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Campus Officers’ Sanctioning of Alcohol-Involved Crime: Influences on Discretionary Decision-Making

Published onJul 15, 2020
Campus Officers’ Sanctioning of Alcohol-Involved Crime: Influences on Discretionary Decision-Making

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

Allen, Andrea. 2016. Campus officers’ sanctioning of alcohol-involved crime: Influences on discretionary decision making. Police Practice and Research: An International Journal, 17(3), 249-262.

Abstract: Universities are a hotbed of alcohol consumption, which is a major contributor to campus crime. In the U.S., campus police are responsible for handling crimes on campus. Like municipal police, campus officers are afforded the power to make discretionary sanctioning decisions. The question for this paper is what affects those decisions? To explore that topic, data collected during ride-alongs with campus officers are analyzed. Campus officers explained their sanctions as being affected by nine factors. The findings suggest that influences on campus and municipal officers’ sanctioning decisions are largely similar. The paper concludes by discussing implications for future research.


For many students, ‘college life’ is synonymous with frequent and heavy consumption of alcohol (Vander Ven, 2011; Weiss, 2013). Yet part and parcel with partying is crime. In the United States, the majority of college campus offenses involve intoxicated persons (Dowdall, 2013). Campus police are responsible for handling these transgressions, which is no small duty. In 2012, for instance, they made more than 30,000 arrests for alcohol violations; many more crimes were handled less punitively (USDOE, 2013). What affects how severely campus officers sanction persons suspected of committing an alcohol-involved offense? This paper is the first to address that question, and does so by ethnographically analyzing data obtained during fieldwork with campus police. In what follows, the paper begins by reviewing research on alcohol and campus crime as well as the history, function, and uniqueness of campus policing. Then ethnography, the ethnographic method, and present study are described. Next, the findings are presented alongside those of prior work on municipal police officers’ sanction decisions. The paper concludes by discussing implications for future research.

Before venturing down this path, note that the findings have significance beyond campus policing—an entity largely unique to the US. For one, prior research is largely focused on municipal policing, but studying campus policing too should serve to improve knowledge of policing as a whole because variation is a driving force behind scientific discovery, refutation, and confirmation (Popper, 2002 [1959]). Also, policing alcohol-involved crime is a worldwide issue. Alcohol is the most harmful drug overall to society (Nutt, King, & Phillips, 2010), in part because it increases the propensity to commit a range of serious offenses (see, e.g., Parker & Auerhahn, 1998). And students in the US are not alone in drinking, as college students elsewhere are also frequent and heavy consumers of alcohol (Stahlbrandt et al., 2008). Thus, while this study is the first to examine how campus police sanction crimes tied to alcohol, it contributes to the expansive literature on police officers’ discretionary decision-making (Brown, 1988; Wilson, 1968) and drinking-related problems among the general population and college students specifically (Wechsler, 2001).

 Alcohol & Campus Crime

More than two-thirds of US college students report drinking in the prior thirty days (Johnston, O’Malley, Bachman, & Schulenberg, 2013). Those who do so, especially in large amounts, are more likely to offend (Siegel & Raymond, 1992). There are two broad types of alcohol-involved crime: ‘alcohol crime’ and ‘alcohol-related crime’ (Allen & Jacques, 2013). Alcohol crime refers to offenses inextricably tied to alcohol. Examples include underage drinking, using a fake ID to purchase alcohol, public drunkenness, and driving under the influence (DUI). Alcohol-related crime refers to offenses in which alcohol does not play a definitional role in the offense but is otherwise involved (see Goldstein, 1985). Examples include an intoxicated student who punches a roommate, steals university property, or tears a water fountain off the dormitory wall. To be clear, ‘alcohol-involved crime’ is any offense involving an alcohol crime or alcohol-related crime. Also, alcohol crime and alcohol-related crime are not mutually exclusive categories. For example, a minor could binge drink (an alcohol crime) and then get into a fight (an alcohol-related crime).

