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Police Officers’ Theories of Crime

Published onJun 14, 2020
Police Officers’ Theories of Crime

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

Allen, Andrea, and Scott Jacques. 2014. Police Officers’ Theories of Crime. American Journal of Criminal Justice 39:206-227.

Abstract: What factors do police officers point to in explaining offending and victimization? A limited amount of prior research has addressed this question, despite the possibility that such theories impact police practice. Moreover, the findings that do exist are based solely on municipal police; yet a different socio-environmental context could lead officers to adopt different explanations. In the present paper, we draw on qualitative data obtained in interviews with campus police officers to explore how they explain common crimes on campus. They theorized petty larceny, underage drinking, and drug possession to result from a variety of factors, including opportunity, social learning, supervision, culture, peer pressure, the psychopharmacological effect of alcohol on crime, and deterrence; as a collective, these ideas form officers’ rational choice theories. After presenting our findings, we suggest how officers’ explanations of crime may be shaped by working in particular contexts and also affect how they police; implications for future research and police practice are discussed.


Whereas much scholarship has sought to explain crime and how it is policed, little research or theory has been directed toward documenting and understanding police officers’ own theories of crime. According to officers, what factors lead to or inhibit the offenses and victimizations they handle? That is the question for the present paper. This is an important academic topic in its own right, but especially because such theories may affect how officers go about policing.

What little is known about officers’ theories of crime is based solely on municipal police (see, e.g., Westley, 1970). To date, no study has explored how a different set of officers—campus police—explain crime. They may hold unique theories due to operating in a unique context. The areas they patrol are relatively free of violent crimes but rife with underage drinking (Dowdall, 2013; Hart, 2013; Sloan, 1994), and the populace they police is homogenous, comprised largely of 18 to 24 year old Whites of a middle-class or above upbringing (Trends in Higher Education, 2011; USDOE, 2011). Working in such an environment could shape officers’ theories of crime.

This paper begins with a review of prior research on officers’ theories of offending and victimization, including a discussion of how these explanations may be shaped by the context in which officers operate. This background material frames this paper’s empirical contribution: an analysis of university police officers’ theories of why some crimes—namely petty theft, underage drinking, and drug possession—are particularly common on their campus. We conclude by outlining the implications for future research and police practice.

Prior Research on Officers’ Theories of Crime

In the broadest sense of the term, a “theory” is a statement—or series of statements—on how one thing affects another (Homans, 1967). While few prior studies focus on officers’ theories of crime, the available literature suggests that police draw on a wide range of causal factors. In Varieties of Police Behavior, for example, Wilson (1968) comments that “police know … [s]treet crimes are affected by the weather, crimes against property by the prevailing economic conditions, crimes against the person by the racial and class composition of the community, delinquency by … family and peer group controls” (p. 59-60).

Westley’s (1970) study is perhaps the most in-depth examination of officers’ theories of crime. He posed the question to police, “What kind of person is the criminal?” (p. 65). Their responses were categorized into four broad categories: 44% of participants “saw the criminal as the average man gone wrong, a victim of his environment”; 28% “as morally weak or deficient”; 19% “as somehow biologically deficient”; and another 19% “as a shrewd, intelligent opponent” (p. 65-66). For each category, Westley provided a few of the officers’ verbatim answers, which broadly resemble classic and contemporary theories of crime, outlined below.

Rational choice theory holds that people commit crime when its potential benefit is greater than its cost relative to alternative lines of action (Clarke & Cornish, 1985; Cornish & Clarke, 1986). The most obvious cost is punishment, but offenders are not equally deterred (Jacobs, 2010). Accordingly, some officers reason that a person commits crime when “[h]e thinks he can beat it” (Westley, 1970, p. 66). Time and effort are costs as well. Officers explain that some persons are attracted to crime as a way to expedite gains and make them easier to obtain; as said by two officers: “[Criminals are j]ust … after a fast take” and “Lots of them just want that easy money” (p. 66). Another feature of rational decision making is that the number of choices is often restricted. Not everyone has equal opportunity to legally obtain what they want (Wilson, 1996; Lindegaard & Jacques, in press). In such a position, persons are apt to choose a criminal path. As explained by one officer: “They become criminals when they want something and are unable to get it without resorting to crime” (p. 66).

Social learning theory posits that people act based on their beliefs, values, and behavioral toolkit, which are the product of interaction with others (Akers & Jensen, 2006; Anderson, 1999). Variants of this theory were expressed by a few officers. Two individuals alluded to the impact of parenting on criminal dispositions. As said by one officer, “Some [criminals] when they were younger were brought up that way” (Westley, 1970, p. 66). Another officer pointed to the role of abuse in creating criminals: “It depends on a guy’s childhood. If he is kicked around as a kid … he is likely to turn that way” (Westley, 1970, p. 66). A third officer referred to the general importance of “mentoring” when he said, “The younger element is led into it by the older people” (p. 66), indicating that neighborhood processes have an effect beyond that of family life.

Social bond theory argues people are naturally inclined to offend but refrain from doing so to the extent they are attached to conventional institutions, committed to social norms, involved in conventional activities, and believe these are the proper ways to live (Hirschi, 1969). The importance of the social bond is clearly implied by an officer who said, “[A criminal] is mostly uneducated. They become criminals because they do not belong to any church or any other organization or have anybody to tell them what the truth is” (Westley, 1970, p. 66). An officer in Piliavin and Briar’s (1964) study similarly suggested that offenders lack a social bond:

They … have no regard for the law or for the police. They just don't seem to give a damn. Few of them are interested in school or getting ahead. The girls start having illegitimate kids before they are 16 years old and the boys are always ‘out for kicks.’ Furthermore, many of these kids try to run you down. They say the damnedest things to you and they seem to have absolutely no respect for you as an adult (p. 213).

Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) explain criminal involvement as the result of a person’s low self-control. This appears to be the idea of an officer who said, “They don’t want to work and they will find fifteen different ways to avoid it. … They got brains but they are running in the wrong channels.” A second officer put it this way: “They like to see whether they can’t get by the easy way and they don’t want to work” (Westley, 1970, p. 66). In other words, some criminals have the opportunity to work and the smarts to do so, but do not have the will power to make good on that circumstance. These statements also resonate with the rational choice and social bond perspectives, described above, due to indicating that offenders view crime as the easy choice and do not believe work is important.  

Research has shown the psychopharmacological and addictive properties of drugs, including alcohol, to increase offending (Goldstein, 1985). Officers have arrived at a similar conclusion. Brown (1981), for instance, characterized the patrolmen he studied as believing “Narcotics addicts … resort to burglary to support their habit” (p. 149). A police officer in Amsterdam, referring to an addict, suggested “as soon as the man ran out of heroin, he would break into a car to get money to buy his next hit” (Moskos, 2008, p. 191). A more elaborate theory was espoused by one of Westley’s officers: “A [criminal is a] drunkard to start with. This causes him to take a down path. He gets in with a bunch of punks and starts to pull capers” (Westley, 1970, p. 66). Put differently, frequent drinking puts people on the wrong track, leads them to network with offenders, and, in turn, pushes them toward committing more serious violent and predatory crimes—perhaps because their decisions are mired by alcohol.

Biologically-oriented theories give center stage to the role of genes in criminality (Lombroso, 2006 [1876]; Wright, 2009). Among Westley’s (1970) participants, this theory was most often connected to crime among Blacks. More than half (61%) of those officers suggested Blacks are biologically disposed to criminality, saying such things as they are “Naturally lazy and irresponsible”; “Still savages – just out of the jungle”; “Born criminals”; “Naturally lacking in sense of morals; and “Not fully developed mentally” (p. 101). And Brown (1981) uncovered a similar sentiment among “police in Inglewood” who “suggest that blacks are not only inferior but prone to crime” (p. 72). According to these officers, criminality is an inborn trait.

Whereas all of the above explanations of crime focus on offenders, some officers see victims as playing a causal role. As noted by Klinger (1997), officers believe “[v]ictims often bring crimes upon themselves by engaging in deviant conduct that leads the criminal to act against them” (p. 290-291). Klinger goes on to comment that “[f]rom their day-to-day contacts with victims and offenders, police officers understand this truth only too well. They know, for example, prostitutes who are beaten, drug dealers who are robbed, and alcoholics who are mugged” (p. 291). Police, then, may come to explain people’s choice to engage in illegal or merely deviant acts as a major influence on the rate of interpersonal victimization.    

The Source of Officers’ Theories

As reviewed above, officers have been found to explain crime as the product of many factors, including the weather; the economy; offenders’ genes, drug use, mental state, and social characteristics (i.e., what they have learned and their bond, class); and, victims’ deviant and criminal behavior. These theories could spring from any number of sources, such as officers’ background or on-the-job experience; the situational and environmental context; and the culture of the department, occupation, or broader society. While the effect of these sources on officers’ behavior has been extensively examined (see e.g., Worden, 1995), little research has delved into determining from what or who officers’ explanations of crime are learned.[1] This is a possible oversight, however, as officers’ theories may mediate the relationship between such factors and their behavior.

For instance, and as unambiguously expressed above by Westley’s (1970) participants, several decades ago cops outwardly proclaimed that Blacks are inherently criminal. Today, far fewer officers accept—or are willing to verbalize—explicitly racist theories of crime. Presumably, this difference is the product of change in the broader American culture (Harris, 2007). However, what people proclaim and how they act do not always match. Research provides strong evidence that discriminatory practices still occur (see, e.g., Kochel, Wilson, & Mastrofski, 2011; Lundman & Kaufman, 2003). This could mean that officers are keeping their racist theories secret or that subconscious processes are at work (Harris, 2007; Smith & Alpert, 2007; Worrall, 2013).

Other potential sources of officers’ theories are organizational pressure, the scholarly literature, and personal experience. Chief Bratton, for instance, adopted broken windows theory (Wilson & Kelling, 1982) after reading about it in The Atlantic; in his words, he “supported [the theory] … because I had already lived it” and that “convinced me of the absolute wisdom of that approach” (Bratton, 1998, p. 139). He then went on to teach—or what some might call pressure—his subordinate NYPD officers to engage in broken windows policing.

Yet another possibility is that the demographic makeup of a police district may impart particular lessons and theories on officers. If, for instance, a community is overwhelmingly comprised of White and middle-class individuals and the vast majority of both offenders and officers are of that ilk, a plausible outcome of this is that police will be less likely to explain crime by referencing race and class. Instead, officers may conclude that crime is the outcome of such factors as opportunity, immaturity, intoxication, and so on.

The College Context

Prior work on officers’ theories of crime solely portends to municipal police. Another group of officers, namely university campus police, may hold different explanations of offending and victimization due to working in a unique context.

For one, college campuses are relatively safe environments and yet plagued by heavy drinking. Relatively few violent crimes are perpetrated there (Hart, 2013; Sloan, 1994), with the exception of sexual assault (Fisher, Daigle, & Cullen, 2010). Serious offenses are more often property crimes, specifically burglary and larceny (Bromley, 1995; Fox & Hellman, 1985; Sloan, 1994). The most common type of campus crime is underage drinking (Dowdall, 2013). For instance, nationwide in 2010 there were more than 30,000 student arrests for offenses related to alcohol, 90% of which occurred on campus (USDOE, 2010; see also Dowdall, 2013; NCHA, 2011). Moreover, many of the violent and property crimes that happen on campus involve an intoxicated offender or victim (Dowdall, 2013; NIAAA, 2012).

