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Campus Officers’ Explanations of Traffic Stop Sanctions

Published onJul 15, 2020
Campus Officers’ Explanations of Traffic Stop Sanctions

Note: This is the postprint of the following paper; publisher version available here.

Allen, Andrea. 2014. Campus officers’ explanations of traffic stop sanctions. Police Quarterly, 17, 276-301.

Abstract: Prior traffic stop studies rarely consider officers’ qualitative explanations of their sanctioning decisions, and are based largely on municipal officers. This paper explores campus officers’ explanations of how they sanctioned drivers. Data were gathered from fieldwork with campus officers at a large Southeastern university. Findings reveal officers usually handle traffic offenders leniently, opting for no sanction and written warnings over citations and custodial arrest. Officers named seven sanctioning reasons that fit into three broad and interrelated perspectives on crime and punishment. Implications of the findings for future research are discussed.


Traffic stops are a prominent aspect of police work. Officers seek to deter and punish traffic infractions by stopping and sanctioning drivers. Yet officers do not sanction all drivers equally or as severely as possible because traffic enforcement is highly discretionary (Wilson, 1968), typically not conducted under direct surveillance of supervisors and administrators (Brown, 1988), and most states do not require officers to ticket or arrest many traffic infractions (Schafer & Mastrofski, 2005). Thus, officers also may leniently handle incidents with a warning or even no sanction.

Though a great deal is known about traffic stops, there are two notable limitations of prior research. For one, existing findings indicate how officers sanction drivers based on the legal and extralegal characteristics of stops, but these quantitatively driven studies do not elucidate officers’ explanations of their sanctioning decisions. Second, extant traffic stop studies are predominantly based on encounters with municipal police; little is known about whether those findings generalize to campus police, as they operate in different contexts. It is important to address these topics because doing so may improve knowledge of why police officers sanction in specific ways.

The purpose of this paper is to shed light on campus officers’ handling of traffic stops by analyzing their accounts. The remainder of the paper is organized as follows. First, the literature on traffic stops is reviewed. Then the study’s method, data, and theoretical perspective are described. What follows is a presentation and analysis of officers’ explanations of why they sanctioned drivers in particular ways. The paper concludes by addressing the findings’ connection to existing theory and prior research as well as their implications for future scholarship and policy.

Literature Review

What affects officers’ discretionary sanctioning decisions in traffic stops? Studies addressing this question focus on the various extralegal and legal factors that affect the odds of drivers being warned, cited, or arrested. Extralegal factors include suspect characteristics and the social environment, whereas the infraction prompting the stop is a legal factor.

Research on officers’ decision making and extralegal factors largely focuses on suspects’ traits. Perhaps race has received the most attention; studies show that minorities are likelier than whites to be cited or arrested in traffic encounters (Engel & Calnon, 2004; Smith, Makarios, & Alpert, 2006; but see Novak, 2004; Schafer, Carter, Katz-Bannister, & Wells, 2006; Smith & Petrocelli, 2001). Studies consistently find male drivers are sanctioned more severely than females (Engel & Calnon, 2004; Ingram, 2007; Smith et al., 2006; Tillyer & Engel, 2013; but see Schafer et al., 2006). As for social class, studies find that lower income drivers are more likely to be arrested (Engel & Calnon, 2004) and cited (Lundman, 1979). The effect of drivers’ age is mixed, as some studies show older drivers are more leniently sanctioned (Engel & Calnon, 2004; Ingram, 2007; Schafer et al., 2006; Smith et al., 2006) but others find the opposite (Alpert et al., 2006; Smith & Petrocelli, 2001), and yet another shows that younger drivers were less likely to be given a written warning or arrested though more likely to receive a citation (Tillyer & Engel, 2013). Some research has also explored the interaction effect of suspect traits on sanctioning in traffic stops.  For example, Engel and Calnon (2004) calculated the predicted probabilities of young Hispanic males and young black males being cited and arrested in traffic encounters; compared to the average driver they were, respectively, 1.4 and 1.3 times likelier to be cited, and 2.3 and 3.4 times likelier to be arrested. A similar study found that compared to the average driver, young black males were more likely to be warned, less likely to be cited, and equally likely to be arrested, whereas young Hispanic males were neither more or less likely to experience any of those outcomes (Tillyer & Engel, 2013). And beyond demographic variables, prior work suggests that drivers who appear intoxicated on drugs/alcohol or who exhibit a poor demeanor are subject to more severe sanctions (Engel, Sobol, & Worden, 2000).

Another line of inquiry considers the social environment’s effect on traffic stops. One influence is the organization. Wilson (1968) suggested that the type of police agency—either legalistic, service-oriented, or order maintenance—affects officer decision making; officers in legalistic departments were more likely to issue traffic citations, for instance. Mastrofski and colleagues (1987) found that officers in smaller departments were likelier to arrest drunk drivers due to thinking it “prov[ed] their worth to the communities and themselves” (p. 398). A second aspect of the social environment is community context, though few studies analyze its effect on officer sanctioning in traffic stops. One that does so is that of Ingram (2007); he found that levels of disorganization, disadvantage, violent crime, and racial composition increased the odds of drivers being cited. Communities may also influence policing by way of politics and citizen input. There is inconsistency in the literature with respect to how much the community actually matters. Whereas Wilson (1968) notes, “deliberate community choices rarely have more than a limited effect on police behavior” (p. 227), officers interviewed by Schafer & Mastrofski (2005) “indicated that the community’s influence played an important role in guiding their actions” (p. 235).

Legal factors have also been shown to affect sanction severity in traffic stops. Certain traffic offenses—including moving violations, unsafe driving, speeding, and driving an unregistered vehicle—are likelier to result in drivers being cited or arrested (Novak, 2004; Schafer et al., 2006; but see Smith et al., 2006). Other offenses, such as equipment violations, are negatively related to those sanctioning outcomes (Novak, 2004) and more likely to end with a warning (Schafer et al., 2006). Tillyer and Engel (2013) examined the odds of drivers being issued written warnings, cited, or arrested for six reasons; compared to speeding, officers were more likely to warn drivers for moving violations, equipment violations, preexisting information, registration violations, and special traffic enforcement; ticket drivers for all of those reasons as well as a license violation; and, arrest drivers for moving violations, preexisting information, and special traffic enforcement.

