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Why do police call people a "person of interest" instead of a "suspect?"

It used to be that when police investigated crimes, they looked for suspects. But today, suspects are no longer suspects. A new phrase has gained favor among law enforcement, most recently in the case of a former Puyallup woman missing in Utah.

For some reason, police will not call Josh Powell, the husband of Susan Powell, a 'suspect' in her disappearance, even though he's long been a focus in the investigation by West Valley City, Utah police.

King County Sheriff's Sergeant John Urquhart defends the phrase but concedes people will ask: "What the hell is a 'person of interest?'"

"There is something in between a 'suspect' and an innocent person, but it's a bit hard to define sometimes," said Urquhart.

When asked to try, Urquhart offered this.

"A 'person of interest' is somebody that has not risen to the level of a full fledged 'suspect' but at the same time, we haven't eliminated him as a suspect and therefore he's not necessarily just a witness or an uninvolved party," said Urquhart.

Seattle Attorney Anne Bremner has defended police officers in court, but she can't defend this phrase.

"'Person of interest' and 'suspect?' It's a distinction without a difference," said Bremner.

Sergeant Urquhart uses 'person of interest' all the time but he's not sure where the phrase originated.

"My guess is some police department got sued for calling somebody a 'suspect' when they really weren't a suspect because everything the government does is to avoid liability and I've got a feeling this falls in there somewhere," said Urquhart.

Attorney Bremner represents the family of missing Utah mother Susan Cox Powell. She sees no legal protection in the phrase 'person of interest'. Bremner says cases of malicious prosecution are rare and negligent investigation lawsuits even more rare.

Bremner recalls the case of Richard Jewel, the Atlanta security guard who was falsely named as a 'suspect' in the Olympic Park bombing in 1996. After he was cleared, he sued. But he sued news organizations, not the police.

Sgt. Urquhart thinks police were forced to adopt a new way to describe suspects.

"A lot of this I have to blame on the press because they want us to put a label on these people and we can't always do that, and 'person of interest' is the best label we can come up with," he said.

Bremner says the phrase is pointless.

"I'm fully in support of law enforcement, you know I represent police officers, but I don't even know why you need to have this description - a 'person of interest," complained Bremner.

News reporters, who typically avoid using police lingo, have adopted the police phrase instead of using the traditional, commonly understood word for a person who is a focus of a police investigation, a 'suspect.'

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About the Author

Tim Haeck is a news reporter with KIRO Radio. While Tim is one of our go-to, no-nonsense reporters, he also has a sensationally dry sense of humor and it will surprise some to learn he is a weekend warrior.

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