With tensions heating up all over the world again, it is a good time to review how to write suspect descriptions. This issue came up recently on Twitter and it seemed some were confused on when to mention race and what elements of a description were most important. So let’s review.

Suspect Description Must Do’s

Include image if possible
Avoid broad statements

Now this list may seem a bit redundant but bear with me. The single most important rule when writing suspect descriptions is to be extremely specific. Otherwise it can appear that you are profiling. So to be clear, you cannot say “Police tell us the suspect is a (name a race) man. He ran from the scene headed East.” Before you say, of course not, I still hear descriptions like this when reviewing newscasts. You have to have specifics. Like height, a scar that is easily noticeable, and/or specific clothing (just saying in a gray hooded sweatshirt is not enough). For clarity sake let’s compare two descriptions. #1: a white male with a white t-shirt and jeans
#2: a white male possibly in his 30’s, about 5-4, wearing jeans with a hole in the left knee area and a white t-shirt with a skull and crossbones. The first description could be half the men you pass, regardless of age. The second description has very identifiable elements, an age range, 5-4 means on the shorter side, and a specific clothing description gives you a much clearer image in your head to look out for. Skin color alone is not enough. Think about it, even in your own family each of you likely has a slightly different skin tone. You need specifics, like a scar, an approximate height, long or short hair and an age range to really give the description a meaning for the viewer.

The best thing you can have is a sketch or surveillance image that you supplement with a description. This also helps avoid giving the appearance of profiling because the viewer can see what you are describing as well. Even if the surveillance video is not terrific it can usually help visually support what you are saying on some level.

Which leads to the final point, to tie things up. Avoid broad statements. If the police can only say very general things, then it is ok to say, “Police are looking for a suspect but have no specifics on a description right now.” A lot of journalists, do not feel right just saying they are looking for someone especially if there is a manhunt going on, without mentioning some sort of description. But if the description has no specifics to list, you really are doing more harm than good. It can just lead to all sorts of confusion that doesn’t help the investigation or the viewer try to help. Remember, letting viewers know descriptions is a public service with a very specific goal, to help the police find a certain person through tips. Sometimes just saying investigators are searching a small area right now is all you can accurately go with. That’s ok. You are still keeping the community aware of the situation in the area of the search. They will be on alert. That’s what is important. Especially in these tense times.

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