Limitations of Prior Research

As already noted, a limitation of prior research is its inattention to officers’ qualitative explanations of their sanctioning decisions. Qualitative work is important because it aids in conceptual and theoretical development (Jacques, 2014; King, Keohane, & Verba 1994; Shadish, Cook, & Campbell 2002). Its open-ended approach to data collection allows researchers to uncover novel influences and outcomes, as well as shed new light on existing variables of interest. As detailed further below, that is made possible, in part, by the emphasis in ethnographic qualitative research on understanding social life as participants see it, rather than through a predetermined academic viewpoint. For these reasons, it is important to explore officers’ qualitative explanations of their sanctioning decisions.

One such study is that of Schafer and Mastrofski (2005). They used observational and interview data on 151 traffic stop encounters to examine why officers initiated stops and sanctioned drivers as they did. Suspects were most frequently sanctioned with a verbal warning (55.9%), followed by citation (31.8%), written warning (5.1%), and no sanction (5.1%). The unique feature of this study is its collection and analysis of officers’ reasons for their sanctioning decisions. According to participants, they mostly acted on their own routine traffic enforcement rule (39.0%), followed by a sense of justice (14.4%), believing the suspect should have known better (11.8%), legal evidence (3.6%), doing a favor for the citizen (2.1%); in a small number of cases, other priorities required premature termination of the stop (1.5%); no reason was given in 27.7% of cases.

A second limitation of extant traffic stop studies is they are largely based on encounters with municipal police. Another set of departments and officers, namely campus police, afford researchers a unique population to study.

Campus Policing

Campus police possess the same traditional police powers as municipal police and often emulate their organizational and operational styles (Bromley & Reaves, 1998, 1999; Paoline & Sloan, 2003; Sloan, 1992). However, campus police typically patrol more homogenous populations of 18-24 year old, white, middle-class students (Trends in Higher Education, 2011; USDOE, 2011). Campus police handle few serious crimes. The majority are property offenses; while violent crimes are not particularly common, those that do occur are often cases of sexual and domestic assault (e.g., Abbey, Zawacki, Buck, Clinton, & McAuslan, 2001; Dowdall, 2007; Shorey, Stuart, & Cornelius, 2011). Alcohol plays a prominent role in campus crime and policing (Weiss, 2013). Estimates show that more than half of underage, full-time college students drank in the past month (NSDUH, 2006). Furthermore, alcohol has a psychopharmacological effect (Goldstein, 1985) on students of all ages, as it increases the risk of engaging in and being the victim of other crimes (Allen & Jacques, 2013); upwards of 95% of violent campus crimes involve an intoxicated offender (Sloan, 1994).

The duties of campus police are somewhat distinct from those of municipal police. While both kinds of officers scour property looking for suspicious activity (e.g., person peering into a window), the former group is more often charged with ensuring that a vast swath of building doors are locked and the infrastructure is otherwise secured. This can be a large task as some campuses sprawl upwards of 500 acres and have tens or hundreds of buildings (Reaves, 2008; Sloan, Lanier, & Beer, 2000). Also, campus officers are unique in that they often adopt the in loco parentis role (i.e., act in the place of the parents) (Sloan, 1992). In practice, this involves leniently sanctioning students to teach them a lesson (as parents often do) while protecting them from “outsiders.”

There are some notable organizational differences. Tying into the last point, campus police administrators generally resist overzealous crime fighting and severe sanctioning; this avoids discouraging enrollment or criminalizing a large portion of the student population (Bordner & Petersen, 1983; Wolf, 1998; Wolf, Mesloh, & Henych, 2007). This orientation of campus police sets them apart from some municipal police that adopt a more legalistic style, meaning “as if there were a single standard of community conduct—that which the law prescribes—rather than different standards for” different groups, such as college students versus outsiders (Wilson, 1968, p. 172).

The differences outlined above imply that findings on municipal officers’ sanctioning decisions may not be entirely generalizable to those of campus officers. Determining whether that is the case will improve understanding of policing. This is because revealing similarities and differences between campus and municipal police may serve to substantiate, repudiate, or lead to the betterment of current explanations of police work. In other words, by studying two populations, more can be learned about each and the greater whole. Thus, studying how campus officers handle traffic encounters (and others) is a potentially fruitful line of inquiry.

To the author’s knowledge, Moon and Corley’s (2007) study is the only to examine traffic stops on campus. They analyzed campus officers’ handling of more than 10,000 traffic stops, finding that older drivers and Asians (compared to Whites) were likelier to be issued a legal sanction than a verbal warning. The authors also found that compared to white males, Asian males had higher odds of receiving a legal sanction. And using speeding as the reference category, drivers with equipment violations and “other vehicle code violations” were more likely to be issued a legal sanction. What Moon and Corley’s (2007) research did not consider is officers’ qualitative explanations of their sanctioning decisions. The present study, described below, addresses that issue.


This paper uses the ethnographic perspective and method to explore officers’ explanations of their sanctioning decisions. According to Malinowski (1922), “The goal” of ethnography “is … to grasp the native’s point of view, … to realise his vision of his world” (p. 25, emphasis in original). This understanding is referred to as cultural knowledge, which is used to interpret experience and generate social—i.e., cultural—behavior (Spradley, 1979). A second goal of ethnography is to use that “vision” to improve the broader understanding of social life (Geertz, 1973; Malinowski, 1922). As reasoned by Spradley (1979), “[i]n the most general sense, … ethnography contributes directly to both description and explanation of regularities and variations in human social behavior” because “[e]xplanation of cultural differences depends, in part, on making cross-cultural comparisons” (p. 10).

