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Stop and Question Campus Policing

Published onJul 15, 2020
Stop and Question Campus Policing

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

Allen, Andrea. 2016. Stop and question campus policing. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, 39(3), 507-520.

Abstract: Purpose: Stopping and questioning citizens is an important policing tactic. Prior research explores citizens’ perceptions of stop and question policing, or “SQP”, by municipal police, yet campus police also use this tactic. This paper aims to understand whether and why college students believe campus police should have the right to engage in SQP. Design/Methodology/Approach: Data come from 73 in-depth interviews with students attending a university in metropolitan Atlanta, GA. The sample was obtained through convenience and purposive sampling methods. Data were analyzed using the ethnographic perspective. Findings: Most participants said campus police should practice SQP for three reasons: it is their job; SQP is an effective crime fighting tactic; and, SQP is useful given the features and functions of college campuses. Among participants who said campus police should not practice SQP, they were concerned that officers would use it in unwarranted situations. Practical Implications: Findings suggest that the police might be able to reduce resistance to SQP by clearly explaining to suspects why they are being stopped and also clarifying to the public the legal thresholds for stopping and questioning citizens. Originality/Value: This is the first study to consider perceptions of SQP by campus police. The findings also shed light on how campus and municipal police are (dis)similar in perceptions of their SQP practices.


An important policing tactic is to stop and question citizens.[1] It is useful for uncovering offenses and obtaining information to help prevent crime (La Vigne et al., 2014). However, stop and question policing, or “SQP” for short, is controversial because it may infringe on individuals’ civil liberties (Gelman et al., 2007). The trade-off between less crime and less liberty begs the question of whether citizens support officers’ use of SQP. Prior studies on this topic focus on municipal policing. Yet, campus police also use SQP.

Should campus officers have the right to engage in SQP? Why or why not? This paper addresses these questions by analyzing qualitative data obtained during in-depth interviews with 73 college students. After presenting the findings, the paper concludes by examining how they relate to prior research and their practical implications for policing. First, though, the paper reviews the legal basis for SQP, prior research on citizens’ perceptions of it, and the basics of campus policing, including how it is different from and similar to municipal policing.

Stop and Question Policing

The Supreme Court established SQP as a constitutional policing tactic in Terry v. Ohio (1968). The Justices ruled that officers may stop and question pedestrians if they have “reasonable suspicion,” which the court decided was a lower legal standard than probable cause. A person is reasonably suspicious when an officer observes and can objectively articulate that the individual may be engaging in criminal activity. In its ruling, the Supreme Court explained the purpose of SQP as follows:

One general interest is of course that of effective crime prevention and detection; it is this interest which underlies the recognition that a police officer may in appropriate circumstances and in an appropriate manner approach a person for purposes of investigating possibly criminal behavior even though there is no probable cause to make an arrest. (Terry v. Ohio, 1968, 392 U.S. 1, 22)

Additionally, officers were given license to frisk (i.e., perform a brief search or pat down) suspects for weapons to help ensure their safety and the public’s.

Since Terry v. Ohio (1968), the Court has decided other cases that influence how police conduct pedestrian stops. These subsequent cases have “broadened the definition of reasonable suspicion” and “expanded the potential sources of reasonable suspicion to include reported observations by informants and behavioral, probabilistic, or profiling factors that extend beyond an officer’s personal observation” (La Vigne et al., 2014, p. 11-12).

Citizens’ Perceptions of Stop and Question Policing

The fact that SQP is within the law does not necessarily mean that citizens approve of the tactic in practice or principle. Put differently, citizens may question whether SQP is fair when used (i.e., across cases) and whether it should be used at all (i.e., generally speaking). Research on these issues concerning municipal police are reviewed directly below.[2] Note, the use of SQP by campus officers, specifically, is reviewed in a later section.

Is Stop and Question Fair When Used?

