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Do Campus Police Ruin College Students' Fun?

Published onJul 15, 2020
Do Campus Police Ruin College Students' Fun?

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

Allen, Andrea. 2017. Do campus police ruin college students’ fun? Deviant Behavior, 38(3), 334-344.

Abstract: College students drink alcohol to have fun, but this can lead to trouble with campus police. Based on qualitative data obtained via interviews with 73 students, this paper draws on the ethnographic perspective to describe and explain their perceptions of whether campus police ruin college students’ fun. Findings are discussed with respect to prior research on the topic, as well as their broader relevance to utilitarianism, police legitimacy, and procedural justice.


For many students, college is a time to drink alcohol and have fun (Herman-Kinney and Kinney 2012; Vander Ven 2011; Weiss 2013). Yet alcohol-fueled partying comes with problems, one being trouble with campus police (NIAAA 2015; Wechsler and Wuethrich 2002). For this reason, students may think that campus police are out to stop them from having a good time. This paper’s goal is to describe and explain – from the participants’ own perspective – their assessment as to whether campus police ruin students’ fun. Findings are based on qualitative data obtained during in-depth interviews with 73 college students attending a mid-sized university in metropolitan Atlanta, Georgia. In what follows, the paper begins by reviewing research on student drinking and campus crime; campus policing; and, students’ perceptions of whether campus police ruin their fun. Then the paper describes the study’s method and analytic perspective. Finally, the results are presented and discussed with respect to their implications for future research and theory.

Campus Crime, Campus Police, & Students’ Perceptions

Campus Crime

College students are notorious for drinking frequently and in large quantities (Wechsler and Wuethrich 2002). For instance, one national survey found that more than a third of them report binge drinking in the previous two weeks (Johnston et al. 2014). To paraphrase Vander Ven (2011), college students drink alcohol to have fun, but sometimes a good time goes bad (see also Weiss 2013).

There are many reasons why alcohol and crime are closely linked on college campuses. In part, this has to do with many college students drinking alcohol despite being under 21 years of age. National surveys consistently find that a large portion of underage college students imbibe. For instance, one such study finds that 62% of them report drinking in the prior thirty days (CORE 2014).

Hand-in-hand with underage drinking are an array of other common “alcohol-defined” crimes, including possession of a fake ID, driving under the influence (DUI), and public drunkenness (Allen and Jacques 2013a). For instance, studies find that two-fifths to half of all students use a fake ID to purchase alcohol (Durkin, Wolfe, and Phillips 1996; Wechsler et al. 2002), and an estimated 4.8 million students drink and drive each year (NIAAA 2015).[i]

Another reason that most campus crimes involve alcohol is because intoxication increases the likelihood of “alcohol-related crime” (Allen and Jacques 2013a). Many studies show that students intoxicated on alcohol are more likely to commit violent, property, and disorder crimes (Dowdall 2013; NIAAA 2015; Weiss 2013; Wechsler 2001). Moreover, students who have been drinking are also more likely to be the victim of violent and property crimes (Abbey 1991; Dowdall 2013; Logan, Leukefeld, and Walker 2000; Mustaine and Tewksbury 1998).

Campus Police

Campus police are responsible for handling crime on campus and enforcing universities’ codes of conduct, including that related to alcohol. There are more than 10,000 such officers serving at over 4,000 universities (Anderson 2015; Reaves 2008). Many campus law enforcement officers are sworn, meaning they have full arrest powers granted by the state or local government; in other words, they have the same powers as municipal police. Indeed, campus police engage in many of the same activities as the municipal police, including making arrests, investigating crimes, crime reporting, traffic/accident investigations, and handling hazardous materials (Reaves 2015).

Campus police are well aware that college students’ partying involves alcohol. In one study, for instance, a campus officer explained, “They’re in college and college is about drinking and having fun now and partying, breaking rules. I mean no matter what you do, kids in college are going to drink” (Allen and Jacques 2013b:215; see also, Allen and Jacques 2013c). Another put it this way: “It’s a college atmosphere. People equate college with partying hard; it’s the mentality of students. They just want to party, have a good time. They see alcohol as a way to show themselves a good time” (Allen and Jacques 2013b:215). One reason that campus police are knowledgeable about the link between drinking and partying is that it often involves or leads to crime. As one such officer said of underage drinking, “That’s what all of these [campus crimes] start with …; then it just escalates from there” (Allen and Jacques 2013b:216, brackets in original). And another officer stated, “Every Friday and Saturday night you get some kind of assault where someone gets hurt and they’re too drunk to even tell you what happens” (Allen and Jacques 2013c:347).