Connecting a particular cultural description (e.g., that of campus officers) to prior research (e.g., that on municipal officers) involves tying experience-near concepts to experience-distant concepts (Geertz, 2000). “An experience-near concept is … one that [a subject] …might himself naturally and effortlessly use to define what he or his fellows see, feel, think, imagine, and so on,” whereas “[a]n experience-distant concept is one that specialists”—such as criminologists—“employ to forward their scientific … aims” (p. 57). Geertz explains the importance of attending to both types of concepts: “Confinement to experience-near concepts leaves an ethnographer awash in immediacies, as well as entangled in vernacular. Confinement to experience-distant ones leaves him stranded in abstractions and smothered in jargon” (p. 57). Thus, the goal of ethnographers should be to translate, as Geertz refers to it, experience-near concepts into experience-distant ones. If successful in that regard, the product is a refinement, expansion, or repudiation of existing theories (see also Spradley, 1979).

The Present Study

The ethnographic method is the means by which researchers go about documenting cultural knowledge and behavior. Broadly speaking, the method involves “learn[ing] from people, to be taught by them” (Spradley, 1979, p. 4). This is the logical method because, after all, the goal of ethnography is to find out about participants’ understanding. However, the objective is not to simply look into subjective meaning but rather tie meaning to particular actions. While meaning is subjective, finding out about it involves collecting information on what happens in plain sight (Geertz, 1973). For ethnographers, the gold standard of doing so is fieldwork, which involves observing and conversing with people in situ: watching and talking with subjects as they move from situation to situation (Emerson, Fretz, & Shaw, 2011, Spradley 1979, 1980). By collecting data on meaning and action as it happens and shortly thereafter, an ethnographer is able to obtain a wealth of information and thereby uncover the stability and variability of interaction and the meanings that give rise to it.

This paper analyzes a sample of campus officers’ reasons for sanctioning in traffic encounters. Data were collected during ride-alongs with campus police at a large university in the Southeastern U.S. The study was approved by the Institutional Review Board (IRB), and access to the police department was granted by its Director. Participants worked in the field services unit, better known as the patrol division. This unit is responsible for responding to calls for service and proactively patrolling campus—sprawling over 570 acres—by vehicle, bicycle, and foot. The patrol unit operates with 25 to 35 officers at any given time; during the study period, a total of 33 officers worked in the unit, including a supervising staff of a Major, Lieutenant, four Sergeants, and four Corporals. Patrol officers were divided into four teams, each supervised by one of the four Sergeants and Corporals. Teams worked 12-hour shifts.

Patrol officers’ ages ranged from 22 years old to 57; the average age was 34. Almost 85% of officers were male. About 60% had children and two-thirds were married. A little more than half had a college degree. Seventy percent of officers were white; the remaining 30% was comprised mostly of Hispanics, then blacks. A quarter of officers served in the military before joining the department. About 27% of officers had previously worked for a municipal department.

The agency did not actively recruit retired municipal officers. Two former municipal officers joined the campus police department to have their university tuition covered; most moved over because the campus department offered them a promotion; and, two had retired from municipal departments but wanted to keep working, albeit in a more slow-paced environment. For the remaining 24 officers, campus policing was the only type they knew, at least from firsthand experience: for most, their first law enforcement job was in the department; some had worked for other campus law enforcement agencies or joined after leaving the military. Regardless of work history, the vast majority of patrol officers subscribed to the belief that they should work with people (i.e., handle them with kid gloves), so long as they were not “assholes” (Van Maanen, 1978) or posing a threat to officers or others.

The officers patrolled a campus located in a large metropolitan city with a population over 100,000. The university has about 1,600 full-time faculty members and 30,000 enrolled students, of which 22,000 are undergraduates. The average age of all students is 21. Almost 30% of students live on campus. About 71% of the student body is white, 11% black, 3% Hispanic, and 15% other. Males and females account for 42% and 53% of the student population, respectively; 5% is unaccounted. Information on household or parental income is not available from the university; however, less than one-fifth of students received Pell Grants, suggesting most students are not from an impoverished background.[1]

The sample of traffic stops was built by the researcher riding along with campus officers. Ride-alongs were conducted from January, 2011, through April, 2012, during the fall and spring semesters on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings from 6:30pm until about 3:00am. This approach was taken because prior research suggests the majority of traffic stops occur during the evening (Moon & Corley, 2007) and alcohol offenses—which is another topic of the broader project (see Author, XXXXa)—occur most frequently on those days (Sloan & Fisher, 2011). Thirty ride-alongs were completed; in that time, 103 police-citizen encounters were observed, 61 (59.2%) of which were traffic stops. For each ride-along, the researcher attended roll call where the supervising officer (Corporal, Sergeant, Lieutenant, or Major) assigned the researcher to accompany an officer on that shift. Sixteen officers were assigned to the ride-alongs. However, while on those ride-alongs, a total of 26 officers (79% of the population) were observed sanctioning; this is because data were recorded for the responding officer, who was not always the officer assigned to the ride-along. bviously, this paper’s findings are not necessarily generalizable to all campus officers.

During each traffic stop, officers were observed as they navigated the encounter. Using an observational checklist, the researcher recorded information on the dependent and independent variables of interest as identified in prior work on traffic encounters with municipal officers.[2] This method is modeled after other well-known observational studies on the police (e.g., the Project on Policing Neighborhoods, or “POPN”, by Mastrofski, Parks, Reiss, & Worden, 1998a). The dependent variable—how severely an officer sanctioned a driver—was recorded using an expanded list of sanctioning options, listed from most to least severe: arrest; citation; student disciplinary[3]; written warning; verbal warning; no sanction. Independent variables included the reason for the traffic stop; number of officers and bystanders at the scene; and driver characteristics (age, gender, race, student vs. nonstudent, intoxication). As stops unfolded, descriptions of the interaction were recorded, such as the drivers’ and officers’ body language, posturing, positioning, and words.

