing their reputations and tipping off suspects. His goof (one of many in his career, as it turns out) has caused the US taxpayers to cough up $5.8 million to settle Hatfill's claim that it caused him to lose his job, his reputation, and his chance of future employment. The special irony here is that Hatfill's job involved training law enforcement officers how to deal with bioterrorism.

Person of interest, called a "euphemism for a suspect" by the National Association of Police Chiefs, is now routinely used in investigations of all types, from murders to brush fires. 

Donna Shaw, writing in the American Journalism Review two years ago, said:

Officially, "persons of interest" means…well, nothing. No one has ever formally defined it–not police, not prosecutors, not journalists. The terms, "accused," "allege," "arrest," and "indict" are all dealt with in the Associated Press Stylebook, but there is no listing for "person of interest." Similarly, the US Attorney's Manual–the guide to federal criminal prosecutions–uses the terms "suspect" "target" and "material witness," but "person of interest" gets no mention. So what are reporters to do?

What indeed? Journalists are stuck with using law enforcement's word, that's what.

So there you have it. Person of interest is an expression that has no legal meaning, yet it carries an undefined and highly pejorative meaning about those so designated. So far at least, it's apparently okay for law enforcement to use it, as long as they don't mind the inevitable lawsuits that will follow. 

Lexicography Alert: look for something to be happening with this expression soon.


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