Watch your language: Is the figure on the above a “perp,” a “suspect” or a “person of interest”?

I recently watched an episode of “T.J. Hooker,” a TV cop show from the 1980s. The show was not produced as a comedy, but it was one of the funniest things I’ve watched in weeks. Nothing in that show was accurate, and I found myself critiquing it as if I were writing a review.

Maybe I’ll do that in a later column. This episode did, however, get me thinking about how police agencies communicate and how they project that language to the public, usually via the media.

Most of you probably get police information from media sources. After Sept. 11, 2001, most police departments revamped internal communication standards, moving from signals to “plain talk.”

The reason was simple, if we had a catastrophic event requiring several agencies to work together, we needed a common language. For example, my “Signal 75” may mean “car accident.” Yours may be the signal for dinner break. Still, documentation to the public remains somewhat official.

Police reports are official. Over the years, the language has evolved into the use of words that, to me, are, well, overly official.

When a crime is committed, the players within the incident fit into one of four categories.

  1. Victim
  2. Subject
  3. Person of Interest
  4.  Suspect
  5. Perpetrator

A “victim” is universally known as the one who got the raw end of the deal. The word “subject” is a catch-all in police reports. A “subject” can be anyone.

A “subject” can be subject to an upgrade to “suspect or “perpetrator.” A “person of interest” is usually what we call someone who we’re not sure, but we have a hunch, was up to something or involved somehow.

Suspect and perpetrator, or “perp,” are close cousins and could be interchangeable in the police report. So, you would not say, “The ‘person of interest’ shot the store owner.” He definitely would be a suspect or perp.

It can be confusing.

Media sources came up with their own language when reporting crimes. The police report may read, “The suspect pulled the gun on the store owner.” The media will say, “The suspect brandished a weapon.” It appears the only thing you can brandish is a weapon. You don’t brandish your fists, nor do you brandish your debit card at the grocery. Brandishing is limited.

Prison Bars Graphic Vector Illustration

If a “suspect,” “perpetrator,” or even “subject” robs a bank, he or she gets an “undisclosed amount of cash.” We say that because we don’t want to make fun of bank robbers who end up with a pitiful amount of money that probably wouldn’t pay the rent.

What they do get is caught. Bank robbers get a detective and even an FBI investigator with a blue windbreaker with “FBI” all over it. (They love windbreakers.)

“Suspects” and “perpetrators” use cars to make the getaway. If we give chase, they “attempt to elude,” as it is written in the report. We give them credit for the attempt, and if they escape, the report reads “managed to elude,” making it sound as if it’s difficult. We hate to lose.

When the “subject,” “suspect” or “perp” commits the crime, he or she will leave in a particular direction. This is called “Direction of Travel,” a more or less generic term because they probably didn’t go that way long.

In the report, the suspect’s vehicle may be referred to as “SV.” If the SV was an SUV, it may become confusing, so the rule is no joining acronyms. You will often hear the phrase “late-model-sedan.” That means we have no idea what kind of car it is.

Describing an arrest sounds close to describing interpretive dance. We like to facilitate an arrest, like we planned a party. We provide the circumstance and then we facilitate the arrest. We could say “we arrested the guy” but “facilitate” brings into play an upscale motif. “Apprehend” means the same as “caught” but more official. You catch fish. You do not apprehend them.

One of my favorite police-report go-to sentences concerns the arrest of someone smoking or in possession of marijuana.  The report reads, “I smelled an odor that, through my experience and training, I recognized as marijuana.”  It is a term on the edge of corny but sounds better than “I smelled an odor that I recognized as marijuana because I went to college.”

Steve Rose

Steve Rose is a retired police captain and a contributing writer to Atlanta Senior Life.