Regarding college students and alcohol crime, surveys suggest that 60.3% of underage students used alcohol in the past month (CORE Institute, 2014); about two-fifths to half of underage college students use fake IDs to purchase alcohol (Durkin, Wolfe, & Phillips, 1996; Wechsler, Lee, Nelson, & Kuo, 2002); and, millions of college students drink and drive each year (Hingson, Zha, & Weitzman, 2009). As pertains to alcohol-related crime, most of these transgressions are property offenses like burglary, theft, and vandalism (Dowdall, 2013). Sexual and domestic assaults are fairly common as well (White House Task Force, 2014; Shorey, Stuart, & Cornelius, 2011), though other sorts of violent offenses are infrequent (USDOE, 2013).

Municipal and Campus Policing of Alcohol-Involved Crime

Despite university campuses being a hotbed of alcohol-involved crime, there is little prior research on officers’ discretionary sanctioning within this context. Discretionary decision-making is important because most crime types are sanctionable in a variety of ways, including everything from arrest to no sanction at all. This is because neither the law or department policy always specifies how an offense should be handled (Brown, 1988). In part, this is because how an officer should handle an incident is not always a priori specifiable, as it may depend on ‘particular circumstances of time, place, event, and personality’ (Wilson, 1968, p. 65). Discretionary decision-making allows officers to leniently sanction when a more severe sanction would be unjust, inefficient, ineffective, inconvenient, or unwarrantedly add to a backlog of cases (Schafer & Mastrofski, 2005). Or, police may arrest suspects for relatively minor offenses if it seems necessary to take them off the street (Wilson, 1968).

To date, only one study has examined officers’ discretionary sanctioning of alcohol-involved crime in the college context. Schafer (2005) analyzed municipal officers’ handling of alcohol-involved encounters in a college campus community. He found that officers tended to leniently sanction suspects for alcohol-involved crimes. As he explains, ‘It would be very time consuming and difficult for an officer to cite every underage drinker’ for this ‘“non-serious” violation’ (p. 294). When citations or arrests were made, it was typically due to the suspects’ ‘contempt of cop’ (i.e., poor demeanor) or because the offender had ‘engaged in vandalism or assaults, violated a liquor law in a motor vehicle (e.g. open container, drunk driving), possessed alcohol under the legal age in public or at a bar, or used a fake identification’ (p. 286).

No prior study has examined campus officers’ discretionary sanctioning of alcohol-involved crime. Though campus policing goes back to the nineteenth century (Sloan, 1992), its modern form was established in the late 1960s and 1970s. In response to student protests across campuses, university administrators hired experienced municipal officers to develop, staff, and oversee campus operations (Fisher & Sloan, 2007; Sloan, 1992). In turn, campus police departments began to emulate some of the organizational and operational styles of municipal departments (Bromley & Reaves, 1999; Paoline & Sloan, 2003). Moreover, some state legislatures passed laws authorizing colleges and universities to staff departments with sworn officers who were required to become POST (Peace Officer Standards Training) certified, thereby giving campus police the same police powers as municipal officers—such as the powers to arrest and use force (Fisher & Sloan, 2007; Sloan, 1992). Campus officers were given uniforms with badges, handcuffs, and weapons. The most recent comprehensive survey of campus police departments in the US found that there were more than ten thousand sworn officers serving at nearly a thousand universities (Reaves, 2008).

Municipal and campus police are similar insofar as both have discretionary and other traditional police powers (Bromley & Reaves 1999, Paoline & Sloan 2003). However, these two groups differ in some respects. One difference is that campus police usually patrol more homogenous populations of 18-24 year old, white, middle-class students (Miller & Pan, 1987; THE, 2011). The duties of campus police are also somewhat unique, as they adopt the in loco parentis role—meaning they act in the place of the parents—and also are responsible for ensuring a vast swath of building doors are locked and that other infrastructure and property are secure (Sloan, 1992; Sloan, Lanier, & Beer, 2000). And organizationally, campus police administrators generally resist aggressive crime fighting and severe sanctioning to avoid criminalizing a large portion of the student population or discouraging enrollment (Bordner & Petersen, 1983; Wolf, Mesloh, & Henych, 2007). To be clear, these differences do not set campus police apart from every single set of municipal police, but do separate the two groups on the average.

