Suspicious Minds

While policing requires making fast judgments of situations, officers undertake three ‘tests’ to assess a situation or person’s behaviour before taking action.

Research at Australia’s Monash University illuminates police officer decision-making and how decisions to intervene are more nuanced than previously thought.

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The findings were published in the paper Suspicious minds and suspicioning: constructing suspicion during police work in The Journal of Organisational Ethnography by Monash criminologist and former police officer, Dr Ross Hendy.

Dr Hendy observed 93 frontline first response officer patrol shifts over 800 hours in a large provincial city in New Zealand and a large metropolitan city in South Australia (both not identified) to determine his findings.

There were also informal discussions in the field and 27 semi-structured interviews.

The study focused on the more informal ‘stop and chat’ encounters – a relatively under-researched part of police work.

Dr Hendy found officers weighed up if the behaviour or circumstances at hand were: Harmful; Socially acceptable; Legal or illegal

This process is referred to as suspicioning: deciding whether circumstances appear suspicious and how an officer goes about collecting more information to corroborate the suspicion and ultimately implement a course of action.

Suspicioning is hasty, practised without complete awareness of knowledge or data to make definitive assertions or propositional knowledge and thus is inherently fallible. That is the reality of frontline policing,” Dr Hendy said.

What this research tells us is that officers are taking a more nuanced approach before deciding to engage with people. This research shows evidence of how officers apply discretion – a fundamental tenet of democratic policing.

The findings also help us understand how and why police officers decide to initiate encounters with members of the public. Moreover, as the first ethnographic cross-national research of officers from New Zealand and South Australia, it provides a rare comparative glimpse of Antipodean policing that may have policy implications.”

When it came to harm, Dr Hendy said police decision-making wasn’t limited to situations that involved physical assault or injuries – any wrongful behaviour of one person to another could be a trigger for officers.

Police assessed acceptability in two ways – firstly, how a situation might be viewed by the law-abiding public, both present or otherwise.

The second assessment is the extent to which the behaviour appears to be unacceptable based on the officer’s own judgment and perspective, such as someone ‘looking out of place’ or discovered in an area that had faced a recent spate of crime.

Officers noted they evaluate legality or illegality through belief or suspicion.

They can observe actions they believe to be illegal, or determine that a situation might be illegal based on suspicion – for example, the smell of cannabis nearby.

The severity of an offence would also see an increased likelihood of intervention – for instance, a physical assault versus a minor traffic offence such as skateboarding down a footpath.

Our understanding of officer suspicion has long been problematic,” Dr Hendy said. “This is in part because of research that has focused on formal ‘stop and search’ encounters.

This research highlights the extent to which police consider informal actions – their decision-making process is not black and white. In fact, the shades of grey are what enable police officers to address the complexities of the nature of human behaviour.”

Dr Hendy said a systematic comparison of the practice of informal and formal suspicioning would have merit.