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UK Police Interviews: A Linguistic Analysis of Afro-Caribbean and White British Suspect Interviews

Issue: Vol 15 No. 2 (2008)

Journal: International Journal of Speech Language and the Law

Subject Areas: Linguistics

DOI: 10.1558/ijsll.v15i2.271


During the last twenty-five years, racist abuse, little or no protection for black people, and an assumption that all black people are criminals, are just some of the accusations which have been levelled at the approach to policing in the UK (Kalunta-Crumpton 2000). As a result of this, tensions between the Afro-Caribbean community and the police service in the UK are known to exist, and the relationship between them is strained. This fragile relationship has, at times, reached breaking point and can be witnessed in different periods of time, but most noticeably during the Brixton Riots of 1981 and also the aftermath of Stephen Lawrence’s murder in 1993. The outcome of the inquiry into the handling of the Stephen Lawrence case saw the Metropolitan Police Service held accountable for their failure to treat his murder as racially motivated (Macpherson 1999). Given all this, it is somewhat surprising that police interviews with Afro-Caribbean and White British suspects are under-researched in the field of sociolinguistics. The only comparable research examines the treatment of Aboriginal Australians in courtroom interaction and police interviews (Eades 1994 and subsequent works).
To address this gap in the research, this thesis considers twenty police interviews conducted with Afro-Caribbean and White British suspects in custody suites across England and Wales. A combined quantitative and qualitative framework was adopted; the application of both methods strengthens the findings. The quantitative approach reveals the differences that exist between the Afro-Caribbean and White British suspect interviews whist the qualitative approach can go some way in explaining why these differences exist.
The approaches to discourse and the features chosen for the qualitative analysis were data driven. Consequently, the approach taken combines the analytical strengths of Conversation Analysis with the critical social stance of Critical Discourse Analysis. The analysis focuses on two linguistic features: overlapping talk and so- prefaced questions, as well as considering the implications of repetition of questions and accusations.
There is a wealth of well known literature about overlapping talk (see for instance, Goldberg 1990). .In this literature, overlapping talk is analysed in a variety of ways; ranging from attributing a high frequency of overlaps to powerful talk and claiming that all overlaps are dominance-related (e.g. Dunbar and Burgoon 2005) to considering the multiple functions of overlapping talk, where context is crucial for establishing function (e.g. Friedland and Penn 2003). It is worth pointing out here, that the latter is the widely accepted approach in sociolinguistics and is used here. However, during the process of coding overlapping talk, a further dimension proved significant in understanding and encapsulating the power dynamics of a police interview. This dimension was whether the proposition in the overlap was taken up or not taken up by the interruptee. The overall term used to refer to these phenomena is responsivity.
In contrast to overlapping talk, there is considerably less literature on so- prefaced questions. However, what there is, suggests that so- prefaced questions are generally a feature of power-asymmetric discourse (Cotterill 2003). Broadly speaking, so- prefaced questions fall under one of two categories; information-seeking and confirmation-seeking (Newbury and Johnson 2006). This is a good starting point for the analysis because it takes into account the macro functions of so- prefaced questions which reveal two things; whether suspects have been given the opportunity to provide new information and whether they are coerced to agree with propositions in questions. It is also important to consider the macro functions of so- prefaced questions, as this provides an insight into the degree of information control as well as the extent to which suspects are expected to agree with propositions in questions.
From a CA perspective, so- prefaced questions fall under the umbrella of formulations and are confirmation- seeking (Johnson 2002). A helpful distinction in CA is the use of gist and upshot to describe formulating practices. Gists are essentially a summary of the prior talk and this also true for upshots. However, upshots also draw out a relevant implication and the other speaker is expected to ratify it. Therefore, upshots can have an underlying purpose and not necessarily be in tune with what the original speaker meant. What this means is that the police officer, having changed the agenda, is in a greater position to challenge the suspect (Drew 2003). Analysis involving so- prefaced formulations is therefore one way to reveal the power relationships between suspects and police officers.
The main finding from the quantitative analysis of overlapping talk regarding responsivity is that the Afro-Caribbean suspects’ propositions are taken up to a lesser degree than any other group. This clearly shows that the police officers had more power and control than the Afro-Caribbean suspects in these interviews and potentially has something to do with race and suspect status.
The question that remains is why the Afro-Caribbean suspects were taken up on fewer occasions than their White British counterparts. The qualitative analyses reveal this is a result of the overlapping style of the Afro-Caribbean suspects. Whilst there are a number of potential reasons why the Afro-Caribbean suspects display a different conversational style to the White British suspects, it is not possible to establish which reason is the most plausible with the present data. Consequently, more research is needed on the African Diaspora, as well as investigating attitudes towards overlapping talk (as Murata 1994 has done with Japanese and British people).
The overall frequency of so- prefaced questions is low. However, there is a significant difference between the Afro-Caribbean and White British interviews in relation to this feature. In particular, there is a higher frequency of confirmation-seeking so- prefaced questions in the Afro-Caribbean suspect interviews. When these results are broken down further, there is a higher frequency of upshots in the Afro-Caribbean suspect interviews. This shows us that the Afro-Caribbean suspects were constrained in a way that the White British suspects were not. Crucially, upshots enabled the police interviewers to constrain the Afro-Caribbean suspects to take up and defend new agendas which were not necessarily in tune with what they said.
A particularly interesting finding from this research is that the racial inequality observed in the overlapping talk analyses is a result of the suspects’ behaviour, whereas in the so- prefaced questions analyses, racial inequality is produced by the police officers. Interaction is a mutual activity, and this means it is important to look at the contributions of all participants in a given interaction. Therefore, in order to address the central research question of unequal treatment/institutional racism, it is relevant to examine how the contributions of both suspects and police officers can lead to inequality.
The link between ethnicity and the differential treatment of Afro-Caribbean suspects might be considered tenuous, given that the reason the Afro-Caribbean suspects get taken up less is as a result of when they overlap the interviewing officers, rather than because they are black. However, race and colour are made relevant by the police officers, and, as such, there is the potential for racist attitudes to surface.
The findings from this research have implications for police interviewing in the UK and potentially world-wide.


