Police Now Round Up the Usual 'Persons of Interest'

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), September 15, 2003 | Go to article overview

Police Now Round Up the Usual 'Persons of Interest'


Byline: Chuck Goudie

"Try not to become a person of success, but rather, to become a person of value" - Albert Einstein.

"Try not to become a person of interest, but rather, to become a person of invisibility" - Chuck Goudie.

As Daily Herald readers and my own children have generously reminded me over the years, "you're no Einstein."

I've considered the observation to be quite shallow. As you can see from my photograph I don't have 120-volt hair, a silver moustache or cue-ball eyes.

But you don't have to be Einstein to realize that his most famous philosophy of life needs a makeover. It's no longer enough to be a person of success or value. In this era of great suspicion and terrorists, you must become a person of invisibility to ensure that you don't get the dreaded label "person of interest."

As a longtime student of the criminal arts, with a master's degree in the science of mayhem, havoc and public chaos, I am well qualified to update Einstein's oft-quoted advise.

The origin of the designation "person of interest" is unclear. It most likely does not have a Latin root. I can find no reference to anyone in Caesar's time being a "persona interesta."

The notion of such individuals who might pose a threat to the American government began during World War II. That's when President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered government agents to track potential foreign subversives in "Official and Confidential Files."

President Lyndon B. Johnson continued the practice in 1965, according to published reports, requesting that the FBI check out people critical of White House Vietnam War policy.

The first time I find any published mention of the exact term "person of interest" in a criminal context is 33 years ago. A New York Times abstract from June 28, 1970, cites the phrase "person of interest" as a federal "agent's term for those citizens, many with no criminal records, whom Govt wants to keep track of in effort to avert subversion, rioting and violence or harm to nation's leaders."

According to the article, then Sen. Sam Ervin considered such a designation as helping to lead the United States toward a "police state."

So initially, persons of interest could be anyone. Hippies, drug addicts, nosey news reporters, leftists, rightists, centrists, anti-war longhairs, skinhead neo-Nazis or just someone who flipped off a law enforcement hotshot on his way to work.

And it would appear that history is repeating itself.

Law enforcement agencies from Chicago to Charlotte, Boston to Boca Raton, sea to shining sea, are merrily referring to suspects as a "person of interest." Never again will you have the pleasure of hearing your local police commandant order his underlings to "round up the usual suspects."

There are no usual suspects, at least not officially. …

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