The unique characteristics of campus police may affect how officers sanction suspects. Determining whether this is actually the case is important because it will help to verify, rebut, or refine current explanations of police work, which will be reviewed alongside the findings for reasons detailed below. Thus, this paper simultaneously addresses two gaps in the literature: what guides campus officers’ sanctioning of alcohol-involved offenses, and, in turn, whether those factors are qualitatively unique from those previously found to affect municipal police.

Ethnography and the Ethnographic Method

Several theoretical frameworks may be used to explain officer decision-making. This paper is interested in the ethnographic perspective, or ‘the native’s point of view’ (Malinowski, 1922, p. 25). Geertz (2000) referred to this viewpoint as ‘experience-near concepts,’ meaning ‘one that [a subject] … might himself naturally and effortlessly use to define what he or his fellows see, feel, think, imagine, and so on’ (p. 57). One goal of ethnography is documenting such concepts and showing how people use them to generate cultural behavior (Spradley, 1979). A related goal of ethnography is drawing on a group’s ‘vision’ of their world to build general knowledge of social life (Geertz, 1973; Malinowski, 1922; Spradley, 1979). This entails connecting experience-near concepts to existing academic ideas and prior findings—or ‘experience-distant concepts’ (Geertz, 2000). As Geertz explains, it is important to attend to both concepts because ‘[c]onfinement to experience-near concepts leaves an ethnographer awash in immediacies, as well as entangled in vernacular’, whereas ‘[c]onfinement to experience-distant ones leaves him stranded in abstractions and smothered in jargon’ (p. 57). Thus, ethnographers should ‘translate,’ as Geertz refers to it, experience-near concepts into experience-distant ones because it serves to sharpen, expand, or repudiate existing theories.

The means by which researchers go about documenting cultural knowledge and cultural behavior is known as the ethnographic method. In essence, the method involves ‘learn[ing] from people, to be taught by them’ (Spradley, 1979, p. 4). This is the logical method given ethnography’s goal is to find out about participants’ understanding. While this meaning is subjective, uncovering it involves collecting empirical information (Geertz, 1973). For ethnographers, the methodological gold standard is fieldwork: observing and conversing with people as they go about daily life (Emerson, Fretz, & Shaw, 2011; Spradley 1979). By collecting data on meaning and action as they occur, a researcher is positioned to obtain a wealth of information and thereby uncover the stability and variability of interaction and the meanings that give rise to it.

The Present Study

This study is based on data collected through fieldwork with campus police officers at a large university in the Southeastern US. This institution was named one of the top 20 party schools by the Princeton Review for both 2011 and 2012. The campus is located in a large metropolitan city with a population over 100,000 (USCB, 2010).[i] At the time of study, which was approved by the Institutional Review Board, the university had more than 30,000 enrolled students, two-thirds being undergraduate students. For all students, the average age was 21; almost 30% lived on campus; about 71% were white, 11% black, 3% Hispanic, and 15% other; males and females accounted for 42% and 53% of the student population, respectively (5% was unaccounted). The school’s most recent annual campus crime statistics show that in 2011 campus police made 42 arrests and 1,220 disciplinary actions for liquor law violations. In considering those statistics, note that, one, certain alcohol crimes (e.g., public drunkenness, DUI) are not reflected due to not being classified as liquor law violations, and, two, if multiple offenses are committed  only the sanction for the more serious offense is reported.

Campus officers who participated in this study 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 the almost 600 acre campus. Patrol officers are divided among four teams, each of which is supervised by a Sergeant and Corporal. Teams work 12-hour shifts; two teams work on any given day. During the study period, 33 officers worked in the patrol division. Their average age was 34 (range 22-57); nearly 85% were male, 70% were white, and approximately half had a college degree; a quarter of officers served in the military before joining the department; and, 27% previously worked for a municipal department.

A total of 30 ride-alongs with campus patrol officers were completed, during which 103 police-citizen encounters were observed. Data collection began in January 2011 and continued through April 2012 in the academic year. Ride-alongs took place during the evening shift on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays from about 6:30pm until about 3:00am because that is the height of alcohol-related activity on campus (Sloan & Fisher, 2011). For each ride-along, the researcher attended roll call where the supervising officer assigned the author to accompany an officer on that shift. Sixteen officers were assigned to the ride-alongs. However, a total of 26 officers—or 79% of the population—were observed sanctioning suspects because data were recorded for the sanctioning officer, who was not always the officer being accompanied on the ride-along.

