Person of Interest or Suspect? They’re Not Necessarily the Same!


I read a newspaper column in which a viewer asked why the paper wasn’t consistent with the terms person of interest or suspect.

When police search for leads in a crime, are they searching for their person of interest or suspect?

It sounds like a simple question. But the answer is complicated.

The newspaper reader seems to think they’re the same thing and that the terms are used a bit too interchangeably. The newspaper in question, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, explained the difference well here.

In fact, the paper went a few steps further. It provided examples of times in which a person of interest became a suspect in a crime and an example in which a person of interest was cleared altogether.

So what’s the difference?

A person of interest is someone police want to question about a crime. Police believe they may know something that can help investigators. It’s possible police suspect they may be involved in the crime. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes, investigators determine someone they label as a person of interest was near the area and may have seen something that could lead to an arrest.

A person of interest, then, is not automatically assumed to be involved in a crime.

A suspect, on the other hand, is a person police believe committed a crime. Police want to do more than just talk to you: they want to take you into custody.

But there’s another wrinkle involve the term suspect. According to AP Style, the style guide many journalists use in their reporting, a suspect must be a known person.

Let’s say someone robbed a downtown bank. As long as police have no idea who committed the crime, they’re searching for a robber. They’re not searching for a suspect because they don’t yet have one. When they find enough clues about the robber to help them be able to point to a specific person, then they have a potential suspect.

AP Style tells us to never refer to police looking for a suspect when they’re actually looking for an unknown person who committed the crime. If they don’t have a specific person in mind, they don’t have a suspect.

So there you have it!

Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.