A second reason campus policing is unique has to do with the populace’s demographic traits. The majority of full-time college students are of a middle-class or above upbringing, White, and 18 to 24 years old (Trends in Higher Education, 2011; USDOE, 2011). Persons of that class and race/ethnicity are less involved in violent crimes—as offenders and victims—than lower-class persons or those belonging to a racial/ethnic minority group (FBI, 2012; Truman & Planty, 2012). However, Whites and socially-advantaged youth are equally or more likely to engage in alcohol and illicit drug use (Snyder & Sickmund, 2006). Also noteworthy is that the height of criminal involvement in the average person’s lifespan coincides with the “college years”—namely, when a person is 18 to 24 years of age (Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990). Thus, the average demographic traits of the college student body are associated with both lower and higher crime rates. 

Method & Data

The present paper explores campus officers’ theories of why offenses and victimizations happen on university grounds. The qualitative data on which the findings are based come from in-depth, semi-structured interviews with 16 campus police officers of a large university in the Southeastern United States. At this university, the average age of undergraduate students is 21, and 77% are White; statistics on household or parental income are not made available by the university; the most telling available statistic is that Pell Grants were provided to less than one-fifth of students, suggesting most students are not from an impoverished background.[2]

Officers interviewed for this study were asked to identify the crime they most frequently handle on campus and explain why. Also, because the majority of campus crimes involve alcohol (CSACU, 1994; Wechsler, 2001), officers were asked to name the alcohol crime (e.g., underage drinking/possession, public drunkenness, fake ID use/possession, DUI) they handle most often and explain why it is particularly common. We focus on the crimes participants identify as most common because it stands to reason that their theories of these offenses—relative to infrequent ones—are most likely to be well-developed.

The population from which the sample was gathered is officers who ever worked in the patrol division (n=33) during the time of the study. This division is responsible for responding to calls for service and proactively patrolling campus by vehicle, bicycle, and foot. [3] The population included linemen (i.e., patrol officers) and a supervising staff of a Major, Lieutenant, four Sergeants, and four Corporals.[4] The sample was generated through nonrandom sampling; participant officers were assigned to the researcher by the supervising officer on-duty. No participant refused to participate or terminated the interview early. Although the sample size (n=16) is small by quantitative standards, it is sufficient by qualitative standards, especially given that it consists of approximately half the population size and that this paper’s focus is relatively specific.

Seventy-five percent of the sample is white, 12% black, and 12% Hispanic. About two-thirds of the sample is male. Officers’ ages range from 22 to 46, with an average age of 29.44 years. More than 80% have a 4-year college degree. The number of years worked for the campus police department averaged 2.56, with a range from less than one to ten years. One in five officers had ever worked for another law enforcement agency.

Interviews with participants were audio-recorded and typically lasted 30 minutes to an hour. Questions followed an open-ended interview protocol. Internal validity may have been compromised if participants resorted to lying, distortion or were incapable of sufficiently recalling past incidents. Active steps were taken to minimize these problems. For one, all participants were promised confidentiality; below, all names attached to quotes are pseudonyms. Second, it was made clear to participants that they could choose not to discuss anything that they felt uncomfortable with and could terminate participation at any point. Third, participants were probed for details to help them recall prior events and shed light on unusual or unfounded responses.

The data were analyzed with NVivo, a qualitative data software package. NVivo was used to code qualitative data into categories that are tagged, meaning labeled, to be later retrieved for focused analysis. Data were first coded into broad categories: most common crime generally and most common alcohol crime. Smaller distinctions within each of these broad categories were subsequently coded according to officers’ explanations of its perceived commonness (see Glaser & Strauss, 1967).

Campus Officers’ Theories of the Most Common Crimes

Annual campus crime statistics for the department show that in 2011—which is when data for this study were collected—police investigated 10 harassment/stalking cases, 10 sexual assaults, 6 cases of relationship violence, 1 forcible sex offense, 2 robberies, 8 aggravated assaults, 22 motor vehicle thefts, 113 burglaries, and 283 larcenies. Campus officers also made 42 and 113 arrests for liquor and drug law violations, respectively. Thus, the most common campus crimes according to official statistics are alcohol and drug violations as well as larceny (i.e., theft, excluding that of motor vehicles).

The participants’ perceptions of offense frequency largely reflect the official statistics. In answering the question of what is the most common crime in their experience, half of respondents cited petty larceny (50%) (i.e., theft less than $2,000), 43.75% mentioned underage drinking, and one participant referred to drug possession (6.25%); the other crime types were not mentioned. As relates more narrowly to alcohol offenses, all but one of the participants cited underage drinking as the most common crime they handle.[5]

In the following pages, we present and discuss officers’ explanations for why petty larceny, underage drinking, and drug possession are particularly common on their campus. To be clear, the purpose of this paper is not to determine what officers perceive as the most common crime. Rather, the goal is to describe and generate understanding of their working theories about why these offense types are frequent occurrences on university grounds.

Petty Larceny

Half of the officers cited petty larceny as the most common crime in their experience. Several participants explained its frequency as due to students failing to properly secure their property, thereby allowing other students or nonstudents to take it (see Fisher, Sloan, Cullen & Lu, 1997; Sloan, Fisher, & Wilkins, 1995). As Officer O’Hare explained, “the people who are owning the items don’t secure their items like they’re supposed to.” Officer Combs relayed the following story:

Officer Combs: The students are told [to be careful]. They take the Freshmen 101 class, [and] Officer James goes in and talks to them about all the stuff they should do to keep their stuff safe. They don’t listen to him. They go to the bathroom and they leave their laptop sitting on a table. Somebody walks by and stashes it. They leave their room unlocked and they have a flat-screen TV, an Xbox, a couple hundred dollars’ worth of books. Somebody comes in and snatches it. I mean it’s kind of like if you want your property, you should take care of it. You should secure it. But, they don’t listen whenever you try to convey it to them.