As encounters unfolded, detailed descriptions of the interactions were recorded. The observation protocol, which combined closed- and open-ended categories, was partially modeled after prior observational studies of police (e.g., Mastrofski, Parks, Reiss, & Worden, 1998a). Officers had six sanction options, ranging from high to low severity: arrest; citation; student disciplinary action; written warning; verbal warning; no sanction.[ii] After each encounter, the sanctioning officer was debriefed. A debriefing is a short focused interview in which officers are asked in an open-ended fashion why they handled the interaction in a particular way (Mastrofski et al., 1998b). This procedure allowed officers to speak at length about the factors that shaped their decision-making.

The procedure for ensuring the reliability and validity of results relates to how the researcher minimized the effect of her presence on participants’ behavior and debriefing responses. Prior to beginning a ride-along, potential participants were made aware of their rights as a research subject, which includes confidentiality. Among other reasons, confidentiality is important because it reduces the motive to alter one’s behavior or responses. If confidentiality was not promised, participants may reason that their actions could become public knowledge and, therefore, manipulate their behavior and responses to garner positive public perceptions. Additionally, behaviors and comments deemed unusual, unfounded, or incomplete were questioned to reveal details and understand inconsistencies within and between participants in handling alcohol-involved crime.

Analysis proceeded in the following manner. First, fieldnotes were uploaded into NVivo 9, a qualitative data software package. Then the researcher coded each file; this involved ‘tagging’ pieces of information so that they could be retrieved for focused analysis. As not all of the observed encounters involved an alcohol-involved crime, coding began by separating the ‘alcohol-involved encounters’ from ‘other encounters.’ Next, each alcohol-involved encounter was tagged with the responding officer’s broad reason or reasons for the resulting sanction(s). Finally, each broad reason was labeled to capture smaller distinctions, such as the difference between negative and positive demeanor. To be clear, each ‘reason’ code was formed on the basis of participants’ understanding of their own behavior.

Campus Officers’ Explanations of Sanction Decisions

Twenty-eight of all observed encounters involved a person suspected of committing an alcohol-involved crime.[iii] Seventy-one percent were alcohol crimes (e.g., underage drinking, fake ID, DUI); about one-tenth were strictly over an alcohol-related crime; and, a little less than two-fifths concerned an alcohol crime and an alcohol-related crime. While all of the encounters involved an arrestable offense (in the state under study), officers infrequently resorted to this sanction. The most common outcomes were student disciplinary actions (21.4%) and citations (21.4%), followed by no sanction (17.9%), verbal warning (17.9%), arrest (17.9%), and written warning (3.6%). Campus officers referred to nine themes in explaining their sanction decisions. These explanations—or experience-near concepts—are now examined and connected to experience-distant concepts, namely prior findings on municipal officers’ sanction decisions. The objective is to illuminate the ‘black box’ of campus officer decision-making while comparing it to extant knowledge. All officer names presented below are pseudonyms.

Offense Seriousness

Offense seriousness is an assessment of a crime’s harmfulness. Research finds violent offenses are evaluated as more serious than property crimes, which are judged as more serious than victimless offenses (Sellin & Wolfgang, 1964; Warr, 1989). Also, research on policing shows officers are more likely to arrest offenders suspected of more serious crimes (Black & Reiss, 1970; Smith & Visher, 1981).

Officers who referred to offense seriousness typically explained the crime(s) in question as not harmful enough to warrant more severe sanction. For instance, Officer George meted out a student disciplinary for possession of a fake ID because ‘[i]t’s really not that serious.’ Officer Wilmington verbally warned an underage female in possession of alcohol because ‘it just wasn’t a serious incident, not a serious thing’, plus she was ‘cooperative and … wasn’t drunk.’ Instead of arresting four underage students, Officer Deen made them pour out their alcohol; he explained: ‘[They were] compliant and nice and it really wasn’t that serious. … They were in their dorm room playing video games, not causing a ruckus. They were drinking but they weren’t heavily intoxicated. … They weren’t causing harm to anyone.’ Only one participant, Officer Luke, issued a sanction due to reasoning the offense was too serious to handle leniently. The officer arrested the offender for public disorderly conduct (PDC), explaining ‘he’s out here threatening to cut people’s throats. He’s extremely intoxicated … [and] he’s trying to fight these dudes. … He’s going to take a ride to jail.’

