Willie Clark is what the cops call a “person of interest” in the slaying of Denver Bronco Darrent Williams in the early-morning hours of New Year’s Day. What exactly is a “person of interest,” asks the Rocky Mountain News. “It’s 21st century-speak for suspect,” said Denver attorney Scott Robinson. Police say the terms aren’t always interchangeable. Though persons of interest often graduate to suspects and are charged with a crime, police may use the phrase because they’re trying to find someone of a certain description who happened to be near the scene of a crime.
Often police use the term when they have their eye on someone but don’t have enough evidence to file charges. However it’s intended, the label can scar the reputation of a person who ultimately is cleared of any role in a crime. Most experts point to the bombing during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics as the point when police began using “person of interest” in place of “suspect.” The FBI leaked the name of security guard Richard Jewell as a possible suspect in the bombing. He was later cleared and sued various news outlets over the damage to his reputation; he received payments in at least two cases. Littleton, Co., police Sgt. Trent Cooper said sometimes the term is used “to downplay things a little bit. If you say ‘suspect,’ it may force people to go on the run.”