Although the two above officers are essentially blaming victims for not being responsible with their property and not heeding officers’ warnings about the dangers of not securing it, the latter quote points to another factor in petty larceny: a high number of motivated offenders. Officer Wilson alluded to the same theory:

Officer Wilson: Our [student] community is not exactly responsible when it comes to their property. They don’t do a very good job of securing it. They don’t do a very good job of keeping up with it. And there are lots of people out there that will take advantage of any opportunity they have to steal someone else’s stuff.

To Officer Wilson, unsecured property provides persons who come across it with a serendipitous opportunity to steal (see Jacobs, 2010). Officer Pfeiffer agrees with that notion, but only insofar as theft by students goes. Some nonstudents, he believes, come to campus for the very purpose of pilfering, whereas student thieves merely stumble upon abandoned property by happenstance:

Officer Pfeiffer: The opportunity is there [to steal on campus] for some of these people. There’s people who come on campus who are not students looking to steal, [and] people who are students and the only reason they steal is because the opportunity is there, [for example] somebody leaves their iPod or something sittin’ out.

Thus, Officer Pfeiffer distinguishes nonstudent and student thieves by forethought.

As reasoned by Officer Strickland, quoted below, many nonstudent thieves are motivated to steal on campus because of its openness: “It’s easy access … [to] student rooms, inside buildings. … Because we are not a closed-off campus, like smaller colleges are gated, it allows anybody and everybody to come to campus grounds.” What Strickland implies is that the lack of campus security allows nonstudents access to campus to score items. When subsequently asked where thefts most commonly happen, she answered:

Officer Strickland: The library, ’cause generally you think campus is pretty safe—no one’s going to come on there and try to take anything—and so people start studying, want to take a break, walk away from their laptops or iPhones on the desk and someone will snatch it up and walk out. … [S]ome offenders will just walk straight out the front door with the laptop tucked in their pants. It’s kind of crazy.

Taken together, the above quotes indicate that officers theorize students to be too trusting and therefore careless with their property, which provides people with the opportunity to steal and even attracts some thieves to campus.

Two officers explained students’ over-trustworthiness of others as due to immaturity. In Officer Deen’s estimation, “These kids are very easy to steal from. Because these kids have no life experiences they trust everything and they leave themselves vulnerable because of that to predators.” This view holds that when students have yet to be victimized they see people as upright and thus fail to take precautions against victimization. Officer Way proffered a similar explanation of petty larceny victimization:

Officer Way: I guess ’cause the kids are naïve and they don’t believe they need to lock their stuff up. I mean they’re very careless. They just leave stuff everywhere. I think they believe that everyone who goes to college is a good person. [They basically say to themselves,] “I’m gonna leave, I don’t have a problem leaving my laptop sitting here.” You talk to nine out of ten kids, they all sleep with their dorm rooms unlocked. And it’s like they just don’t believe something is going to happen to them.

Another officer, Combs, agreed with Deen and Way that students’ immaturity is a catalyst of petty larcenies, but also pointed to lack of parental supervision and guidance as an explanatory factor:

Officer Combs: Well, I mean they’re college kids; still trying to figure it out. So it’s like mom and daddy’s not holding their hand and that’s a change, so it’s not something they’re accustomed to. They’re not in their safety zone. So they’re still trying to learn it, so I mean you’ll learn by experience whenever you lose half your stuff.

In short, the above officers view students as immature in the sense that they are inexperienced. Immaturity was explained as the product of students’ lacking victimization experiences, as their property had been protected by their parents before going off to college. This inexperience led students to be overly trusting of others and, in turn, careless with their property, ultimately resulting in the loss of their items.

Underage Drinking

Seven officers said underage drinking is the most common crime generally in their experience, and all but one respondent cited it as the most common alcohol crime specifically. Some of the officers’ reasoning for why this offense occurs so frequently is common sense (see Geertz, 1983; McNulty, 2013; Worrall, 2013, p. 310-1). Officer Vance simply asserted “[e]verybody does it.” Officer O’Hare explained that “because many college students are 20 years of age or younger there is a high rate of underage drinking.” And Officer Carter said, “It’s college and a lot of the people that are drinking are underage.” These participants apparently assume that because they police a college, where a sizeable portion of the student population is under the legal drinking age, they are going to have a high frequency of underage drinking incidents to handle.

A few officers elaborated on this idea. They theorized that students are dead set on having fun in college and that drinking is an indispensable part of doing so (see also Weiss, 2013). For instance, Officer Strickland explained students’ drinking as “[t]hey’re in college and they just want to have fun.” Officer Way provided a similar statement: “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.” Officer George said, “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.” Simply put, these officers reason that students drink alcohol—regardless of their age—due to them thinking that college life and drinking are about having a good time.

According to some of the respondents, such a mentality is driven by a college culture that promotes alcohol consumption (see also Sperber, 2000; Vander Ven, 2011). Officer Voight put it this way:

Officer Voight: The only thing I can speculate is that kids now feel like they’re free, they’re in college. You can see the movies how they portray college, so they actually think that when they come to college that is how they have to act. … I don’t know if the kids are feeling they’re free from the bondage of the parents and now they can do whatever it is that they want to do. It’s a combination of … stuff.

