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Suspicious minds and suspicioning: constructing suspicion during policework

Ross Hendy (School of Social Sciences, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia)

Journal of Organizational Ethnography

ISSN: 2046-6749

Article publication date: 5 July 2021

Issue publication date: 20 June 2022




This article explores officer use of suspicion before informal police-citizen encounters as a method to further understand police officer decision-making. There is a body of research focused on officer decision-making before formal “stop and search” encounters, yet, while the more informal “stop and chat” encounters are ubiquitous, they are a comparatively under-researched part of policework.


The research takes an ethnographic approach to explore police decision-making. It used participant observation (800 h over 93 patrol shifts) of front-line first response officers from New Zealand (n = 45) and South Australia (n = 48). Field observations were complemented with informal discussion in the field and 27 semi-structured interviews.


It reveals that officers applied three situational “tests” to assess the circumstances or actions observed before initiating an informal encounter. Officers then weighed up whether the circumstances were harmful, contrary to law, or socially acceptable to determine the necessity of initiating a police-citizen encounter. This process is conceived as suspicioning: deciding whether circumstances appear prima facie suspicious, how an officer goes about collecting more information to corroborate suspicion to ultimately inform a course of action.


The findings present a new perspective to understanding 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.



The author would like to acknowledge the brave 93 officers from New Zealand Police (NZPOL) and South Australia Police (SAPOL) who participated in this research; Justice Tankebe, Heather Strang and Lawrence Sherman for their encouragement and mentorship during the author's time at the Institute of Criminology, Cambridge; and to the late PAJ Waddington. Additionally, the author wishes to acknowledge past and present executive members of NZPOL including Andrew Coster and Viv Rickard; and SAPOL executive members Gary Burns, Bronwyn Killmier and Cynthia Manners, for facilitating research access.

Funding statement: This research received financial support from Churchill College, Cambridge, the Dawes Trust, New Zealand Police, the Wakefield Fund, and the University of Cambridge.

Disclosure: The author was an employee of NZPOL at the time of the research.


Hendy, R. (2022), "Suspicious minds and suspicioning: constructing suspicion during policework", Journal of Organizational Ethnography, Vol. 11 No. 2, pp. 132-146.



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