Academic journal article International Journal of English Linguistics

Discourse Control Strategies in Police-Suspect Interrogation in Nigeria

Academic journal article International Journal of English Linguistics

Discourse Control Strategies in Police-Suspect Interrogation in Nigeria

Article excerpt


This study examined the discourse control strategies in the use of English in police-suspect interrogation in Nigeria with a view to identifying the themes in the interrogation discourse and discussing the pragmatic functions of the dominant discourse control strategies employed by the police interrogators. The data gathered were transcribed and analysed, using Thomas' metapragmatic model. The result indicated that assault, affray, house breaking, obtaining by false pretence (419), abduction, and robbery were the common themes in the discourse. Analysis revealed further that the investigating police officers (IPOs) employed illocutionary force indicating devices for intimidation and coercion of suspects while they used discoursal indicators, meta-discoursal comments, and upshots and reformulations as discourse control strategies. The study concluded that police-suspect interrogation is largely slanted in favour of the police interrogators and that police interrogation is a peculiar discourse genre where there is interplay of power asymmetry and dominance.

Keywords: interrogation, police, suspect, asymmetry, strategies, discourse, coercion

1. Introduction

As part of the expanding field of forensic discourse, there has been, in recent times, an increasing focus on the process of the police interrogation, especially use of language by police interrogators. The analysis of language use in such communication encounter is important because pieces of information emanating from such discourse are gathered in evidence and can later be used in court. How language is used within interrogation setting can have serious consequences for the suspect. Starting from effecting arrest, writing of statement, reading of caution, interrogation per se, prosecution to dispensing of justice, language is a veritable tool in the hand of the investigating police officer. Its (mis)use has grave consequences for the suspect.

Shuy (1997; 2005) identifies the problem of comprehensibility as one of the many linguistic problems in the examination of police caution or Miranda warnings and interrogation by extension. In a follow-up study, Shuy (1998, p. 53) points to the fact that even when the police read the caution directly from a source text, their performance as readers is always so poor that comprehension of the caution message is adversely affected.

In addition to comprehensibility problem, Shuy (1997) also points to language of coercion as a major problem in police interrogation of suspects. He states that this could come in form of verbal dominance or control.

Intimidation can result both from physical and from verbal force. If suspects are dominated by verbal force without regard for their individual desire or volition, the result is coercion as much as it would be from physical force. (p. 179)

Berk-Seligson (2002) contends that from a discourse analytical point of view, each police interrogator tends to "recycle" the topics of interest to him/her (the crime and the suspect's involvement). So all discourse strategies employed by the interrogator are geared towards obtaining confession from the suspect. Citing Aubury and Caputo (1980), Berk-Seligson (2002, p. 140) claims that this approach (recycle) has been referred to, in the language of professional criminal investigators, as "constant repetition of one theme" which consists of "repeating the same questions or line of questioning over and over again".

Another linguistic problem in police interrogation originates from the fact that police officers are allowed to paraphrase the message contained in the caution or Miranda. The danger here, as Cotteril (2002) has shown in her analysis of the "police caution", the United Kingdom's equivalent of the United States of America's Miranda warnings, is that there is great variability in the way that different police officers paraphrase the caution, and that in the process of paraphrasing, the police often make the caution/Miranda warnings less comprehensible than they originally are. …

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