After the conclusion of each traffic stop, responding officers were debriefed. For incidents in which the responding officer was not the officer assigned to the study, the researcher—with the cooperation of the assigned officer—debriefed that individual at the scene. A debriefing is a short focused interview in which officers are asked in an open-ended fashion why they handled the situation as they did (Mastrofski et al., 1998b). This approach allowed participants to provide insight into the proverbial “black box” of officer decision making. In the course of soliciting this information, the researcher probed for details while being careful not to pose leading questions. To minimize lying or distortion, participants were promised confidentiality and informed that they could choose not to discuss anything for any reason or terminate participation at any point. Despite these safeguards, it is possible that some participants lied, distorted the truth, or altered their behavior due to being under observation.

The qualitative data were analyzed with NVivo 9, a qualitative data software package, which allows for coding information into categories that are tagged (i.e., labeled). The tags are then used for focused analysis. First, data were coded according to the sanction issued to suspects and the officers’ reason for meting out the sanction. The initial labels were further coded into narrower categories identified by participants and prior research as relevant (i.e., coded as experience-near and experience-distant concepts). These codes were used to grasp campus officers’ own understanding of their actions. For the quotes below, all names are pseudonyms.


Officers initiated traffic stops for three reasons that they categorized as moving violations (e.g., broken taillight, failure to signal, no tag light, no headlights), disregarding a traffic control device or DTCD for short (e.g., no right on red, no left turn, running a red light), and suspicious vehicle. An almost equal number of stops were made for moving violations (n=29) and DTCD offenses (n=30); there were only two cases of suspicion, defined as instances in which an officer initiated a traffic stop due to believing the vehicle or driver did not “fit the environment or the situation” (Alpert, MacDonald, & Dunham, 2005, p. 415). Note that in Terry v Ohio (1968), the Supreme Court ruled that only reasonable suspicion is necessary to briefly stop someone; reasonable suspicion is a lower legal standard than that of probable cause. A person or vehicle is reasonably suspicious when the officer can identify a specific and articulable fact that when combined with rational inferences warrants intrusion; the fact, to be clear, must be objective, not simply based on a “hunch.”

For the 61 stops, the most severe sanction given by officers was a written warning in 67.2% of cases, followed by citation (19.7%), and then arrest (4.9%). No sanction occurred in 8.2% of encounters. In no instance was a verbal warning or student disciplinary the most severe sanction issued. Table 1 provides a statistical summary of the traffic stops; to be clear, this table only provides information for sanctioning officers (i.e., not the patrol unit as a whole).


The remainder of the paper explores campus traffic encounters by the type of sanction officers issued drivers and their reasons for sanctioning in a specific manner.

No Sanction

Drivers were not sanctioned in five cases; to be clear, this means officers did not even give a verbal warning such as “slow down” or “be careful.” In one instance, Officer Rodriguez spotted two black males leaving the student center on mopeds that had been parked out front. The individuals were wearing work boots, tatty jeans, and dirty t-shirts. Based on their clothing, Rodriguez perceived them to be “bums” and thus with no good reason to be on campus. Consequently, the officer believed the men might have stolen the mopeds and so decided to follow them, eventually initiating a stop after they ran a red light. Nearby was Officer O’Hare; he saw the blue lights and responded to the scene as backup. Rodriguez approached the two suspects, asked for their IDs, and explained that he stopped them for running a red light but also wanted to check the status of their mopeds because several had been stolen from campus. He then radioed their information to dispatch for a status check,[4] which came back clear. Officer Rodriguez told the men they were free to go. When asked why he did not sanction the suspects, he said:

Officer Rodriguez: I used the running the red light as probable cause to stop the drivers, but I was more concerned with seeing if the mopeds were stolen. Since they were clear, there was no need for me to warn them or tell them not to be up to no good.

In other words, Officer Rodriguez decided not to sanction the actual traffic violation (running a red light) because it served as the basis for a fruitless pretext stop.

A second infraction was not sanctioned because the officer accepted the suspect’s excuse. It was 2am when Officer Way spotted a Jeep parked in the middle of the street with the driver-side door open. A female was sitting on the ground with no shoes on, and her head in her hands. Another female was standing beside her. Officer Way asked the suspect what was going on and why she was upset; at that time, two other friends arrived on the scene. The suspect said, “We were at [a local bar]. I had one margarita and two shots. I didn’t drink that much, but I just don’t feel like myself. I have never had this out of control feeling before.” She cried and even hyperventilated as she recounted the evening, and kept repeating, “I feel so out of control … I think someone put something in my drink.” Her friend commented to Officer Way, “I have really never seen her like this.” At that point, the officer dispatched Emergency Medical Responders to the scene, who eventually took the suspect to the hospital. Though this individual was guilty of a traffic offense (and potentially DUI), the officer accepted her excuse and so refrained from sanctioning her; as Way put it: “She thinks she got roofied,[5] but she’s not sure. … I believe her and her friends that this seems like unusual behavior because she is acting kind of erratic, like anxious.”

Another reason for not sanctioning suspects is mandate, one type of which is legal limitations; as discussed further below, department policy also mandates particular actions in some cases. Officer Moore investigated a suspect parked in a vacant lot on campus at nighttime, which was deemed suspicious. The officer did not sanction the suspect because “[while] I suspected there was drug shit going on, and maybe there is, … right now he’s not doing anything so there’s not much I can do.” In a separate incident, Officer O’Hare spotted a vehicle run a red light that had a tag light out. He followed the car and initiated a traffic stop. Officers Gosling and Combs were in the immediate area and came to the scene as backup. O’Hare exited his vehicle and walked to the driver’s side window; Gosling stood at the back of the car; Combs looked through the windows and spotted an open bottle of Maker’s Mark liquor. O’Hare asked the suspect, “Do you know why I stopped you?” The suspect said he was unsure. O’Hare could smell alcohol on the driver’s breath, so he asked, “You been drinking tonight?” The suspect said that he had a few drinks. O’Hare then asked him for his ID, radioed for a status check, and directed him to step out of the car to take a field sobriety test. The suspect passed, but barely. O’Hare told him, “I’m gonna pour this [the liquor] out. You’re going to call someone to pick you up or you’re going to take a taxi home.” The suspect stated he had no one to call, so O’Hare phoned a taxi and a tow company. When the taxi arrived, O’Hare advised the suspect where to retrieve his car, but did not sanction him; as the participant explained:

Officer O’Hare: I couldn’t arrest him because he passed the field sobriety test. But he was definitely intoxicated—there was the open liquor bottle and I could smell the alcohol on his breath. I didn’t even want to bother with the minor traffic stuff. I just wanted to make sure he was off the road.