Campus police officers are involved in a substantial amount of sanctioning related to alcohol consumption. The most recent statistics show that in 2014, campus officers made over 25,000 arrests and meted out nearly 200,000 disciplinary actions for liquor law violations (USDOE 2014).[ii] However, these official statistics only show part of their work, as DUI and public drunkenness are not technically “liquor law violations.” Moreover, these statistics do not include alcohol-related crimes, largely because of a “Hierarchy Rule” that dictates if two or more crimes of a single offender are simultaneously sanctioned, then only the offense that is most severely punished will be recorded in the official crime count. Thus, usually if an alcohol crime happens alongside a Part I offense, then only a record of the latter will make its way into official statistics.

College Students’ Perceptions of Campus Policing

To the author’s knowledge, only two prior studies have explicitly examined college students’ views of how campus police control drinking-involved partying. One is that of Jacobsen (2015), which focused on students at “Mid-Atlantic U.” Based on an ethnographic study of campus police, she found that students perceived officers as trying to ruin their fun, mostly by shutting down parties and enforcing the law. One of her participants, Becky, described the policing as “a witch hunt. If you looked like you were going to a party, … you got pulled over.” She went on to say that “[t]he officers do things that to students seem really [like] a waste of time. You know, trying to find where the party is at” (324).

The other known study is that of Weiss (2013). She examined the perceptions of students attending “Party University,” located in an “isolated college town” (ix). Using survey and interview data, she explored students’ perceptions of how their partying on and around campus was handled by municipal police and campus police. She found that many partiers believe the police are “bullies with nothing better to do than to hassle them, bust up their parties, and impede their good time” (96). In the words of one student:

The police here spend too much time arresting underage drinkers, messing with intoxicated students, and busting up parties when they should be attempting to prevent more serious crimes. This is college. Kids are going to party. Hell, that’s why some of us are here! (96)

And another student insisted:

The police suck. They just drive around looking for a party to write up. They are quick to write tickets for drinking-related matters, but don’t seem to bother to pursue crimes when people’s cars are broken into or vandalized. All they care about is seeing how badass they can make themselves seem by messing with drunk college kids. (96)

However, not all college students view the police as trying to ruin their fun. Some of Weiss’ (2013) participants stated that the police do too little to control partying. To this end, a student said, “Police need to be more aggressive in the downtown area in arresting belligerent drunks. Too many students get wasted and take over. The cops seem oblivious, as does the school” (117). Another student sympathized with the campus police, saying:

The cops here have a very tough job. This is a college town and college kids don’t exactly care what the police say or do. I think they do the best they can. It’s not easy to control nearly twenty thousand crazy college kids, most of whom are partying all the time. (97)

To summarize the situation, there is a divide in how students view the police’s handling of partying on and around campus. As Weiss (2013:97) put it:

No matter what they do, the police are caught in an untenable situation. They are seen as the bad guys by partiers for constricting their fun. At the same time … they are seen as too lenient by many non-partiers for not doing enough to keep the peace.

 The Present Study

The present study builds on the aforementioned research of Jacobsen (2015) and Weiss (2013). In their research, the issue of whether campus police ruin students’ fun was more a side issue than the major focus. That is to say that while Jacobsen (2015) and Weiss (2013) present useful information bearing on the topic, they do not – nor do they claim to – present a thorough analysis of students’ assessments. This study provides a more complete rendering by analyzing qualitative information collected from 73 college students.

Data were obtained through audio-recorded, semi-structured interviews, which typically lasted about one hour. Of course, the Institutional Review Board (IRB) approved this study. Thus before an interview took place, each participant was informed of their rights as a research subject, including that they could opt not to answer any question or to withdraw from the study at any time. Anonymity was ensured as no identifying information was collected. Those measures are important for ethical reasons, but also because they reduce participants’ motivation to intentionally distort the truth. To further improve internal validity, the participants were probed for details to help them recall events and illuminate responses. Of course, a limitation of any self-report study is that participants may have distorted the “truth” by intentionally lying or simply by forgetting/misremembering relevant details.