Voight reasons that if students believe partying is socially accepted and promoted on campus then they are more likely to break the law by drinking underage (see Weiss, 2013). He also cites lack of parental supervision, essentially arguing that because college students are no longer under the direct control of their parents there is less to deter and prevent them from committing this offense. Officer Strickland provided a similar theory of underage drinking: “They’re in college and they just want to have fun. … Don’t have mom and dad looking over their shoulders. It’s freedom, freedom.” And Officer Moore simply hypothesized, “Underage drinking happens so much. … Maybe it’s because they’re away from momma and daddy.”

Officer Wilmington also referred to college culture and lack of parental control in theorizing underage drinking, but added that opportunities to illegally obtain alcohol abound (see also Wechsler, Lee, Nelson, & Kuo, 2002). She explained that underage students have friends who are of the legal drinking age and willing to purchase it for them, and also noted there are retail sellers who do not strictly follow the law:

Officer Wilmington: I know this sounds cliché but you’re in college and that’s just part of the lifestyle. Kids are finally away from their parents, they’re sensing some freedom. It’s easier to [obtain] you know; you have older friends that have IDs and can go purchase alcohol for you; you have 5 Points [and the bars] right down the street, which don’t really check IDs very well. So it’s just, it’s almost like it’s a rite of passage or something to the kids. I mean some of the kids have told me that you know, “It’s college, this is what we do, we party.” So that’s why I think it would be the most common crime that we deal with.

Another reason underage drinking commonly comes to officers’ attention is intoxication leads to other offenses.[6] Several officers saw alcohol consumption as the catalyst behind many of the crimes they investigate (e.g., public drunkenness, public disorderly), and explained that this inadvertently leads to the uncovering of underage drinking. Asked which crime is the most common in his experience, Officer Vance replied, “It would probably just be the underage drinking. That’s what all of these [campus crimes] start with, underage drinking; then it just escalates from there.” Officer Miller held a similar view.

Officer Miller: Underage drinking by far [is the most common crime] … because nine times out of ten we get out with somebody that has any alcohol in their system, it’s an underage drinker. I mean usually folks that do have the [legal] age to drink and stuff like that, it’s very uncommon [for them to be disorderly] … For the most part it seems to be underage [people] because once they consume the alcohol they don’t know how to act.

According to these two respondents, when students drink alcohol, especially in excess, they are more likely to behave in ways that attract the attention of police (e.g., stumbling down the street, which is symptomatic of public drunkenness, and being loud and boisterous, which is public disorderly). Upon making contact with such suspects, officers can determine whether these persons are intoxicated and under the legal drinking age by either reviewing his/her ID card or running a status-check with the National Crime Information Center.[7]

Above, Officer Miller also mentions that underage students are less capable of controlling themselves after drinking, perhaps due to not yet learning how to control their drinking (cf. Becker, 1963). Officer Deen suggested there is a learning curve associated with drinking whereby students come to make smarter decisions as they age and become more experienced with alcohol:

Officer Deen: Almost all the kids on campus drink [regardless of] whether they’re of age or not of age. But underage drinking by far because the ones that are of age are usually kind of a little bit more smart about it, … smarter about their decisions they make.

What these officers suggest, then, is that underage drinkers are disproportionately involved in alcohol-induced disorderly behavior because they have not learned to control themselves to the same extent as do more experienced, older drinkers. In effect, these officers are suggesting a learning process that mediates the relationship between alcohol consumption and the commission of alcohol-related crimes that lead to contact with police.

Drug Possession

One participant, Officer Voight, said drug possession—or, more specifically, marijuana possession—is the most common crime in his experience:

Officer Voight: I think the most common crime, the most common one, would be marijuana use in the dorms or anywhere around campus. It’s rampant. It’s like an epidemic. … Society leads them [students] to think that it’s cool to use marijuana. Like some people was saying that the media have glorified some of these actors and singers that do use a drug and alcohol and the kids think that it’s cool to do and they’ll come here and think it’s a cool thing to do. Also not knowing the dangers it can get. They don’t know what it’s laced with. A case in point is this kid about a year back had some marijuana, I don’t know what it was laced with. But he had a bad trip. And he almost killed himself. It was blood everywhere, the kid tried to kill himself.

This officer’s theory of why marijuana possession is a common crime is that “society” portrays illicit drug use as a “cool”—meaning likeable—activity that provides users with status among peers (see also Mohamed & Fritsvold, 2010). This idea reflects that of officers who explained underage drinking as the product of cultural influences. Also, Voight perceives that students are unaware of the physical harms that can result from drug use and, therefore, are not deterred from using it (see also Jacques & Allen, 2013). 

Although Voight is the only participant to name drug possession as the most common crime, a few officers suggested it is almost as common as petty larceny and underage drinking. For instance, Officer Dillon reported, “Underage drinking [is the most common crime I handle], but the drug use is definitely on the rise; mainly marijuana. I’ve seen crack here and there, but marijuana is probably the most prevalent. … It’s easy to obtain and obviously cheaper than the other ones.” The reason, as this officer sees it, that marijuana use is widespread on campus is that it is readily available (echoing a similar explanation of underage drinking) and relatively affordable as compared to other illicit substances. Officer George also agrees that marijuana possession is almost as common as petty larceny saying, “Definitely petty larceny [is the most common]. Probably the second closest is the SPMJ [simple possession of marijuana]. That might be number one recently. … It’s probably a toss-up.” This officer went on explain this offense’s commonness:

Officer George: Probably because it’s so easy to get [is why it’s so common]. People don’t think of marijuana as, I mean they know it’s an illegal drug but they don’t think of it as being that bad. … It’s just they feel like, “If I get caught with it, it’s not that big of a deal. Everybody smokes”; [it’s kind of] like when they drinking. They know they not supposed to be doing it but they feel like, “Well everybody else is doing it. I might as well do it too.”

Officer George agrees with his colleagues that the accessibility of marijuana is a reason for its commonness. But he also adds that the prevalence of marijuana use makes it is seemingly less deviant—at least in the minds of students (see Cooney & Burt, 2008).