Lack of Resources

Police officers’ sanction decisions may also be affected by the amount of available police resources, such as whether there are too few officers and patrol cars in service. When in insufficient supply, police ‘seek to husband [these] slack resources in anticipation of periods of higher demand’ (Klinger, 1997, p. 295; see also Brown 1988). Officers ‘develop rules that allocate officer time, that is, … develop prioritization regimes’ (Klinger, 1997, p. 293). Incidents deemed most serious are typically prioritized. Thus when lacking resources, officers are especially apt to leniently sanction less serious offenses because punitive measures take away attention from more serious crimes.

The campus officers exhibited concern for police resources and thus avoided arresting some suspects. For example, Officer Rodriguez ticketed a suspect for possession of a fake ID, though he was also guilty of underage drinking and PDC. The participant reasoned, ‘I could have charged him for public disorderly, underage drinking, all this stuff. I didn’t want to arrest the kid and have to have somebody take him to jail because I know [we’re] already short [on officers].’ Officer Combs explained why she issued a student disciplinary action to a suspect in lieu of arrest:

I could have taken him to jail since he was intoxicated and in the roadway, and also drunk underage. But I’m not going to tie up a patrol car. If I take him to jail, it will be at least 2 hours. I know the jail is busy tonight since there was a football game. So if I take him to jail it will leave a patrol car off the road for 2 hours. I don’t want to do that to my team. I don’t want to let them down.

Another officer, Dillon, issued disciplinary actions to students guilty of underage drinking, saying, ‘I could have given them all tickets and I surely could have taken them all to jail, but they didn’t cause me any problems. Even if I wanted to arrest them, we don’t have enough cars for all that.’


            Research shows that when officers have more evidence implicating a suspect in a crime, arrest is more likely (Black & Reiss, 1970; Smith & Visher, 1981). Lack of available evidence affects officers’ sanctioning in at least two ways: an officer may think arresting a suspect is best but be unable to because of insufficient evidence; and, an officer may perceive there is evidence to acquire but reason collecting it would be too time consuming (Klinger, 1997).

            Campus officers’ sanction decisions were affected by a lack of available evidence in three incidents. In two cases, the officers were motivated to arrest DUI suspects but unable to after they passed field sobriety tests. As Officer O’Hare stated: ‘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.’ Referring to a separate case, Officer Way explained, ‘Since he passed the field sobriety test, I can only cite him at this point. I gave him a ticket for wrong way driving, ’cause that’s all I could do.’ Another case was affected by the officer’s perception that evidence would be very difficult to muster. Officer Dillon administered student disciplinary actions to two intoxicated suspects, one of whom was underage, for defrauding a cab driver by fleeing before paying the fare. His reason for leniently sanctioning the suspects was ‘the victim didn’t want to press charges. If the victim doesn’t want to press charges it makes it that much harder for us to pursue something ourselves. It’s a lot lengthier process. So instead I’m writing them student disciplines.’


A fourth factor that weighed on participants is their sympathy for suspects. Terrill and Paoline (2007), for example, found officers are unlikely to arrest suspects deemed to be in a ‘difficult situation’ (p. 324). Three officers in the current study leniently sanctioned underage drinkers out of sympathy. In one instance, Officer Haynie stated ‘[s]he’s really drunk and needed to go home. I didn’t want to make her cry … by giving her a ticket or student discipline for the underage drinking.’ Officer Carter issued a student disciplinary action for possession of a fake ID yet opted not to punish him for underage drinking; as he put it:

 [H]e’s so drunk and needs to go to the hospital. At this point he’s a victim more than an offender. Granted he committed offenses, but I don’t want to punish him further. I think this [intoxication] and a student discipline is punishment enough.

In a third case, Officer Vance explained: ‘I could write her a ticket for it, but I’m not going to. I feel bad enough for her. She was pretty messed up. I’m sure she won’t be drinking like that for a while.’