The sample was generated using purposive and convenience sampling techniques. Among the participants, 85% are black, 7% non-white Hispanic, 4.2% white, 1.4% Asian/Indian, and 2.8% two or more races/ethnicities; 62% are female; 18% are married; and, a third have children. The age of participants averaged 30, with a median of 25, and a range of 19 to 74 years old. As pertains to college-specific characteristics of participants, 4% are freshman, 1% sophomores, 38% juniors, and the rest seniors; one-fifth live on campus; only one participant is a member of a Greek organization. When asked how often they drink alcohol, 2.8% of participants responded “daily”; 19.4% a couple times a week; 37.5% a couple times a month; 13.9% a couple times a year; and 26.4% not at all. To be clear, the use of nonprobability sampling means the generalizability of the findings is unknowable. With that said, the purpose of this paper is not to produce statistically generalizable findings. Rather, and to reiterate, the intent is to uncover the breadth of reasons why participants perceive campus police to ruin students’ fun or not, which may be generalizable to other students.[iii] In turn, future quantitative research can build on this paper’s findings by determining the extent to which students hold any given view and why.

The participants attend a 4-year, medium-sized public university. In 2013, enrollment was 7,261, of which all but 1% were enrolled at the undergraduate-level. The student body was 62% black, 68% female, and 64% of students were awarded Pell Grants (USDOE 2015b), indicating a majority of students come from a disadvantaged background. Roughly 44% of students were enrolled part-time. The average age was 28, and almost 50% of students were classified as non-traditional (i.e., will be at least 25 at the time of undergraduate matriculation).

In 2013, a total of eight Part I crimes were reported on campus: specifically, 1 sex offense; 1 robbery; 1 aggravated assault; 3 burglaries; and 2 motor vehicle thefts. There were no arrests for liquor law violations; judicial referrals were made for 4 liquor law violations. Table 1 compares the university’s campus crime rates (per 1,000 students) to those of other 4-year public and private (not for profit) universities with student residential housing in the broader University System of Georgia (USG). Results indicate that the current university’s Part I crime rate is similar to that of USG universities. However, USG universities recorded twice as many arrests for alcohol, and those schools were 13 times more likely to issue judicial referrals for liquor violations. These statistics suggest that compared to other USG universities as a whole, there is less alcohol use at the campus under study and/or fewer enforcement measures taken against it.

-- Table 1 about here –

The university is located in an Atlanta metro-area county. In 2014, the county’s population was 267,542. More than two-thirds of the residents were black (68%), about a quarter white, with the remainder mostly comprised of Hispanics or Latinos (13.2%) (US Census 2015). The median household income was $40,606, and approximately a quarter of residents lived below the poverty line. In 2014, the county’s violent crime rate was 328 per 100,000 persons, compared to the national rate of 365.5 per 100,000 (GBI 2014; UCR 2014). As for property offenses, the county and nation rates were, respectively, 9,751 and 2,596.1 per 100,000 people (GBI 2014; UCR 2014).

Analysis and Theoretical Perspective

Analysis began after the audio-recorded interviews were transcribed and uploaded into NVivo 10, a qualitative software package. This software was used to code the data, which entailed labelling participants’ statements with tags. The benefit of these tags is they allowed for efficient retrieval of data specific to particular topics. First, data were coded according to whether participants perceived the campus police to ruin their fun (yes or no). Second, those data were coded into emergent themes pertaining to reasons why participants believe the campus police do (not) ruin their fun. These emergent themes constitute the study’s findings.

This study’s data were analyzed in light of the “ethnographic perspective.” The goal of ethnography “is … to grasp the native’s point of view, … to realise his vision of his world” (Malinowski 1922:25, emphasis in original). What do people perceive as “happening” in their social life? And what is their understanding of those happenings? These are the questions suitable to ethnography. Thus, this paper is concerned with two basic questions: Do participants perceive campus police as ruining students’ fun? And how do they explain whether this occurs?

In addition to describing a group’s perceptions and explanations of their life, another major goal is to connect particular cultural descriptions (i.e., those of a single group) to general perspectives (Geertz 1973; Malinowski 1922). The difference between particular and general perspectives is what Geertz (2000) refers to, respectively, as “experience-near” and “experience-distant” concepts. To quote him, “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 … employ to forward their scientific … aims” (57). “Translation” is the process of recasting experience-near concepts into experience-distant ones (Geertz 2000; see also Spradley 1979:22). Put differently, translation involves taking what participants say and making it generally meaningful to academics, for instance. By doing so, an ethnographer shows how findings particular to a single group may refine, expand, or refute existing theories.