Another participant, Officer Way, stated that she deals with marijuana possession almost as much as petty larceny because it is readily available, but mentions other factors to explain the frequency of such incidents she handles: 

Officer Way: I think it’s the fact that it’s very available, definitely. … The marijuana is pretty abundant this year. … I don’t think it’s hard for them to get it if they want it. Especially on college. I think it’s someone knows someone who knows someone … And this year it just seems like there’s a lot of people selling it on campus. … Kids smoke weed in their dorm rooms all the time or in the parking lots. … They’re in college and they’re experimenting in shit. [Factor] B: I think they fall into peer pressure a lot. [Factor] C: they’re just now independent, getting away from their family, away from the rules of mom and dad; they want to be rebellious. And you know I just think it’s the college experience. I think that’s what they view it as. They don’t really have rules, like they think they can smoke weed ’cause that’s what people in college do. They don’t see their friends getting caught.

One reason, in addition to prevalence on campus, Way thinks marijuana possession is so common is peer pressure, likely due to the party culture which she alludes to in several places within the quote. Another explanation for rampant marijuana use among college students is lack of parental control, which “at home” would curtail this crime. Finally, Officer Way states that marijuana use is particularly common because students are not deterred from doing so as they continually see their friends do it without suffering any punishment (see Stafford & Warr, 1993).

Officers’ Theories Summarized

To recap, the campus officers almost unanimously cited petty larceny and underage drinking as the crimes they handle most often. One officer named drug possession as the most frequent offense he deals with, although other participants mentioned that it is almost as common as petty larceny and underage drinking. The major goal of this paper, however, is not to determine which offense types are the most common perceptually. Instead, the objective is to describe and understand officers’ explanations of crime. What factors, in their mind, lead people to offend or be victimized on campus?

Participants’ explanation of why petty larceny frequently occurs reflects Cohen and Felson’s (1979) opportunity theory of crime. It holds that predatory offenses happen when a motivated offender and suitable target coalesce in the absence of a capable guardian. According to the officers, the high rate of petty larceny on campus is the result of students not properly securing their valuable property, thus attracting motivated offenders to campus and giving them the opportunity to steal. Additionally, one officer pointed out that students are not entirely to blame for the loss of their property because nonstudents can easily access campus, as it is open to the public rather than gated off; the implication is the campus is less guarded than it could be.

But why do students fail to guard their possessions? The participants reasoned that the answer is not ignorance, as students are educated in the Freshmen 101 class about how to protect their property. A few officers suggested that students do not sufficiently protect their belongings because they are too trusting of others, a consequence of social learning (Akers & Jensen, 2006). For this reason they leave their doors unlocked and their laptop computers sitting alone on library tables, for instance. Officers attribute students’ over-trust of others to lacking life experiences—specifically victimizations—that would teach them to be wary. A reason they lack such negative experiences is their possessions had been previously safeguarded by their parents.

Officers perceived parents as significant in another way. Several participants proposed that underage students begin to drink regularly in college because they are away from their parents for the first time—i.e., they are no longer being regularly supervised. Officer Way provided a similar explanation of why marijuana possession is common. These assertions are in line with prior work on social control, which holds parental supervision as a key determinant of delinquent behavior (Kornhauser, 1978; Sampson & Laub, 1993).

The reasons, according to officers, students were motivated to engage in underage drinking or smoke marijuana are cultural and a facet of social learning (Akers & Jensen, 2006; Sutherland, 1937). Participants viewed the media as portraying alcohol and drug use as “cool” activities and, furthermore, casting college as the place to partake in and experiment with these deviant behaviors (Vander Ven, 2011; Weiss, 2013). These cultural expectations lead students to engage in prohibited activities, and incentivize them to pressure each other into consumption. The officers’ observations of the party culture at their institution is on par given that the university has been named by the Princeton Review as one of the top 20 party schools for 2012, determined by “students’ combined scores for ‘lots of beer,’ ‘lots of hard liquor,’ ‘reefer madness’ (a measure of how much marijuana is available), and ‘popularity of fraternities and sororities,’ to a score for ‘amount of time students study’” (Weiss, 2013, p. xv). 

Respondents also explained that peer relations increase underage drinking and drug use by providing the network structure necessary for trade. According to the officers, students work with each other to make sure whoever wants alcohol or marijuana has it. Persons who are of the legal drinking age purchase alcohol for their friends who are still too young to buy legally (see Wechsler et al., 2002), and marijuana smokers call on their classmates who are dealers (see Mohamed & Fritsvold, 2010).

The pro-substance college culture leads not simply to consumption but to binging. Officers believe that students, whether underage or not, drink to become drunk, which has two effects (Goldstein, 1985). One is that heavy drinking leads to public drunkenness, unless the drinker stays on private property, of course. The second effect of heavy drinking is that intoxication increases a person’s odds of committing an alcohol-related offense, or what Goldstein calls a psychopharmacological crime (see Goldstein, 1985), such as disorderly behavior. Both public drunkenness and the commission of alcohol-related crimes increase the rate at which officers encounter underage drinkers, according to participants.

A couple officers mentioned that underage drinkers are far more likely to commit an alcohol-related crime than persons 21 years of age and older. These participants felt that underage drinkers make dumber decisions than of-age drinkers. Although no officer elaborated as to why this difference exists, it could be the result of social learning tied to parental supervision. Consider the following line of reasoning. Officers explained underage drinking as due to students gaining freedom from parental supervision. Prior to college, parents were better able to prevent their children from drinking regularly or heavily. Because of that parental supervision, however, these youngsters did not learn about the importance of consuming alcohol in moderation. College life comes with a learning curve: students figure out through vicarious or personal experiences to stop themselves from over-consumption or, at least, from engaging in public displays of drunkenness and alcohol-related crime. 