Most research on citizens’ views of SQP examines whether it is perceived as procedurally and distributively fair in practice. Procedural fairness refers to “the fairness of the processes employed to reach specific outcomes or decisions” (Tankebe, 2013, p. 111). Distributive fairness is the extent to which police fairly distribute services across people and communities (Sunshine and Tyler, 2003b, p. 514). To understand perceptions of SQP, researchers have collected both quantitative and qualitative data on the matter.

The findings of survey research are mixed on whether citizens perceive SPQ as fair. In the nationally representative 2011 Police-Public Contact Survey, for instance, a majority of respondents who had been stopped reported favorable views of the police: 64% believed the police stopped them for a legitimate reason, and 70% thought the police behaved properly during the stop (Langton and Durose, 2013). Yet, there are findings like that of the 2011 Vera Institute study, wherein more than 80% of respondents disagreed “the officer had a good reason to talk to me,” and nearly 75% thought officers treated them unfairly in the stop (Fratello et al., 2013; see also Grynbaum and Connelly, 2012). 

Qualitative research sheds further light on citizens’ views of SQP in practice. In one such study, Weitzer (1999) explored perceptions of SQP across neighborhoods. He discovered that lower-class black residents were more likely than middle-class whites and blacks to view police stops as unwarranted and a form of harassment. Another example is Gau and Brunson’s (2010) study of disadvantaged black and white male youth. Some participants recognized the utility of SQP for checking suspicious persons. However, participants also reported being frequently stopped and questioned for “no reason.” Many attributed this to being “poor, urban males” (p. 267). Moreover, respondents described police stops as overly aggressive and harassing, such as one who said, “[Police officers] ride around and see what’s going on, but some be harassing. They just jump out on you, tell you to put your hands up” (p. 267). Another participant recalled a time when the police drove by and yelled, “[G]et ya’ll asses off this corner. What the fuck are ya’ll big stupid motherfuckers doing?”

Should Stop and Question Be Used?

This paper’s focus is within the second area of research on citizens’ perceptions of SQP: namely, whether and why they believe the police should have the right to do so generally speaking. This issue is an aspect of police empowerment, defined as the public’s “willingness to support policies that empower the police to use their discretion in enforcing the law” (Sunshine and Tyler, 2003b, p. 514). Theoretically, police empowerment may be a cause or an effect.

Regarding the former, perceptions of police empowerment may affect police-citizen encounters. This is because individuals who view the police as empowered are more likely to comply with officers’ orders (Sunshine and Tyler, 2003b). Thus, persons who feel the police should not be empowered may be more likely to disobey, resist, or assault officers. And, in turn, such a reaction by citizens may increase their odds of being severely sanctioned or having force used against them (Engel et al., 2000; Worden and Shepard, 1996; but see Klinger, 1994, 1996).

As an effect, the question is whether and why citizens believe the police should be empowered to use discretionary tactics. Prior work in this vein finds that citizens’ perceptions of police empowerment are affected by moral solidarity and evaluations of police performance in fighting crime (Sunshine and Tyler, 2003a, p. 154).[3] Research also indicates that police empowerment is influenced by perceptions of police legitimacy and distributive fairness; the perceived risk of being caught and sanctioned for wrongdoing by the police; and, one’s neighborhood conditions (Sunshine and Tyler, 2003b).

Campus Policing

Campus policing in the United States dates to the 19th century (Sloan, 1992). The first campus police officers were more akin to security guards. Nowadays, however, campus police are largely equivalent to municipal police. As their name suggests, the distinguishing factor is that campus officers are responsible for handling crime on university campuses and enforcing universities’ student codes of conduct. At present, there are more than 10,000 campus officers working at over 4,000 universities (Anderson, 2015; Reaves, 2008).

Campus police are similar to municipal police in several ways. Many campus police officers are sworn, meaning they are vested by the state or local government with the power to arrest. Campus police wear similar uniforms to and carry the same types of weapons (e.g., firearms, tasers, pepper spray) as municipal officers. They perform many of the same duties like making arrests, investigating crimes, crime reporting, traffic/accident investigations, and handling hazardous materials (Reaves, 2015). Campus law enforcement agencies tend to emulate the organizational and operational styles of many municipal police departments, and also adopt similar policies (e.g., use of force) and codes of conduct (Paoline and Sloan, 2003).