While Officer O’Hare could not legally arrest the suspect because he passed the field sobriety test, the driver could have been sanctioned for the traffic infractions—but was not. Having the car towed could be considered a sanction because the suspect will have to pay money to retrieve his vehicle; but the officer’s motive was precautionary, not punitive, as his primary concern was preventing the suspect from causing harm to other persons. Additionally, the officer wanted to avoid the hassle of meting out punishment as he “didn’t even want to bother with the minor traffic stuff.”

Written Warning

Written warning was the most frequently issued sanction for traffic offenses (n=41). Officers provided different reasons for its application. One reason is the infractions were not serious enough to warrant a more severe sanction. For example, Officer Combs gave a written warning to a suspect for driving without headlights because “[i]t’s not that serious and can be handled in a different way other than needing a ticket.” Officer Dillon also wrote a written warning for no headlights because it “is just not necessarily a serious charge.” And in handling the same violation, Officer Carter stated, “I’m giving her a written warning because … it wasn’t a serious offense in the first place.”

Officers used traffic stops as pretexts for potentially more serious infractions (see also Paoline & Terrill, 2005). As long as drivers’ status was clear and no other offense was observed, suspects usually escaped with a written warning.  Officer Yates issued a driver a written warning for no headlights stating, “I could have issued a ticket, but didn’t. … We basically use these types of stops to make contact with people, check their status and [look] for other suspicious stuff.” Officer Moore gave a written warning to a driver for having a brake light out; he explained, “I didn’t want to write her [a ticket], and I have the discretion to make that decision. Often I use these moving violations as a reason to stop people and run their information.”

A third reason officers issued written warnings in traffic stops is they believed the infraction was the driver’s honest mistake and thus excusable. For example, Officer Wilmington issued a written warning to a suspect driving his friend’s car with no headlights on; the officer reasoned “[i]t was an honest mistake. He is out here having to drive around his fraternity brothers, so it’s no surprise he doesn’t know how to work the car.” For a similar reason, Officer Strickland issued the same sanction for not halting at a stop sign: “[H]e already knew what he did wrong. It’s not his car. He’s getting ready to go pick up some friends from Greek Village.” Officer Carter gave a written warning for “no turn on red” as the offense “happens a lot of times at night because it’s hard to see the signs posted in the dark.” Likewise, Officer George wrote a written warning when a suspect ran a red light at a busy intersection; he stated, “[U]sually with disregarding traffic control devices, if I can ascertain that it’s accidental at all, I usually just give them a warning.”


The second most frequent sanction for traffic offenses was citation (n=12). Officers gave four reasons for sanctioning suspects this way. One is that the officers believed there was no justifiable excuse for the violations (see also Schafer and Mastrofski, 2005). Officer Carter spotted a small Mazda Miata driving extremely fast for the rainy road conditions, and then watched the vehicle fish-tail as it made a sharp right turn. After pulling over the driver, the officer asked the suspect why he was driving so fast; the guy responded, “I was just trying to make it home. I was at the hookah bar and this guy told me he was going to beat my ass.” Carter asked the suspect if he had been drinking, to which he responded, “No. Guy was threatening me. I am an extremely nonviolent person.” After speaking with the suspect and having his status cleared, the officer issued him a citation. In explaining this decision, Carter noted, “[His speeding] was just stupid. I just think he needs something more than a written warning.” The officer felt it was necessary because there was no valid excuse for the dangerous driving and the potential harm it posed.

Officer Voight issued three tickets for no left turn at a particular intersection. As he details below, drivers who make the left turn deserve a citation because there are ample warnings that it is illegal, not to mention dangerous.

Officer Voight: [A]t this turn right here we have three traffic control devices to tell you not to make a left turn there. … [T]he [drivers] want to make a short cut … [a]nd it’s really dangerous for them to make a left right there because there’s a blind spot coming from this road right here onto the gates.

Another reason for issuing a citation—mandate, specifically legal limitations—was mentioned by Officer Dillon. He spotted two individuals driving erratically on mopeds in Greek Village without headlights. The officer tried to initiate a traffic stop by activating his emergency lights, but the suspects increased their speed and ran a red light. Dillon hit the gas and called out on the radio, “We got two not stopping.” He tailed the two drivers up the street. One suspect swerved left into the oncoming traffic lanes, while the other continued in the proper lane, blowing through all the stop signs. When one of the suspects reached the top of the hill he drove the moped onto the sidewalk in front of a strip of bars; he escaped. The other driver, who was in the lane of oncoming traffic, approached the top of the hill. He attempted to cut across a small concrete turn-around and escape onto the sidewalk too. But when Dillon started approaching the turn-around he made a sharp left around the median, thereby cutting off the suspect who then dropped the moped in the median and started to run. Dillon threw his seatbelt off, jolted the door open, jumped out, and yelled “Put your hands up!” as he placed his hand on his weapon. The suspect complied and threw himself face down onto the ground. Dillon cuffed him immediately as backup arrived.