A final factor referred to by officers is students’ perceptions of the costs associated with marijuana use, which is an aspect of deterrence theory (Gibbs, 1975). One officer suggested that marijuana smoking is more prevalent than other forms of illicit drug use (e.g., cocaine, ecstasy) because it is relatively inexpensive. Several participants noted that students view marijuana use as unlikely to result in health problems (see also Jacques & Allen, 2013). Others suggested that students are unafraid of legal problems that can result from a drug charge because they do not see their drug using friends being caught (see Stafford & Warr, 1993). And one officer pointed out that marijuana use is so common among students that it is not socially stigmatizing (see Goffman, 1963).

Clearly, these officers draw on a variety of factors to explain petty larceny, underage drinking, and drug possession. Though participants typically spoke of each explanation in a piecemeal fashion, it is possible to string their ideas into a multivariate theory. Such an approach resembles Clarke and Cornish’s (1985) rational choice framework of modeling offenses. Theories nested in that framework are supposed to explain both “the involvement of particular individuals in crime” (i.e., background or distal factors) as well as “the occurrence of criminal events” (i.e., situational or proximal factors) (p. 164) and, moreover, be “specific to particular kinds of crime” (p. 165). That orientation toward theorizing crime resembles the collective ideas of our participants. Regarding petty theft, the officers explained that particular individuals—namely those without prior victimization experiences due to parental protection—are too trusting of others and therefore fail to guard their property; thus, they are stolen from when their unattended property is crossed by a motivated offender. Figure 1 depicts officers’ “rational choice theory” of why petty larceny theft frequently happens on campus and comes to their attention.


It is also possible to frame officers’ explanations of underage drinking and marijuana possession as a rational choice theory. People become motivated to engage in those crimes due to adopting a pro-substance culture that is the product of medial portrayals of alcohol/drug use and college life, while, at the same time, not perceiving any greats costs associated with offending in this manner. Students turn motivation into action when surrounded by like-minded peers who both pressure and facilitate substance use by making alcohol and marijuana available. Before college, parental supervision deterred and prevented these college students from imbibing as often or in such great amounts; living away from home removed that hindrance, the result of which is more consumption. Figure 2 is a summary depiction of officers’ explanations for why underage drinking and marijuana possession are common occurrences on campus; this figure also includes participants’ theory that they respond to a great deal of underage drinking because of public drunkenness and alcohol-related crime, which are partially the product of inexperience with consumption. 


Discussion & Conclusion

Prior scholarship suggests that officers explain crime as the outcome of everything from the weather to offenders’ genes, drug use, mental processes, social characteristics, and victims’ deviant and criminal activities (see especially Klinger, 1997; Westley, 1970; Wilson, 1968). As outlined above, the campus officers featured in the present study echoed some of these explanations, but also suggested additional ideas. They explained the most common campus crimes in their experience—petty theft, underage drinking and drug (marijuana) possession—as the result of interactions between a variety of factors, including opportunity, social learning, supervision, culture, peer pressure, the psychopharmacological effect of alcohol on crime, and deterrence (or rather the lack thereof). When combined, this plethora of ideas represent officers’ “rational choice” (Clarke & Cornish, 1985) theories of these crimes on campus.

A notable finding, to here unmentioned, regards the factors that participants did not mention in explaining crime. No officer pointed to race (or genes) and social class in explaining why people committed offenses or were victimized. The absence of these variables could be due to the officers policing a community that is largely White and of an unimpoverished background. These are factors that the wider culture typically views as less likely to be correlated with offending; what is more, the majority of participants are themselves White, and all earned a middle-class income. For these reasons, we posit, the officers were unlikely to explain the crimes they commonly handle as stemming from offenders’ or victims’ race/ethnicity and class. An indirect piece of evidence for this hypothesis is that one demographic characteristic in which students and officers diverged—namely age—was alluded to as being highly correlated with a variety of the participants’ explanatory variables, including being too trusting and not knowing “how to handle” one’s alcohol.

Implications for Future Research

The nature of our method and data means the validity and generalizability of our findings are tentative. The purpose of qualitative research is theory development, as we have sought to do in this paper (Emerson, Fretz, & Shaw, 2011; King, Keohane, & Verba, 1994; Shadish, Cook, & Campbell, 2002, p. 478), whereas quantitative research is far better suited, of course, to testing theories and giving a sense of scale. Given these methods’ respective strengths, future qualitative and quantitative research could build on the present study in a number of ways, outlined below.

One is to systematically study officers working in different districts and/or for different organizations. This would allow for uncovering the full spectrum of officers’ theories. Are there factors other than those mentioned in prior research or presented in the present paper that officers draw on to explain crime? What about anomie, gender, or labeling, among other possibilities? A related question is what proportion of officers accepts any given theory. What percent of officers—as a whole or in a given district or department—explain crime as the result of, say, opportunity, low self-control, or any other variable?

Another line of inquiry is to uncover the degree of generalizability officers attribute to their theories. At what rate do officers use a single theory to explain all crime types, populations, times, and places? Do they hold different theories for different kinds of offenses and victimizations, people, and situations? We found, for instance, that our participants had one theory for petty theft but another for underage drinking and marijuana possession.

This paper focused on the crimes that our respondents cited as most common in their experience as campus police officers. As explained above, this was our approach because we reason officers’ explanations of frequent crimes—compared to infrequent ones—would be better developed. However, a consequence of this is that our analysis focuses on only three crime types that are relatively unserious. Also, we do not know how our participants explain crimes that happen elsewhere (e.g., where respondents reside or formerly worked as a municipal officer). Future research should explore officers’ explanations of other crimes in multiple environments. We suspect it would be most useful to collect information on the full spectrum of crimes—rather than just a few of any given sort (e.g., common or serious ones)—because this would best enable researchers to fully uncover the variety of factors that officers use to explain crime.