 Aspects of the campus context, however, make campus policing unique. Compared to municipal police, campus police tend to patrol largely homogenous populations made up of mostly 18- to 24- year old students (Miller and Pan, 1987). Persons this age are, on average, at the height of their criminal involvement and most likely to be involved in illicit drug and alcohol consumption (FBI, 2013).

Unlike municipal police, especially those in urban or socially disadvantaged communities, campus police tend to handle few serious crimes. When they do occur, they most often are cases of sexual and domestic assault (White House Task Force, 2014; Shorey et al., 2011) or property offenses (Dowdall, 2013).

Another feature of the university context that shapes campus policing is alcohol. College students, after all, are notorious for drinking frequently and in large amounts (Dowdall, 2013). This relates to crime in many ways, including underage drinking and driving under the influence. Also, intoxicated students are more likely to be involved in violent and property offenses as both offenders and victims (Allen and Jacques, 2013).

Yet another way that campus police are distinct from municipal police is the former must perform in accordance with university administrators, who generally resist aggressive law enforcement tactics and sanctioning (Wolf et al., 2007). Administrators may restrict campus police activity to avoid dissuading students from attending the university (Bordner and Petersen, 1983). However, campus police feel pressure to ensure the safety of campus; after all, a reputation as being unsafe can too lead to reduced enrollment rates (Carr and Ward, 2006).

Campus police satisfy both demands—to not engage in too much or too little enforcement—by more aggressively policing “outsiders” to the campus, rather than students. This enforcement philosophy differs from municipal departments that exercise a more legalistic style of policing wherein there is “a single standard of community conduct—that which the law prescribes—rather than different standards for [different groups]” (Wilson, 1968, p. 172).

Campus Police Officers’ Use of Stop and Question

Like their municipal counterpart, campus police use SQP to prevent and respond to offenses. For instance, an article in The Chicago Reporter reported that “[i]n the 10 months since the University of Chicago Police Department began publishing data on its daily contacts with community members, UCPD officers have stopped and questioned 166 people on foot” (Newman, 2016). And as with municipal officers’ use of SQP, its use by campus police is controversial. The aforementioned article noted that of the 166 people who were stopped and questioned, “All but 11 … were African-American,” suggesting that racial discrimination is occurring (Newman, 2016).

However, there is little academic research on campus officers’ use of SQP. To the author’s knowledge, this topic has not been the primary focus of any empirical study. Rather, the only mentions of it arise briefly and in the course of discussing broader issues (e.g., campus police-community relations).[4] Perhaps the earliest work to touch on the issue is Slim’s Table. Therein, Duneier (1992) quotes a resident as saying the following of the University of Chicago and its police force:

On the staff of the university they have mostly black police but not but a few black professors. … They have black people for their own protection. Let me tell you about campus security. … The campus police wait outside these coffee shops, these bookstores, and they follow the students home for protection. And if you are black, and they don’t know you, they follow you. … The University of Chicago has a bad image among the intelligent and not so intelligent black people. Nobody likes the U. of C. police because they harass black people. … Black policemen harass black people. … Sometimes the black police officers come up to you and they’ll say, “How’s things going in the neighborhood?” They want to get information out of you. I just say, “I wouldn’t know.”

Campus officers’ use of SQP also comes up in Patillo’s (2007) Black on the Block. For a few pages, she examines citizens’ perceptions of how the University of Chicago police department exerts control on areas adjacent to campus. At a meeting between university representatives and residents of an adjacent area, Patillo asked the campus police chief, “Have there been any complaints since the university has started patrolling Woodlawn?” (p. 287). He answered:

Three that I can remember … Two were from people who were arrested for selling drugs, and those were unfounded. The third was when two young men were stopped on the way to church, and that one needed to be addressed. (p. 287)

Patillo notes, though, that her concern was apparently unshared by other community residents attending the meeting: “[They] looked at me as if I had landed from outer space. … [They] welcomed any assistance … to tame the neighborhood.” This example shows that citizens may hold different views of whether and why campus officers should engage in SQP.