Below, the findings section will focus on the participants’ perceptions (i.e., experience-near concepts), and then the discussion section will connect them to more general perspectives (i.e., experience-distant concepts).


Participants were asked, “Do campus police ruin students’ fun?”; 31% of the participants answered ‘yes’, with the other 69% responding ‘no.’ After answering that question, each participant was asked to explain why he or she holds that perception of campus police. The paper now turns to presenting and analyzing these explanations, which is followed with a discussion of the findings. The goal is to describe and generate understanding of respondents’ assessment that campus police do or do not ruin students’ fun.

Campus Police Ruin Students’ Fun

Among participants reporting that campus police ruin students’ fun, they typically explained this perception as due to officers shutting down parties. For instance, Participant 28 said:

I’ve been here for about four years and I’ve seen about eight parties being shut down, so it’s a lot. And there’s not much going on for it to get shut down. They just do it. Maybe a complaint did it. Just one complaint, maybe. They shut down a lot of parties and stuff.

Similarly, Participant 6 stated: “Them coming to shut down campus parties, I think that can be an example [of] ruining fun for students, even though they [students] just really trying to have fun, not trying to do anything crazy.”

Participant 17 added that because campus police are ever-present, students are deterred from “going crazy” at parties in the first place:

They [campus police] cut it [fun] in half. … We can’t get as loose as we would at a Saturday night shin-dig on campus. … We just can’t. … We can’t play loud music. We can’t go crazy. We have to have some type of self-control, so we’re not as free and jubilant as we would be without their presence around.

Two other participants echoed the above comments, though conceded that the campus police are simply doing their job. Participant 5 commented:

I have mixed feelings, because I feel like in a way everything they do is to protect, but at the same time, like I said, we are college-aged. The stuff that we do at this age is “fun.” It’s not intended to be harmful, but sometimes a police [officer] might interrupt a party.

And Participant 13 put it this way:

One time I went to this little kid thing [party]. The police came. I mean they had the music and stuff up, but nobody was out of hand. Everybody was just sitting there chilling or whatever, and they just broke it up. We wasn’t even doing nothing. I mean we can’t do nothing like, we are college students and whatever. They have their rules though.

Implicit in some of above comments is that while participants understand that campus police have a duty to fulfill, they nonetheless could temper their enforcement. Participant 26 put this notion into words:

Can’t even really have a party if they enforce the rule of “you can’t have more than eight people in a room at a time,” and I feel like … sometimes they could just let it go. Unless they got a noise complaint, then it would be understandable. But if not, then they really didn’t have to enforce that rule. So, I guess that does kinda ruin fun sometimes. … I actually stay on campus, so we used to have parties all the time, and it seems like because they [campus police] have nothing else to do, that they would just come shut down all the fun.

Participant 58 also suggested that campus police should scale back enforcement of parties, reasoning that they should sympathize with students’ desire to party:

[W]e just be having fun and they want to stop all of the fun that we are having. They need to understand that we are like 20+ in age. They were young once, they know what it is like. … Last Thursday, they shut down a party I was at. There was probably like 15 people in there and he just came and knocked on the door and yelled at everybody to leave. That is on a consistent basis. There was some drinking, but the music wasn’t even loud. I guess he just saw people coming in and out.

Participant 57 disliked that the campus police were quick to shut down parties instead of, for instance, first issuing a warning: “Saturday nights, there’s nothing else to do but party. That drew the attention of the campus police. They shut down the parties and everybody has to go home. They don’t give any warnings or anything.”

Of course, some students who party with alcohol are not of legal age. Underage individuals are especially likely to have their fun ruined by police, according to Participant 46: “Students want to do a lot of things that might not be legal yet, such as like when you’re having a party you might want to get alcohol involved. So I agree they kind of ruin the fun.” And to quote Participant 52: “I feel like some students, especially the young ones, are coming to campus to have that real college life, like going out to parties. They want to underage drink so I … agree that [campus police ruin students’ fun].”

Campus Police Do Not Ruin Students’ Fun

Among participants stating that campus police do not ruin students’ fun, they typically explained their assessment by referring to officers’ professional duty. Participant 48 said it in simple terms: officers are “just doing their job by making sure the campus is secure.” Likewise, Participant 74 explained: “They’re really just looking out when it all comes down to it. They’re really just looking out, making sure everybody is safe and nothing happens.” Students’ explanations as to what could “happen” fell into two broad categories.