The supervising officers immediately began questioning the suspect about what he and his buddy were up to. While the suspect never admitted to stealing the mopeds, it was obvious from his story that he and the other suspect had hotwired them. The encounter dragged on for five hours as Dillon and the other officers tried to identify the suspect, as he had no ID. Identifying the perpetrator was especially important because he repeatedly stated that he was only 16 years old and, as such, could not by law be taken to jail and, instead, would have to be released to a parent. By the end of the evening, the officers got into contact with the suspect’s mother who confirmed he was only 16; she picked up her son, who was given a ticket for reckless driving. Officer Dillon explained why he issued this sanction rather than a more severe one:

Officer Dillon: In this case there wasn’t much else I could do. Until we can prove that he stole that moped, the most I can do right now is ticket him for reckless driving. And the fact that he’s only 16 limits what I can do ’til we can give him a more serious charge.

The officer could have also ticketed the individual for “failing to stop for a law enforcement vehicle,” which would have been a misdemeanor because it did not result in death or injury. Why Dillon did not sanction that offense was left unsaid. Regardless, the most severe sanction possible was citation due to, one, a lack of evidence that the moped was stolen and, two, the fact that a juvenile suspect cannot be arrested for a misdemeanor in the state under study.

While the above officers wrote citations out of perceived necessity, some officers ticketed suspects with the intention of later reducing the charge. When a driver ran a stop light, Officer Wilmington wrote her a citation, stating, “[I]t was a blatant violation and also a dangerous intersection where there’s a lot of foot and vehicle traffic.” But she then told the driver:

Officer Wilmington: I’m going to give you a few options here. You can pay the ticket before you come to court and be done with it. You can show up to court and try to contest it and possibly have to pay it. Or you can write me a two page paper on traffic safety and bring it here to the department. If you write the paper, I’ll drop the ticket at court.

Officer Carter made a similar proposition to a driver who had an expired tag and decal: “If you clear it up before court, I’ll drop the ticket.” These two officers, then, issued “temporary” citations for a third reason: to impel the suspects to think seriously about and fix the violations.

 The fourth reason for citation provided by an officer is he did not want to deal with the effort involved in making an arrest. The encounter occurred around 2am. It was pouring down rain when Officer Voight spotted a truck make an illegal turn. He stopped and then approached the vehicle; a young female was driving, and a young male was in the passenger seat with a vomit covered shirt. The driver appeared intoxicated; her eyes were droopy, cheeks flushed red, and she looked like she was about to start crying. Voight asked for her ID. She said she did not have one so he wrote down her name and date of birth on a notepad and stuffed it in his rain jacket pocket. Voight also got the male’s information before heading to the patrol car to have their statuses checked. Both were underage. Voight got out of the patrol car and went back to speak with the suspects:

Officer Voight: Listen, I want you to call a friend to come pick you both up. You’re gonna park the car here and you can come get it tomorrow. Now, I’m gonna write both of you student disciplines for minor in possession of the alcohol. And you [the female suspect] are getting a ticket for driving without a driver’s license. You know you could go to jail for driving without a license.

The female called a friend and arrived at the scene about ten minutes later. The female parked the truck in a space literally feet away; the suspects exited the vehicle, and left the scene. The officer sanctioned the driver more leniently than might be expected, as she was likely driving under the influence (though a sobriety test never occurred) and without a license; both are mandatory arrest offenses, with the former being required by law and the latter by department policy. Asked to explain his actions, Voight replied:

Officer Voight: She is driving his truck ’cause he is tore up [drunk]. And I can smell the alcohol on her. I’m pretty sure she is DUI, but I’m not messing with a DUI. This is an example of when officers have discretion. Usually you would go to jail … but in this case I had someone come pick them up so I didn’t have to deal with the alcohol. It’s raining, I don’t have a working camera in the car, and it would take a while to process the DUI. I just didn’t feel like dealing with this right now.

Simply put, the officer did not make an arrest because it would have entailed too much trouble, despite department policy prohibiting this course of action—as seen in the following examples.


Three traffic offenders were arrested. Driving without a valid driver’s license is what landed them in jail; as mentioned above, the department policy mandates arrest for this violation. In one case, Officer Luke stopped a vehicle for not having a tag light and then discovered the suspect’s driver’s license had been suspended. He placed her in handcuffs and took her to jail because:

Officer Luke: Driving under suspension is an automatic ride to jail. The court suspended the license for a reason, whether you think it’s a good one or not. … [W]e have no choice in the matter. I mean she tried to get out of it. She had over $400 cash in her wallet and told me and [Officer] Johnson she would do anything to get out of being arrested. She even wanted to know if she could just pay us now instead of takin’ her to jail. I don’t know if she’s a stripper or not, but who has that kind of cash on them?

Officer Way pulled over a driver who failed to yield at a stop sign, which almost resulted in a crash with the patrol car. Once in handcuffs, Way explained to him why he was going to jail:

Officer Way: If your license is suspended, then you know I can’t do anything about [that]. You’re driving on these streets and you’re not supposed to be driving. … Let me just tell you, if you were to run a red light, or … say you were to get into an accident and you were to kill somebody and you’re not allowed to be driving, that’s all going to come back on you, ’cause you’re not supposed to be driving.

The third arrest incident began one evening when Officer Luke initiated a traffic stop after spotting a car driving without headlights on. Officer Wilson was in the immediate vicinity and stopped for backup after seeing the blue lights. In speaking with the driver, Luke learned that the suspect was not the owner of the vehicle, as the owner was in the passenger seat and drunk. The officer asked them for identification and thereby learned the driver was 18 and the passenger 20 years old. Upon transmitting their information to dispatch for a status check, he found out that the driver did not have a driver’s license. Officer Luke informed the driver this is a mandatory arrest offense, and told the passenger he would receive a student disciplinary for underage drinking. Then Luke called for a tow truck to retrieve the vehicle. When asked why he sanctioned the suspects as he did, the officer explained:

Officer Luke: Had the passenger been able to drive away from here, I wouldn’t have arrested the driver, I would’ve let him go. But since he was drunk and the driver had no license, I had to have the Jeep towed away. The passenger’s getting a student disciplinary since he was drinking underage, but I’m not going to bother with anything like a ticket ’cause it’s not that serious.