Early police ethnographers found officers arrested intoxicated suspects for protective purposes (Brown, 1988; Westley, 1970; Wilson, 1968). Jailing reduced the possibility of suspects victimizing others. Additionally, arrest was used when suspects required medical attention; needed protection from potential victimization; or could not care for themselves and had no one to do so. By preventing problems, officers and police departments also mitigated their liability. 

            Officer Haynie named protection as the reason for his sanction decision in the following encounter. It began when he saw a severely intoxicated suspect walking in the roadway (which is a crime). After questioning the suspect, Haynie determined the person was from out of town, had no friends to call, and did not know his hotel’s location. Though the suspect ‘was compliant and wasn’t really causing a problem’, the officer decided to arrest the suspect:

I couldn’t just release him. He needed to go somewhere for his own good. … The fact of the matter is he didn’t know where his people were and had no way of getting in touch with them. I couldn’t just let him leave the scene because he was a danger to himself. He was falling in the roadway and he could wind up getting hit by a car. He could have potentially put himself in danger here or somewhere else. We don’t need any liabilities.


            Campus officers also referenced ‘excuses’, or ‘accounts [i.e., statements] in which one admits that the act in question is bad, wrong, or inappropriate but denies full responsibility’ (Scott & Lyman, 1968, p. 47). This is similar to a finding of Schafer and Mastrofski (2005), who show that police ‘us[e] their sense of justice to weigh the particulars of the situation’ (p. 236) to decide how to sanction suspects.

            An example of this arose while riding-along with Officer Way. She encountered a female exhibiting signs of public drunkenness, but ultimately chose to issue no sanction. Her explanation was ‘[s]he thinks she got roofied, 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.’ In another case, Officer Dillon stopped a minor for running a stop sign and then discovered a bag filled with beer in the trunk. When asked why he had alcohol, the suspect answered: ‘The cooler is mine. But that bag with the beers … is not. I didn’t even know that was in here. That bag’s not mine and neither are those beers. … I think it’s one of my fraternity brother’s.’ The officer decided to only issue a verbal warning; as he said, ‘I didn’t do anything about the beers because he says they’re not his and likely knew whose they were. … I’m kind of inclined to believe that what he said is true.’

Not Worth the Effort

While officers may leniently sanction suspects due to a lack of police resources, this choice may also be self-serving. Sometimes police opt to avoid the ‘hassle’ entailed in a severe sanction (Schafer & Mastrofski, 2005, p. 227), deeming it not worth the effort. An ‘officer not wanting to fill out the arrest paperwork’ is an example (Terrill & Paoline, 2007, p. 323).

One campus officer referred to self-interest as the reason behind a sanction. This case began when Officer Voight pulled over a vehicle for taking a prohibited right turn. Inside were two noticeably intoxicated underage suspects, including a licenseless driver. Both persons could have been arrested, but instead the officer issued them student disciplinary actions for underage drinking, and the driver was ticketed for driving without a license. Officer Voight explained why he issued these sanctions instead of making an arrest: 

She was drunk [and driving], and he was definitely tore up, but I was just not messing with a DUI. … Usually you would go to jail for driving without a [state issued] license, but in this case I had someone come pick them up so I didn’t have to deal with the alcohol. It’s raining, … and it would take a while to process the DUI. I just didn’t feel like dealing with this right now.


Negative demeanor refers to suspects’ displays of disrespect toward and noncompliance with officers. Disrespect is rolling eyes, turning away while being spoken, using a sarcastic tone, arguing, or cursing (Dunham & Alpert, 2009). Noncompliance is refusing to answer questions or cooperate (Engel, Sobol, & Worden, 2000). Studies find that suspects displaying a negative demeanor are more likely to be arrested (Van Maanen, 1978; Westley, 1970). Furthermore, research suggests that compared to sober suspects, intoxicated ones are more likely to exhibit a poor demeanor and therefore more likely to be arrested (Engel et al., 2000).

Participants in this study cited suspects’ negative demeanor as contributing to their arrest. Officer Haynie arrested an inebriated suspect for PDC and simple possession of marijuana because ‘he was lying to me, trying to tell me he wasn’t smoking dope.’ In another case, Officer Vance arrested a suspect for PDC and issued him a student disciplinary for minor in possession of alcohol; the participant emphasized the offender’s negative demeanor as motivating the arrest:

If he was going to be cooperative and try to get in the ambulance that was fine with me and [I’d] be done with it—figure out his name and write him a ticket. But then he decided to be combative toward EMS (emergency medical services). … [Him giving me the middle finger] was the last straw.