Some respondents spoke to the responsibility of campus police to save people engaged in fun from hurting themselves. As Participant 25 remarked, “[W]hat students consider fun can be dangerous and it’s the officer’s job to prohibit that.” Other respondents said the same:

Participant 20: That’s their job to be there; not to ruin your fun. Most people if they live on campus, they probably would say that [campus police ruin their fun], [and] they’ll say they’re doing it on purpose. They want you to have fun, but overall, they’re probably there to protect you. I don’t think they’re trying to ruin your fun.


Participant 23: Campus police don’t have to ruin anybody’s life. They’re here to protect. If students are doing things that they think is fun, and the police say that’s not fun, you’re endangering yourself. I mean getting drunk and falling down and sitting on top of the roof of this building would be fun when they’re high and intoxicated, that’s fun, and everybody’s laughing, but if the campus police see that then it’s their job, their duty, to say, “Come off of this roof” and do whatever they have to do to keep that child and everybody else in the environment safe. They’re not spoiling fun. They’re keeping you alive.

The other thing that could happen, according to participants, is that persons partaking in fun could wind up hurting others. These participants explained that campus police should and do prevent this from happening. For instance, Participant 40 recalled, “I have not seen them [campus police] try to impede on anyone’s fun unless it was endangering someone else.” Similar comments were presented by others:

Participant 3: They’re just doing their job. … I appreciate that … when people are having loud parties and stuff … they tell them they gotta quiet down and stuff, … ’cause I’m not really a party person. I try to study most of the time.


Participant 71: I mean what are you doing that you would term as “fun?” There is a difference between having fun and going into the crime side or causing hardship or trouble with people. I don’t think they ruin the fun, but if they have to put a check on somebody … it might be ruining that person’s fun, but it’s probably saving a lot of people from being victimized.


Participant 18: [N]obody should ruin your fun, and they [campus police] just wanna protect us. If you’re doing something legal, then you won’t have to worry about anything, but if you’re breaking a rule, then yeah they’re breaking your fun because you’re breaking everybody else’s fun.

 As alluded to by Participant 18, some participants perceive that campus police do not ruin the fun of students so long as they are not potentially harming themselves or others. As reasoned by Participant 27, “They’re just here to make sure that we’re safe. I’m sure they’ve been to college, they know that college is a fun time in our lives, so they’re not here just to ruin our fun.” Participant 4 said of the campus police: “I feel like their job is to make sure everybody’s safe, so if you’re having fun but not being ridiculous, they’re just gonna let you do what you gotta do. And Participant 29 commented, “Why would the police ruin your fun? If you’re having fun that’s not dangerous then I don’t think they would ruin your fun.”

Implicit in the above explanations is the argument that fun cannot or should not be potentially harmful. From that notion, it logically follows that campus police do not ruin fun because they only impede on harmful behavior. The campus police are “looking out for the students, especially if it’s something that’s just harmful and that’s not fun, … just irresponsible,” is how Participant 2 put it. Other respondents said “When the police are ruining your fun, then that means it was something you weren’t supposed to be doing” (Participant 8); “Having fun shouldn’t include disobeying the rules” (Participant 19); “You can still have fun and not commit a crime” (Participant 62); and, “Never really seen them ruin anyone’s fun. Honestly, whatever fun their ruining must have been a crime” (Participant 70).

A final theme alluded to by participants is that the campus police have a limited presence on campus and thus are not disrupting fun. Participant 31 explained: “I don’t see the police on our campus stopping anything that’s particularly fun. … I’ve never seen police breaking anything up.” Participant 50 noted that “the campus police usually just drive that car. If you want to have fun just go into a building or in your dorm room and have fun.” Participant 60 observed, “In Michigan they broke up parties, but I don’t see anything here.” Participant 72 drew on her vicarious experience, stating “I have never heard of a case where they have ruined fun.” And Participant 30’s personal experiences led her to perceive that the campus police do not ruin students’ fun: “Most of the time police don’t be there when they’re … having their fun. … People be … partying and all that [in the dorms], nobody ever comes. I feel like the campus police here are pretty lenient.”