The Present Study

This paper makes two contributions to research on citizens’ perceptions of SQP. One, it examines perceptions of campus police empowerment, rather than that of municipal police. Two, it sheds qualitative light on why people believe campus police should or should not have the power to stop and question pedestrians.

The study’s data come from in-depth interviews with 73 college students. Interviews were audio-recorded, semi-structured, and typically lasted one hour. Among other questions, participants were asked, “Do you think campus police should have the right to stop and question people?” They were, then, asked to explain their answer, so as to uncover the range of reasons students think campus police should, or should not, have the right to stop and question people.

Before data collection, the Institutional Review Board (IRB) approved this study. Participants were informed of their rights as research subjects, prior to the commencement of an interview. Specifically, they were advised that they could choose to not answer any question and withdraw from the study at any time. No identifying information was collected from participants, so anonymity was guaranteed.

In addition to protecting participants, the above measures were also intended to reduce their motivation to misrepresent the “truth” – i.e., what they were “really” thinking. Additional threats to internal validity were diminished by probing for details to help recall events or shed light on responses. Despite these steps, it is still possible that participants distorted the truth by intentionally withholding information, lying, or not recalling relevant details.

The sample was obtained via purposive and convenience sampling techniques. Of course, because the sample was generated in a nonprobablilistic way means that the findings may not be generalizable. However, this is not a major problem given that the purpose of this study is to uncover the breadth of reasons why students believe campus police should (not) have the right to stop and question individuals.

The participants are 85% black, 7% non-white Hispanic, 4.2% white, 1.4% Asian/Indian, and 2.8% two or more races/ethnicities. Nearly two-thirds are female; 18% married; and a third reported having children. Participants’ average age is 30, the median 25, and the range 19-74. College-specific characteristics are as follows: 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.

Participants attend a 4-year, medium-sized public university. Enrollment in 2013 was 7,261; only 1% were enrolled at the graduate-level. Demographically, students were 62% black and 68% female, and 64% received the Pell Grant (USDOE, 2015), indicating a disadvantaged background. About 44% of students were enrolled part-time. And the average age of students was 28, with almost 50% classified as non-traditional (i.e., will be at least 25 at the time of undergraduate matriculation).

The university under study had eight Part I crimes reported on campus in 2013. These included 1 sex offense; 1 robbery; 1 aggravated assault; 3 burglaries; and 2 motor vehicle thefts. No arrests were made for liquor law violations, though 4 judicial referrals were meted out. In reality, though, the number of crimes on campus is far greater as many crimes go unreported, contributing to the dark figure of crime.

This university is located in a metro-Atlanta county. In 2014, its population was 266,197 (GBI, 2014). Sixty-eight percent of residents were black, about a quarter white, with the remainder comprised mostly of Hispanics or Latinos (13.2%) (US Census, 2015). The reported median household income was $40,606. About a quarter of residents lived below the poverty line. In 2014, the county’s violent crime rate was 590 per 100,000 persons, compared to the national rate of 366 per 100,000 (GBI 2014; UCR 2014). As for property offenses, the county and nation’s rates were, respectively, 4,567 and 2,596 per 100,000 people (GBI 2014; UCR 2014).


Broadly speaking, there are two ways to address the question of “why” citizens support policies that empower the police to use their discretion in enforcing the law. Prior research does so by drawing on existing social scientific concepts and theories (Sunshine and Tyler, 2003a, b). This paper, however, takes an ethnographic approach. The goal of ethnography is to understand how citizens think of issues in their own minds (see, e.g., Geertz, 1973, 1983; Malinowski, 1922; Spradley, 1979). Herein, then, the goal is to uncover the “local” or “natural” concepts and theories that participants use to arrive at and explain their stance on campus police empowerment as relates specifically to SQP.  