            Of course, demeanor is not always negative. Positive demeanor refers to suspects’ displays of respect toward and compliance with officers. As seen in many of the encounters described in the above subsections, officers repeatedly mentioned suspects’ positive demeanor in explaining lenient sanctions. Officer Wilmington noted the suspect was ‘cooperative’; Officer Deen said the suspects were ‘compliant and nice’; Officer Dillon specified ‘they didn’t cause me any problems’; and Officer Haynie thought the suspect ‘was compliant and wasn’t really causing a problem’. As expected based on prior research (see, e.g., Schafer & Mastrofski, 2005; Terrill & Paoline, 2007), these perceptions pushed officers away from arresting the suspects. However, in three of those four cases, the suspects had been drinking, which shows negative demeanor is not an inevitable effect of intoxication. 

Out of Town

            Persons who live in a community have higher ‘radial status’ therein than someone from outside it (Black, 1976). Members of the college community include students, faculty, and staff members. According to Black’s (1976) theory of law, which is applicable to police sanctioning (see, e.g., Black, 1980), suspects who are lower in radial status are more likely to be punished severely. In support of this theory, Westley (1970) found that ‘[l]ittle effort is made to arrest the town driver since the men [the police] … feel some degree of identification with him, … [but] [t]he out-of-town driver … is legitimate prey’ (p. 59).

Officer Way, however, did not conform to Black’s theory. In one case, she encountered an inebriated suspect who was stumbling down the street and, thus, committing public drunkenness. The offender could have been arrested, but instead was given a verbal warning and allowed to leave the scene in a cab. The officer chose this sanction because:

He was from out of town, … so I just thought I’d send him in a cab to his friend’s place. Although he was lost out here, at least he knows where he’s supposed to be going and he had money in his pocket for a cab. So I just thought I’d let him go.

That same officer handled another incident of public drunkenness involving two out-of-towners who were underage. Officer Way let the suspects leave the scene without penalty because ‘they were from out of town and they knew where they were going, which is right up the street, to their friend’s dorm.’ In both of these encounters, the officer explicitly mentioned the suspects’ visiting status and, at the same time, them not needing protection.

Another aspect of Black’s (1976) theory relates to his assertion that any given individual’s status is raised or lowered by the status of one’s associates. For example, a suspect from out of town has higher status if associated with a native than no one living there. According to Black’s theory, then, an out-of-town suspect who is untied to community members is more likely to be severely sanctioned than a suspect with friends living there. Thus, Officer Way’s lenient sanctioning of out-of-town suspects, described above, contradicts Black’s theory in one way but also supports it, as she noted the suspects were going to stay with friends living nearby.


In presenting campus officers’ explanations of how they sanctioned alcohol-involved offenses, each theme was discussed in light of prior findings on municipal officers. Recall that a major goal of ethnography is to connect insights on one group—in this case, a sample of campus police—to existing theory and prior findings. The virtue of doing so has been to gain a sense of to what extent campus police diverge from municipal police, which should improve knowledge of policing as a whole. All but one of the campus officers’ explanations aligned with those of municipal officers. This consistency suggests that the influences on campus officers’ discretionary decision-making may not be all that unique. If so, findings on municipal police are largely generalizable to campus police and vice versa. However, the ninth explanation—whether the suspect or an associate was from out of town—was partially incongruent with prior research (Westley, 1970) and theory (Black, 1976). What could explain the difference? It could be due to campus police adopting the in loco parentis role (Sloan, 1992) and therefore watching out for ‘their children’s friends,’ or that campus police generally resist aggressive crime fighting and severe sanctioning (Bordner & Petersen, 1983; Wolf et al., 2007). Future research should seek to determine whether other campus and municipal officers provide similar reasons for how they sanction suspects.