Discussion & Conclusion

The goal of this work has been to describe and explain – from the participants’ own perspective – their assessment as to whether campus police ruin students’ fun. About a third of the 73 respondents stated that campus police do ruin students’ fun. These individuals explained this assessment as due to campus officers shutting down parties and deterring partying. They noted, too, that underage students were especially likely to have their fun ruined. While these respondents recognized that campus police were doing their job, nonetheless they thought these officers should sympathize with students’ desire to party and temper their enforcement, perhaps by first giving a warning instead of immediately shutting down the fun.

More than two in three participants stated that campus police do not ruin students’ fun. They mostly explained this sentiment by referring to officers’ professional duty to stop people from hurting themselves and others in the course of having fun. Along the same line of thinking, some participants stated fun cannot (by definition) or should not be potentially harmful, and thus campus police do not ruin fun because they only impede on harmful behavior. Participants also referred to one other theme, namely that campus police have a limited presence on campus and thus do not disrupt fun.

The Present Study versus Jacobsen (2015) and Weiss (2013)

To a degree, this study’s findings parallel those of Jacobsen (2015) and Weiss (2013). The major similarity across studies is that some participants think the police should be less controlling of students for the very reason that they are in college to have a good time.

However, the present study’s findings also differ in some respects from those of prior research. One, no participant herein said that campus police do too little to control fun, though Weiss (2013) did come across this perception. Two, unlike Jacobsen (2015) and Weiss (2013), none of the students interviewed for this research insisted that the campus police should be devoting more attention to serious crimes, instead.

At present, only informed speculation can be used to shed light on what explains the (dis)similar findings of this study and those of Jacobsen (2015) and Weiss (2013). Before outlining possibilities, it goes without saying that it is always possible that similar and different findings across studies are a methodological artifact of some sort.

The common findings across studies, for instance, may be due to deep-seated cultural norms regarding what is expected of traditional college students as conveyed in movies like Animal House and, more recently, Neighbors. Among other ways, future research could explore this possibility by delving further into the origin of students’ perceptions that college life is a time for drinking and having fun.

Among other possibilities, the differences across studies may have to do with the participants’ traits or those of the wider college community. For example, the samples were distinct in demographic traits. Participants in the present study are mostly black and attending a university with a predominantly black student body population, whereas Jacobsen (2015) and Weiss (2013) sampled students attending universities with predominantly white student body populations; and though Jacobsen (2015) does not specify the race of her participants, Weiss’ (2013) respondents were 92.9% of white and 2.6% black. Perhaps, then, students who are black or attending universities with a larger proportion of black students may be less likely to say campus police do too little about partying or should devote more attention to more serious offenses. Subsequent studies could examine this potentiality, for example, by exploring whether and why students’ race/ethnicity shapes their views of campus policing.

Crime and arrest rates may have caused differences across the studies, too. Compared to the university under study in this paper, the student body populations at Mid-Atlantic U (MAU) and Party University (PU) are about four times larger. The number of Part I crimes at each university are roughly proportional to their student body populations.[iv] However, there were zero arrests for liquor law violations at the university under study, but, for the same offense, 3.75 and 17.6 arrests per 1,000 students at MAU and PU, respectively. Though these different arrest rates likely reflect different student drinking rates across universities, they may have affected students’ perceptions of campus policing. Recall that the students at MAU and PU, but not the university under study, stated that campus police should devote more attention to more serious crimes. A tentative explanation of this difference is that students are more likely to hold that perception when they attend a university with a higher arrest rate for liquor law violations. This possibility could be tested with quantitative research.

General Implications of the Findings

The findings presented above amount to experience-near concepts, which, recall, Geertz (2000:57) describes as those which a subject “might himself naturally and effortlessly use to define what he or his fellows see, feel, think, imagine, and so on.” The paper now turns to “translating” those findings into experience-distant concepts, meaning those that “specialists … employ to forward their scientific … aims” (57). How, in other words, are the participants’ explanations of whether they think campus police ruin students’ fun relevant to the broader academic enterprise? More specifically, two questions will be addressed: What do the findings tell us about how crime should be controlled by government officials, according to students? This relates to a second, more “objective” matter: What do the findings tell us about students’ perceptions of campus police legitimacy?

