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The nuances of how frontline police officers make decisions have been studied by a former New Zealand police officer turned criminologist.

In new research, Ross Hendy, a Police Association member who previously served in Kāpiti and Wellington, has reported on the results of 800 hours’ observation of Australia and New Zealand frontline police officers.

In what he says is a relatively under-researched aspect of police-citizen interaction, Dr Hendy has shown that when street policing requires fast judgments, officers use three “tests” to assess a situation or a person’s behaviour before initiating a “stop and chat” encounter.

Officers weighed up whether the circumstances were: harmful; contrary to the law; or socially acceptable. He calls this “suspicioning”.

The study involved observing 93 frontline patrol shifts in a large provincial city in New Zealand and a large metropolitan city in South Australia (both unidentified). Included in the research was a focus on “stop and chat” encounters that were independent of calls for service.

“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,” he says.

Although “suspicioning” was far from perfect, Dr Hendy suggested that it was the “shades of grey” that enabled officers to better deal with human behaviour and apply discretion – a fundamental tenet of democratic policing.

The test of “harm” wasn’t limited to situations that involved physical assault or injuries – any wrongful behaviour of one person to another could be a trigger.

Officers assessed “social acceptability” in two ways – how a situation might be viewed by the law-abiding public, present or otherwise, and how unacceptable the behaviour was from the officer’s perspective, such as someone “looking out of place” or being discovered in an area that had seen recent crime.

Officers evaluated “legality or illegality” through belief or suspicion – for example, the smell of cannabis nearby. The severity of an offence also increased the likelihood of intervention – for instance, a physical assault versus a minor traffic offence such as skateboarding down a footpath.

“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.”

In this extract, a New Zealand police officer discusses his assessment of unacceptable behaviour: “We were driving along on G Street where we’ve had a series of recent break-ins. Saw a male who just looked a little out of place. For no other reason other than the fact that he looked out of place, stopped and spoke to him. Turns out his last lot of history was for the exact same thing. And on Monday morning he got arrested after a DNA hit. So, we prevented a break-in just because we saw somebody that looked out of place.”

When asked why he “looked out of place,” the officer explained: “He was virtually a long way from anywhere that was open… He was in all dark clothing. He was standing right next to an Asian restaurant in which we’ve had a series of break-ins similar. There was a metal plate from a grille in the ground leaning against a window. As soon as he saw us, he looked very nervous. So my instinct was we need to figure out what this guy’s up to. From the moment we spoke to him, nothing added up. You know, “I’ve been drinking. I’ve just had a vomit.” “Well, where did you vomit? There’s no vomit anywhere, mate… Why, why are you here?” “Oh, I was just getting some air.” “Where have you been drinking?” So, he’d been drinking a long way from where he was now, could not account for why he was there. Just the whole circumstances added up to the fact that we needed to speak to him.”

The reluctance of officers to initiate encounters to address minor illegalities illustrates the complexity of officer decision-making, Dr Hendy says. Comment from a New Zealand officer: “Driving around the street that’s not heartland CBD, it’s slightly suburban, and there’s maybe a party somewhere, and it’s a couple of guys having a piss on a tree off the footpath. Yeah, that’s fine. If it’s on a… shop sign or a door or on a footpath on the main street, that’s not fine. Time, place, circumstance stuff.”

Dr Hendy said the study was not consistent with overseas research on “stop and search” that highlighted unreasonable use of suspicion when dealing with minority groups.

While the officers in his research did not display any explicit indicators of racial stereotyping, there were indicators of stereotypical bias towards defined social groups within each city. But, he said, “it is to be expected that groups that have had a history of causing disorder or offending would attract attention. That’s the nature of policing”.

In his conclusion, he said previous research on formal stop and search encounters suggested that decisions to initiate an encounter were influenced by organisational culture, officer socialisation and prejudices.

His research showed that decisions to intervene were more nuanced.

“In this context, ‘suspicioning’ is not limited to criminal or non-criminal offending, but ‘something looks wrong and I better go and see if I can fix it’.”

To read the full version of Dr Hendy’s research paper, use this link,

Ross Hendy joined police in 2006 (Wing 233) and says he soon become fascinated with the psychology and sociology of policing, particularly police-citizen interactions and use of force.

While working in frontline roles at Kapiti and Porirua he studied criminology part-time, then completed a master’s degree in strategic studies. He took study leave in 2013-2016 to complete a PhD in criminology.

Returning in 2016, he spent time in the Wellington area working as a custody supervisor at the Wellington District Custody Unit and as a senior researcher at PNHQ.

In 2019 he was recruited by Monash University for research and teaching on policing and relocated to Melbourne.

He has researched policing in Australia, England, New Zealand, Norway and Sweden.

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