Toward that end, the audio-recorded interviews were transcribed verbatim and uploaded into NVivo 10 for analysis. The qualitative software package allows for data to be coded (i.e., labeled) with tags. These tags allow the researcher to retrieve data pertaining to particular topics. Analysis proceeded as follows: first, data were coded according to whether participants perceived that campus and municipal police should have the right to stop and question citizens. Then, data were coded for emergent themes concerning why participants believe campus police should (not) have the right to stop and question. This study’s findings are the emergent themes.


When asked whether campus police should have the right to stop and question people, 80% of participants said “yes” and the rest said “no.” Then they were asked to explain their answer. In what follows, students’ qualitative explanations for why campus police should or should not be able to stop and question individuals are presented.

Campus Police Should Have the Right to Stop and Question

Respondents provided 3 sets of explanations for why campus police should possess the power to engage in SQP. One explanation is that this tactic is simply part and parcel with officers’ job. Participants 21 and 53 said, respectively, “[T]hat’s what they’re here for” and “They are only doing their job.” Likewise, Participant 60 believes “it is within their rights and authority to do that [stop and question]. You can’t really do anything about it.”

A second reason respondents supported SQP is that they deemed it an effective policing tactic. Referring to officers, Participant 56 explained, “If they feel like something is going on, I think they should [be able to stop and question].” Participant 27 reasoned, “If they’re stopping somebody, usually something’s going on on campus and they’re trying to figure it out and make sure you have nothing to do with it.” And Participants 2 and 70 stated, respectively, “[I]f it’s just asking questions to make sure the campus is safe, then they have that right,” and “[T]hey have a job to keep university students and staff safe.”

As reviewed above, one use of SQP is to investigate recently committed crimes. Participant 26 referred to this when explaining his support for the tactic: “I feel like if it’s pertaining to a situation that has recently occurred, or has just happened, then they should definitely have the ability to question people.”

SQP is also used to prevent offenses. According to Participant 55, campus police should have SQP at their disposal because “[t]hey need to be able to be preemptive in stopping certain things from happening.” Participant 63 noted, “[I]f they see someone that looks suspect or dangerous to the students, then yes, they should [stop and question them]”. Participant 151 elaborated, “The campus police are supposed to protect the campus. … [T]hey [campus officers] need to have the power to stop somebody and say, ‘Hey, you don’t look like you’re doing something right,’ and talk to them.” In a similar vein, Participant 64 posited:

[N]ot everybody that carry bags around walking to the class are students, so stopping and questioning people will make them [campus police] know who exactly is a student, who exactly is a criminal, who is here for a different reason. So that will enable them to detect who is a criminal, who is here for any other motive than to study.

As campus crime goes, at least, mass shootings are the worst case scenario. Some respondents thought that SQP could prevent such plots from unfolding. Participant 23, for instance, reflected: “[W]ith the history of this country, with so many campus shootings and stabbings, I think a campus police should stop anybody he suspects of doing anything wrong.” Another respondent explained:

Participant 43: [E]ven though we are a small campus, something major could still occur here. Somebody could bomb it. Somebody can come and shoot it up, so I feel that if they think someone is going to pose a threat to the majority or even one person, then they should stop [and question] them.

And Participant 46 said, “[F]or all the campus shootings that have happened and stuff, they should be able to just come up to a student and just kind of question them real quick if to them they seem suspicious.”

A third set of explanations in support of SQP pertain to the features of college campuses. Participant 28 believed, for example, “Especially at school it’s [stopping and questioning] more important … than other places because it’s a place of education. Everything should be in order, and if an officer needs information, he should be able to get it.” Participant 54 explained his support by saying campus “is a big area with a lot of people in one area and they [campus police] need to know what’s going on.” While campuses may be big, Participant 5’s concern was that “we are confined within these buildings, so if something looks suspicious, I do feel like they should stop and question for the safety of everyone.”