An important clarifying point is each theme outlined above does not necessarily work alone. As referred to throughout the findings section, multiple factors may impact a sanction decision. For instance, less serious crimes were sanctioned less severely, partly because a lack of resources limited officers’ ability to do otherwise. A lack of police resources also meant officers had less time to collect the necessary evidence to issue a more severe sanction. A few out-of-town suspects were not arrested because they knew where they were going and had a place to stay, which meant they did not need to be arrested for their own protection. And demeanor was mentioned alongside many of the other reasons provided by participants. Subsequent research should further explore the interconnections between officers’ explanations of their sanction decisions.

Another finding to delve into is why officers sometimes issue different sanctions despite providing the same explanation for the same offense. For instance, Officers Wilmington and Deen mentioned offense seriousness as the reason for sanctioning of underage possession of alcohol. However, Wilmington verbally warned the suspects whereas Deen gave no sanction. Future studies could investigate such differences by asking officers why they issued a particular sanction over every other possible sanction. To be specific, this study asked officers, ‘Why did you sanction the suspect(s) as you did?’, but future studies should ask, for example, ‘Why did you verbally warn the suspect instead of do nothing? Issue a student disciplinary? Ticket? Or arrest?’ This manner of questioning will allow for a more nuanced understanding.

How officers’ handling of alcohol-involved crime differs across campus contexts is another potentially fruitful area. While this study’s participants tended to leniently sanction alcohol-involved offenses, whether campus officers at other universities behave similarly is unknown. After all, universities greatly vary and therefore so too may campus policing. Perhaps the level of drinking at a school affects officers’ sanction decisions.  The present study’s findings are based on fieldwork at one of the nation’s top ranked party schools—a ranking that signifies a high rate of alcohol use among students. It is possible that at schools with high levels of alcohol use, campus police are more lenient toward certain alcohol-involved offenses due to believing it ‘comes with the territory’ or that severe sanctions would be too time consuming (Schafer, 2005). Alternatively, it is also plausible that campus police at such colleges develop intolerance to alcohol-involved offending and so sanction suspects more severely.

The present study has several other limitations that future research should seek to overcome. As mentioned in the method section, the generalizability of the results is unknown. If the officers or encounters observed during ride-alongs differ from those not observed at the study site then internal validity is potentially compromised; if they differ from campus police elsewhere then external validity is unknown. Methodologically, the best way around this problem is to conduct larger systematic studies of campus police. On that note, this paper has relied on qualitative data; quantitative data were also collected, but the small number of alcohol-involved encounters precludes predictive analyses. Future quantitative undertakings should include measures for officers’ sanctioning reasons in their analyses to determine whether they mediate or moderate the effect of legal and extralegal factors on sanction decisions.


Though college life and alcohol-involved crime often go hand-in-hand, prior research was yet to consider how campus police officers sanction these offenses. Nor had research explored the subjective assessments that influence campus officers’ discretionary sanctioning in such cases. This paper addressed these areas by analyzing a sample of encounters involving police of a large Southeastern university in the US. Participants were observed from the beginning to end of interactions with persons suspected of committing an alcohol-involved offense. While all of the encounters could have resulted in arrest, the most common outcomes were student disciplinary actions and citations, followed by no sanction, verbal warning, arrest, and written warning. Campus officers referred to nine themes when explaining their sanction decisions: (1) the offense was too serious to issue a less severe sanction or vice versa; (2) suspects’ negative demeanor increased sanction severity, while positive demeanor restricted sanction severity; (3) lack of resources precluded a more severe sanction; (4) more severe sanction was needed to protect the suspect; and, less severe sanctions were explained as a matter of (5) lacking evidence, (6) sympathizing with the suspect, (7) accepting excuses, (8) involving less effort, and (9) the suspect or an associate being from out of town. These findings suggest that campus officers’ sanctioning of alcohol-involved offenses is largely guided by the same forces known to affect municipal officers’ sanction decisions.


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

[ii] A student disciplinary action is a sanction given to university students who violate university policy or criminal law. It is drawn up by campus police and forwarded to the Office of Student Conduct, and may result in punishment by the university’s judicial affairs office.

[iii] This rate is similar to that of McClelland and Teplin (2001), which to date is the only empirical examination of the nature and extent of police-citizen encounters involving alcohol; they did not, however, examine officers’ sanction decisions.

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