It is typical of Western governments, at least, to justify prohibitions and law enforcement by referring to utilitarian philosophy. As explained by Bentham ([1789] 1988), punishment is “evil” because it causes harm, but it is morally justified if – and only if – it deters a greater amount of harm pursuant to crime. More broadly, this principle maintains that any government action – such as shutting down a party – is justified to the extent it prevents harm. As illustrated below, this principle of rational punishment is at the core of many participants’ explanations of campus police ruining students’ fun or not.

Some of the participants affirming that campus police ruin students’ fun explained this assessment by saying campus police enact more control than justified. Examples include: “Everybody was just sitting there chilling or whatever, and they just broke it up. We wasn’t even doing nothing” (Participant 13); “I feel like … sometimes they could just let it go. Unless they got a noise complaint, then it would be understandable. But if not, then they really didn’t have to enforce that rule” (Participant 26); and, “He just came and knocked on the door and yelled at everybody to leave. … There was some drinking, but the music wasn’t even loud” (Participant 58). Put differently, what participants are saying is that the campus police officers’ actions are too severe (i.e., too painful) relative to the amount of harm they prevent; i.e. they are unjustified.

Interestingly, some of the participants who think campus police do not ruin students’ fun draw on the same philosophy to explain this assessment. Perhaps this is the best place to point out that, in effect, many of the respondents answered “no” to the question of “Do campus police ruin students’ fun?” but their explanation of this answer amounts to “Yes, they may ruin students’ fun, but it is justified because it prevents harm.” Consider the following examples of how people explained their “no” answer to the above question: “[W]hat students consider fun can be dangerous and it’s the officer’s job to prohibit that” (Participant 25); “[T]hey’re breaking your fun because you’re breaking everybody else’s fun” (Participant 18); “I have not seen them [campus police] try to impede on anyone’s fun unless it was endangering someone else” (Participant 40), and, “I don’t think they ruin the fun, but if they have to put a check on somebody … it might be ruining that person’s fun, but it’s probably saving a lot of people from being victimized” (Participant 71). In short, these participants think that the campus officers’ actions are not too severe (i.e., too painful) relative to the amount of harm they prevent; i.e. they are justified.

Whether students – and citizens, more broadly – think that police actions are justified relates to perceptions, causes, and consequences of police legitimacy. By definition, a citizen who views the police as “legitimate” is someone who thinks officers ought to be obeyed (Tyler 2004). Citizens who believe the police are legitimate are more likely to comply with them, less likely to commit offenses, and more likely to request police service when victimized (Sunshine and Tyler 2003). Citizens’ views of police legitimacy are shaped, in part, by their assessment of whether the police act in a procedurally justified manner (ibid). As explained by Sunshine and Tyler (2003:514):

The procedural justice perspective argues that the legitimacy of the police is linked to public judgments about the fairness of the processes through which the police make decisions and exercise authority. If the public judges that the police exercise their authority using fair procedures, this model suggests that the public will view the police as legitimate and will cooperate with policing efforts. However, unfairness in the exercise of authority will lead to alienation, defiance, and noncooperation.

According to the procedural justice perspective, then, students’ assessments of whether campus police justly ruin students’ fun or not has broader implications for crime and control. There seem to be four possible perceptions: the campus police justly ruin students’ fun; unjustly do so; justly do not ruin their fun; or, unjustly do not do so. Participants in the present study referred to the first three possibilities, and Weiss (2013) came across the fourth. In theory, students who perceive campus officers as more just in their handling of fun will be more likely to perceive the police as legitimate and, therefore, be more likely to comply with police, obey the law, and mobilize police in response to victimization. Future research, quantitative or qualitative, should explore whether and why this theory is valid in the campus context.


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Table 1. Campus Crime Rates at the University under Study vs. Other Schools in the University System of Georgia (USG)

Campus Crime Rates 2013

(per 1,000 students)

University Under Study

(7,261 students)

University System of Georgia

(350,731 students)

Part I Crimes Reported






     Liquor Law Violations



Judicial Referrals



     Liquor Law Violations



Note: Rates for USG universities do not include offenses committed at the university under study.


[i] To the author’s knowledge, there are no available statistics on students’ public drunkenness.

[ii] Liquor law violations are defined as “the violation of state or local laws or ordinances prohibiting the manufacture, sale, purchase, transportation, possession, or use of alcoholic beverages, not including driving under the influence and drunkenness” (USDOE 2015a).

[iii] Future quantitative research will be needed to determine the extent to which students hold any given view and why.

[iv] Calculated from Jacobsen (2015:318) and Weiss (2013:197).

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