In short, Officer Luke arrested the driver because he was required to do so by department policy and, additionally, no one else was available to drive him away from the scene. The passenger was issued a student disciplinary for underage drinking, which Luke felt was an appropriate sanction given that, in his mind, this particular offense is “not that serious.”


Campus officers tended to leniently sanction traffic offenders (i.e., not cite or arrest them). They issued no sanction when they decided they had no legal basis for doing so (see also Schafer & Mastrofski, 2005) and a pretext stop failed to uncover evidence of a more serious offense. That latter reason was also mentioned as the basis for a written warning; additionally, officers issued this sanction when they perceived incidents as not being serious enough to warrant more severe punishment (Brown, 1988) or that the driver made an excusable mistake. Officers cited drivers to incentivize them to acknowledge a problem or take corrective action; when they deemed drivers deserved a more severe punishment than a written warning because the offense was inexcusable (see also Schafer & Mastrofski, 2005); because the law precluded an arrest; and when making an arrest was not worth the effort. When arrests occurred, it was because officers were mandated to by department policy. Table 2 provides a statistical summary of the traffic stop sanctions and explanations.


Discussion & Conclusion

The purpose of this study has been to shed light on how and, more importantly, why campus officers sanction drivers in particular ways. To do so, the ethnographic perspective was used to analyze qualitative data derived from observations of and debriefings with responding officers in campus traffic stops. As mentioned above, a major goal of ethnography is to connect experience-near concepts—i.e., the social constructs of participants—to experience distant concepts—i.e., existing theories and prior findings (Geertz, 2000; Malinowski, 1922). The paper now addresses that issue, and concludes with a discussion of the study’s implications for future research and policy. 

Officers’ Sanctioning Decisions Categorized

The sanction explanations referred to by participants are largely categorizable into three broad and interrelated perspectives on crime and punishment: deterrence; punishment should fit the crime; and legal factors. The first of those three, deterrence, is defined as the prevention of offenses through the threat of punishment (Bentham, 1988 [1789]). In theory, crime is deterred to the extent punishment is certain, severe, and swift (Beccaria, 1995 [1764]). Officers sought to deter future offenses through the threat of fines. For example, Officer Wilmington gave a suspect the choice between writing a paper on traffic safety—intended to teach her a lesson—and paying a fine. And Officer Carter told a suspect he would “drop the ticket” if the offender renewed his tag. For these two suspects, a more severe sanction was certain if they did not make good on the officers’ offers.

Some of the sanction explanations provided by officers matched the long held idea that punishment should fit the crime, meaning more serious offenses should receive more severe sanctions (Beccaria, 1995 [1764]; Bentham, 1988 [1789]). This played out in three ways. One is that officers sanctioned suspects less severely than they could have because they felt that more severe sanctions would be disproportional to the offense. The flipside of this is officers sanctioned suspects more severely because they felt the offense was too serious to sanction less severely. Third, offense seriousness depends not only on the nature of the crime but also on suspects’ intent; officers deem offenses to be less serious—and thus less deserving of severe sanction—when they accept suspects’ excuses or justifications for the infraction (see Author, XXXXb; Scott & Lyman, 1968). Rather than issue citations, officers gave written warnings when they believed drivers made excusable mistakes and their violations were accidental (see also Schafer & Mastrofski, 2005).  

Several officers also referred to mandates of the law—a legal factor—as the reason for their sanctioning decision. In one case, for instance, Officer Moore “suspected there was drug shit going on” but found no evidence and thus could not sanction the suspect. Similarly, Officer O’Hare was unable to arrest someone he thought to be surely drinking and driving because that suspect passed the field sobriety test. And Officer Dillon was powerless to arrest a juvenile because the law precluded such an action being taken against a minor.

Similarities to and Differences from Other Studies

This study’s findings are both similar to and different from those of Schafer and Mastrofski (2005). As reviewed above, they asked municipal officers to explain their sanction decisions. Their participants named six rationales, three of which were also named by the campus officers: the offense was inexcusable (i.e., “citizen should have known better”); their actions were limited by the law (i.e., “observed or failed to observe legal evidence”); and drivers made excusable mistakes (i.e., “officer’s sense of justice”) (ibid., p. 234). Unlike the campus officers, the municipal officers also explained their sanction decisions as a matter of their “own traffic enforcement rules,” trying to do “a favor for the citizen,” and “other priorities requir[ing] premature termination of stop.”

Conversely, the campus officers named five factors left unmentioned by the municipal police: the pretext issue; giving a more severe sanction was not worth the effort; the offense was too (un)serious to deserve a different sanction; the sanction was meant to fix a problem; and, department policy mandated a specific response. Whether these differences are a methodological artifact or reflect variation across the two samples is unknown. Perhaps campus police are unlikely to prematurely terminate a stop for other priorities because campus crime is often unserious; and the idea of municipal officers educating drivers by assigning them a paper in return for a less severe sanction seems laughable. Those are just a couple possibilities as to how the nature of campus and municipal policing may shape officers’ explanations of sanction decisions. Further studies should seek to confirm the extent to which findings from traffic studies with municipal officers are generalizable to their campus counterparts, and vice versa.

It is important to consider officers’ explanations of their sanctioning because it can lead to the uncovering of new variables, as accomplished in this study and that of Schafer and Mastrofski (2005). These findings are important because, to the author’s knowledge, they do not appear as explanatory variables in the quantitative studies on sanctioning in traffic stops that dominate the literature. It is plausible that officers’ sanctioning reasons mediate or moderate the effect of other legal and extralegal variables on sanctioning outcomes. For instance, an officer’s perception that driving without headlights is unserious may mitigate the effect of the offense type on sanction severity. Or, perhaps sanction severity is affected by the interaction between drivers’ race and officers’ perception of whether the traffic offense was an honest mistake. For example, Dixon and colleagues (2008) found that “the communication quality of White drivers was more positive than of the Black drivers” (p. 543), so perhaps some people are better able to convey their offenses as excusable and thereby reduce punishment—or maybe officers perceive an offense as excusable for certain persons, but not for others. By including independent measures representing officers’ reasons for sanctioning in future quantitative studies, a greater understanding of which factors best explain how drivers are sanctioned in traffic stops may be gleaned.

