The Impact of Implicit Bias in Professional Investigations

Words That Maintain a Professional Presence

Knowledge of how to apply professional presence is of paramount concern in criminal investigations. The experienced investigator understands the importance of word selection and uses language deliberately and carefully. A jury will view the terminology used in the investigator’s written and spoken testimony as an indicator of the quality and accuracy of the investigation. Keywords relating to the conversation that has taken place, and importantly, references to the person who answered the investigator’s questions, will be perceived to represent bias or objectivity.

This case study explores how the presence of two sets of words— interview vs. interrogate and subject vs. suspect—will affect the perception of the public at large, and thereby, a jury. Because unconscious bias is present in society, investigators must observe the importance of their word choices as a critical factor in the establishment of their professional presence.

Words that Maintain a Professional Presence
Understanding and applying industry-specific terminology is critical to the construction of professional presence. In the US, the legal process operates as an “adversarial system,” meaning the investigator and the individual on trial have directly opposing and incompatible positions relative to the outcome of criminal conviction. The ultimate objective of an investigator is to find the truth, and thus, the terminology used to describe that process must not be tainted by biased language.

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Interview vs. Interrogation. In the field of investigation, the terms “interview” and “interrogation” are often used interchangeably. Due to negative connotations associated with the latter, conversations that explore the guilt or innocence of the person being questioned must be positioned as “interviews” rather than “interrogations.”

The word “interrogate” is associated with coercive techniques, as are often depicted through dramatic scenes shown in theaters and on television. To exemplify this, one must only execute a simple search engine query, independently using the two words in association with a popular movie. One can test this theory by completing an electronic search, using Google, containing “Sicario 2 interrogation.” The first page of results showed a plethora of violent terms, including “kill,” “rape,” and “torture,” with the top result linking a movie clip where a villainous subject is questioned by an equally depraved US government operative. The subject’s family members are murdered to compel the subject to reveal information necessary to the conclusion of the investigation. Further, the term “extra judicial” appears in one comment, imputing interrogation as illegal as judged by the standards of the US legal system.

A subsequent test using a Google search of the other term, “interview,” prefaced by “Sicario 2,” revealed a first page of search results containing photos of smiling actors, who were merely being questioned about the movie. The results presented no derogatory terms, with the closest connotation posited as “moral complexity.” As Google seeks to prioritize search results based on relevance and contemporary use, this is a short case study that immediately establishes the importance of careful word selection.

As a practical application, imagine an investigator being called to the witness stand to testify on a written report that details an admission of wrongdoing by the individual on trial. The defense attorney asks a couple of easy questions that confirm authorship such as “Did you write this report?” and “Did you select the words used in this document, or are they part of a standard that you’d use to write about anyone you’ve spoken to?” After receiving confirmation, the attorney begins to try to erode the jury’s confidence in the investigation, inferring that harsh techniques have been employed to obtain an involuntary admission.

“When you started talking with Mr. Jones, did you view it as an ‘interrogation,’ or did that come later?
“A moment ago, you referred to this as a ‘conversation,’ but your written report shows that you viewed this as an ‘interrogation,’ correct?
“I’m just trying to understand what differences you see between a ‘conversation’ and ‘interrogation.’
“What type of techniques do you normally use when ‘interrogating’ someone? Would you ‘interrogate’ someone you believed to be innocent?”

The investigator’s problematic diction is evident in this example, and yet there is another critical distinction that can be used against the investigator to assert bias further.

Subject vs. Suspect. The language the interviewer uses to describe the person being interviewed is of equal importance. The interviewer might present the interviewee as either a “subject” or a “suspect” in case reports and witness testimony. Here again, the latter terminology can be construed as pejorative and must be set aside in favor of “subject” under the auspices of accurately depicting the interviewer as impartial. Using the same technique as before to test the implicit prejudice of these two words, two Google searches were conducted: the first “interview suspect” and the second “interview subject.” Predictably, “interview suspect” returned results containing adverse inferences such as “violence,” “bias,” and “custodial.”

Interestingly, the top result also contained the word “interrogation,” linking it to the previously presented term. Whereas the search for “interview suspect” revealed alarming associations, the subsequent search for “interview subject” revealed dramatically different attributes. The first page contained terms like “greet,” “clearly,” and “carefully.” The word “thank” appeared fourteen times, and the only photo linked on the page showed someone appearing to laugh. One can easily imagine how unfriendly the witness stand might feel to the investigator who wrote about the “interrogation” of a “suspect.”

This experiment further highlights the criticality of word choice in framing the interviewer as having conducted an unbiased review of the legitimate facts in a criminal case. While other aspects of obtaining a fair verdict include the investigator’s ability to submit a circumspect collection of evidence and his or her technical presentation to a jury, it is clear that an investigator’s terminology has a bearing on the audience. The perception of fairness is critically important, as it directs jurors to focus on the most important thing—the evidence itself.

Word Selection as a Professional
This case study focused primarily on how the public at large, serving in the capacity of a jury, might attribute an investigator’s rhetoric to underlying motives. However, there is a much broader lesson to be learned. Society judges people by their word choices. The consummate professional seeks to present his or her case in a manner unconstrained by the taint of partiality attributable to language. One might dress appropriately and work methodically and deliberately, but word selection plays an equally vital role on the impressions made with colleagues, superiors, and even potential employers.

Mike Bowers

Mike Bowers, CFI is vice president of asset protection for Northgate Gonzalez Markets based in Anaheim, California. Before going to Northgate in 2013, he spent 13 years with Harris Teeter grocery stores in multiple loss prevention roles from single store to director. Early in his career, Bowers held store-level roles with Hannaford Bros., Home Depot, and Lowe’s. He can be reached at mike.bowers@northgatemarkets.com.

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