Yet another research path is to focus on why officers subscribe to any given theory. Which factors have the largest and smallest influence on their adoption of particular theories? Is it organizational pressure, personal background, on-the-job experience, the occupational culture, the situational and environmental context, the wider culture, or something else? Again, while qualitative research can suggest some possibilities in this regard, as we have done in this paper, quantitative research should be used to determine the significance and effect size of these factors on officers’ theories of crime.

One approach to determining the causes of officers’ explanations is to document and analyze the “average” or “agglomerated” theories of a given police district or department. In the present paper, our final analysis amounted to connecting our participants’ theories into a coherent whole, which we labeled their “rational choice” theories. A different approach would be to focus on individual officers. What explains each officer’s theory of crime? Why are some officers closer to or further from the average? And to what extent and why does any given officer’s theory shape that of his or her peers?

Implications for Police Practice

Officers’ theories of crime are important because they likely affect how they police. As an example, let us return to the case of Chief Bratton and the NYPD. Prior to his tenure as Chief of Police, the department—according to Bratton—“had been content to focus on reacting to crime while accepting no responsibility for reducing, let alone preventing, it. Crime, the theory went, was caused by societal problems that were impervious to police intervention” (p. xi, emphasis added; see also Zimring, 2012). As he saw it, his first task on the job was to reeducate patrol officers by convincing them that crime could be prevented through the implementation of broken windows policing (Bratton, 1998, p. 152), which he had read of in The Atlantic and accepted due to his on-the-job experience. This example suggests that to explain policing—such as the use of preventive versus reactionary tactics—we need to understand how officers explain crime (e.g., societal problems vs. disorder), including the genesis of those theories (e.g., organizational influence, reading scholarly articles, and/or personal experience).

This paper has focused on describing and organizing officers’ theories. The next step—and ultimate objective of research in this area—will be to document the effect of officers’ theories on their policing. Although tentative, a couple hypotheses may be drawn from our findings. One hypothesis echoes the above example of the NYPD: when officers subscribe to theories of crime that focus on variables outside their immediate control, police are more likely to focus on detecting and punishing cases than preventing their occurrence. The participants in our study were strongly in agreement that preventing crime was beyond their capability. For instance, Officer Way stated that “no matter what you do, kids in college are going to drink.” And while Officer Combs recognized the importance of warning potential victims to protect their property, as is done in Freshman 101 class, she was resigned to the theory that they simply would not do so. When officers hold such theories of offending and victimization, they may be discouraged from taking preventive policing measures and therefore fall back on reactive practices.

A second hypothesis is that when officers theorize crime to occur largely irrespective of its costs to offenders (i.e., the certainty, severity, or severity of punishment), police are more apt to sanction leniently. The rationale here is that officers are less motivated to dispense punishment when they are less confident in its ability to deter offenses; this is a cost-benefit analysis. It must be remembered that ticketing and arresting suspects can be a “pain”—in Bentham’s (1988 [1789]) sense of the word—for officers because it takes time and effort, whereas lenient sanctions (e.g., verbal warning) come with no or at least less cost of this kind. To this point, several participants in our study explained that students engage in underage drinking and marijuana possession because these offenders underestimate or are unconcerned with the legal consequences. The implication of this is that these officers will be less motivated to spend the time and effort on severely sanctioning such offenders because such sanctions do not deter, in their mind. Future research should explore these kinds of connections between officers’ theories of crime and policing.

At present, it is unknown how and to what extent officers’ theories of crime affect police practice. To fill that void, future research should simultaneously collect information on officers’ conscious ideas and, to the extent possible, their subconscious decision making. On the one hand, officers’ explanations of offending and victimization provide them with a reasoned-basis on which to act. On the other hand, officers’ subconscious information processing leads them to behave in a practically instinctual manner (Worrall, 2013). For example, involuntary stereotype formation by officers has been shown to result in discriminatory practices against Blacks and Hispanics (Smith & Alpert, 2007). And officers are said to be guided by a “sixth sense”—or “ability … to sense when something is amiss or out of place” (Worrall, 2013, p. 318). The study of whether, when, why, and to what effect reasoned action overpowers, works alongside, or is trumped by subconscious decision making should prove a fruitful area for future work.


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Figure 1. Campus Police Officers’ Rational Choice Theory of Petty Larceny 

Figure 2. Campus Police Officers’ Rational Choice Theory of Underage Drinking & Marijuana Possession


[1] To be clear, we are not referring to nor examining officers’ attitudes toward crime, offenders, or victims. Attitudes are distinct from theories; the former is “affect for or against a psychological object” (Thurstone, 1931, p. 261) whereas the latter is—in the broad sense of the term—a statement about how one thing affects another (Homans, 1967). For an example of research on officers’ attitudes, see Worden (1989, 1995).

[2] To protect the confidentiality of participants we cannot reveal the name of the university. Accordingly, we have not provided a full reference for the source information on the university’s statistics.

[3] The study was approved by the Institutional Review Board (IRB), and access to the campus police department was granted by its Director.

[4] Although the population was 33, that number fluctuated throughout the course of the study due to officers being terminated, retiring, leaving the job, being hired, or being transferred to another unit within the police department. Because data collection spanned the course of one and a half years (January 2011 through April 2012), the population from which the sample could be drawn was continually changing.

[5] The one outlying officer stated that public drunkenness is the most frequent.

[6] This is not a theory of what causes underage drinking per se, but rather one of what causes police to detect these cases on a frequent basis.

[7] 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). Some law enforcement officers are able to access information from NCIC themselves, when they have computers equipped with the program in their patrol cars.

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