Noteworthy is that officers in this study did not explain their sanctioning decisions by referring to the community context and extralegal characteristics. This does not necessarily mean, however, that officers were unaffected by these factors, as they may have exerted a subconscious influence or been left unsaid owing to their pejorative connotations.

The campus community—students, faculty, and staff—may have influenced officers’ sanctioning decisions. As reviewed above, there is a lack of consensus on whether the community has great impact on policing (compare Wilson, 1968 with Schafer & Mastrofski, 2005). Wilson (1968) argued that the community can have “a great effect on police personnel, budgets, pay levels, and organization” (p. 227). It is possible that campus officers leniently sanction because their personnel, budgets, and school-wide university funds could be negatively affected if a substantial number of students chose to attend another college due to perceiving their force as too aggressive. However, no officer mentioned that they factored the community’s choices about police behavior into their sanction decisions. Yet that should not be interpreted as meaning such factors had no effect on sanctioning, as they could work at the subconscious level. Perhaps, for instance, Officer Wilmington’s in loco parentis role was in the back of her mind when she offered to drop a charge in exchange for a research paper about traffic safety.  

A great deal of municipal police research suggests that drivers’ race, age, and gender affect traffic stop sanctions outcomes (e.g., Engel & Calnon, 2004). Moon and Corley’s (2007) study of campus officers found the same. No research to date has shown that drivers’ social class or demeanor affects campus officers’ sanctioning decisions, though studies have shown this to be true for municipal police (e.g., Engel & Calnon, 2004). Not a single participant in this study mentioned that these factors affected how they handled suspects. Maybe this was thought about but not said because it would be an admission of discriminatory policing. These factors also may have affected other aspects of policing at a subconscious level. For example, recall that Officer Rodriguez followed two black subjects because they were dressed like “bums” and thus appeared suspicious; it is also plausible that he was suspicious because of their race. Alpert and colleagues (2005) found that race is an important factor in the formation of suspicion, and many studies show blacks are more likely to be stopped (e.g., Harris, 2002; Lundman & Kaufman, 2003; but see Alpert Group, 2004; Alpert et al., 2005; Gaines, 2006). Finally, there is a straightforward reason why officers did not cite demeanor as influencing their behavior: negative demeanor occurred in only two cases (see Table 1) and, when it did occur, consisted of minor transgressions such as suspects rolling their eyes.

Implications for Future Research & Policy

This study is not without limitations, of course. Comparative data were not collected on municipal officers working in the vicinity; doing so would be beneficial by helping to control for place-based influences that may affect policing. The sampling method means the generalizability of the results is unknown. Internal validity may be compromised if the officers or encounters observed during ride-alongs differ from those not observed; one way around this problem would be to compare observational data with official data to see if the sample differs from the population. The restricted days and times when ride-alongs were conducted could have limited the range of reported sanction decision explanations. The study’s findings may not be representative of campus officers at other colleges/universities (e.g., two-year public, private, and rural universities). Future research should aim to determine whether and how campus officers working at different institutions vary in their sanctioning of traffic offenses and explanations of their actions.

The findings have implications for policy, albeit tentative ones given the study’s limitations. Participants were observed sanctioning similar offenses in different ways for a variety of reasons. While officers’ discretion is an important part of police work that should not be fully curtailed (Brown, 1988), it is potentially harmful to citizens and society if it results in unjustifiable discrimination, and also risky to officers and departments as they may be held legally liable for such actions. One way to mitigate such harms is for police departments to more clearly define and apprise officers of the department’s traffic stop sanctioning policy, be it written or unwritten. The most straightforward approach would be to stipulate a particular (minimum) sanction to be issued to all drivers committing a particular offense. However, for policies to have effect they need to be enforced. Thus, department supervisors should not only communicate their policy to patrol officers, but also find an effective means of getting them to comply. One way to do so is to institute the use of body-worn video (BWV) devices, which are small cameras worn on officers’ shirts or their heads like a Bluetooth device (see Harris, 2010). The camera records an officer’s tour, assuming it remains powered on of course, which allows an officer’s actions to be objectively scrutinized post-patrol. The potential benefits of (re)informing officers of the department policy and enforcing it are greater uniformity in the treatment of drivers (i.e., less discrimination) and, in doing so, a reduction in police liability.


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[1] To protect the confidentiality of participants, the university’s name cannot be revealed. Therefore, a full reference for the university’s statistics is not provided.

[2] A copy of the checklist used to code the encounters and a list of the specific nodes created in NVivo are available from the author upon request.

[3] A student disciplinary is a sanction given to university students who violate university policy or criminal law. This sanction is drawn up by campus police officers and forwarded on to the Office of Student Conduct. It is considered more severe than a written warning yet less severe than a citation because it can result in punishment by the university’s judicial affairs office (which a written warning does not) but does not have implications beyond the university (as does a citation).

[4] A status check occurs in several steps. First the officer provides dispatch with the suspect’s information, such as name, date of birth, sometimes social security number, and vehicle information (e.g., license plate). Next, the dispatcher runs that information through the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), which is an “electronic clearinghouse of crime data that can be tapped into by virtually every criminal justice agency nationwide, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.” (FBI, 2013). Note that some law enforcement officers are able to access information from NCIC themselves, when they have computers equipped with the program in their patrol cars.

[5] The term “roofied” refers to the act of consuming a “ruffie” or a “roofie,” which are street names for the drugs Gamma hydroxybutyrate (GHB) and Rohypnol. Both are “odorless, colorless, and tasteless forms that are frequently combined with alcohol and other beverages, … and have been used to commit sexual assaults … due to their ability to sedate and incapacitate unsuspecting victims” (NIH, 2010).

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