Cotterill, J. (2003) Language and Power in Court. Great Britain: Palgrave Macmillan

Drew, P. (2003) ‘Comparative Analysis of Talk-in-interaction in Different Institutional
Settings: A Sketch’, in P.J. Glenn, C.D. LeBaron and J. Mandelbaum (eds.) Studies in
Language and Social Interaction: In Honor of Robert Hopper. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
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Dunbar, N. E. and Burgoon, J. K. (2005) ‘Perceptions of power and interactional dominance in interpersonal relationships’. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 22(2): 207-233

Eades, D. (1994) ‘A case of communicative clash: Aboriginal English and the legal system,’ in Gibbons, J. (ed.) Language and the Law. London: Longman pp. 234-264

Friedland, D. and Penn, C. (2003) ‘Conversation analysis as a technique for exploring the dynamics of a mediated interview’, International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders 38(1): 95-111

Goldberg, J. A. (1990) ‘Interrupting the discourse on interruptions: An analysis in terms of relationally, neutral, power- and rapport-oriented acts’. Journal of Pragmatics 14:883-903

Kalunta-Crumpton, A. (2000) ‘Black people and discrimination in criminal justice: the messages from research’, in A. Marlow and B. Loveday (eds.) After Macpherson: Policing after the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. Trowbridge: Russell House Publishing pp. 41-52

Macpherson, W. (1999) The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry: Report of an Inquiry by Sir William Macpherson of Cluny. United Kingdom: TSO

Murata, K. (1994) ‘Intrusive or cooperative? A cross-cultural study of interruptions’. Language in Society 14: 31-40

Newbury, P. and Johnson, A. (2006) ‘Suspects resistance to constraining and coercive questioning strategies in the police interview’. The International Journal of Speech, Language and the Law 13(2): 213-240

Author: Claire Jones

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