As seen above, respondents differentiated between “insiders” – students, staff, and faculty – and “outsiders”, i.e. persons not affiliated with the university. Interviewees deemed it the job of campus police to protect the former from the latter.

Participant 6: You know we have people from off campus that aren’t students that come on campus and they can do pretty bad things. … I think it’s more on their [campus police] behalf to ask questions to find out if that student is really a student or not, just for protection of the campus and the rest of the students.

Many participants’ explanations of their support for SQP by campus police intermixed the tactic’s perceived benefits with the responsibility of protecting insiders from outsiders. “[A]nybody can come up here”, said Participant 11, “so in order to protect the students as well as the staff and the other people that’s here, I think they should do it [stop and question people].” In Participant 23’s words: “I strongly agree with that [stopping and questioning] because the campus police is protecting a certain environment and they’re protecting students, and anybody coming on this campus should have a valid reason for being here.” Participant 48 put it this way:

As far as campus police, they have to monitor who was on campus and who is not supposed to be on campus. So, I think if they see someone suspicious or if they think that you don’t belong or go to this school I think they have the opportunity to stop and question you.

And consider how Participant 57 explained the issue:

I can agree with that [stopping and questioning] because you have a lot of children on campus; a lot of kids. You even have the kids that are 16 and still in high school that go there. To be concerned with their safety, I feel like they [campus police] should ask questions because you have people that come in and out of campus all the time that don’t even go to this school that can just be looking around to see what they can come back and get. … At my old school, … [a] lot of local people that stayed in that community liked to target the students there. They would come on campus and just sit around and watch. You could tell they didn’t belong on campus. I saw officers stop and question what people were doing there and telling them if they weren’t students that they didn’t need to be on campus. They would tell them to leave.

            Participant 61’s justification for supporting SQP touched not only on protection but also other sorts of service. As he explained, this tactic is useful for protecting students as well helping them in other ways:

 [I]f the campus police is doing his or her job, the main interest is the safety of the students and the campus. So, if somebody is walking on the campus and they have never seen them before, they not carrying no books and just walking around, sometimes you can ask them questions like “do they attend the school” or “where they are going?” They can either help you or they can tell you that if you are not a student that you need to leave. So, I agree that they should have the ability to stop and question people.    

            It is worth adding that interviewees in support of stop and question did not give campus officers carte blanche. “[T]hey have to have a legitimate reason”, said Participant 32, “You have to be doing something questionable for them to stop you and ask you what you’re doing.” Other statements to this effect include: “You have to have a purpose” (Participant 73); “Just for the fact they on campus don’t [mean you should] question people just to question them; … if it’s a valid reason, then sure” (Participant 3); “[T]hey need to have a legitimate reason why they do it” (Participant 36); and, “[T]here would have to be an actual reason why you would approach someone. If they’re just hanging out or something like that, I wouldn’t say it’d be a good idea” (Participant 15). And on that note, the paper now turns to students’ explanations of why they do not think officers should be able to use SQP.

Campus Police Should Not Have the Right to Stop and Question

Interviewees’ explanations for why campus police should not have the right to engage in SQP were less variegated. Simply put, they generally thought that SQP is not warranted, except perhaps in certain circumstances. Of course, this reason relates back to the idea concluding the last subsection: namely, campus officers should use SQP only if they have a legitimate reason to do so. Whereas the above participants supported SQP with this caveat in mind, the following respondents generally did not support the tactic due to an overriding fear that campus police would use it without good reason.

 When asked his opinion on the issue, for instance, Participant 50 simply remarked, “[If] the person is not doing anything, why stop them?” Similarly, Participant 51 said rhetorically, “[W]hat are they stopping people for?” And Participant 9 argued: “[I]f I’m minding my business, and you’re stopping to ask me questions, I need to know what it’s relevant to, ’cause if I know I haven’t done anything, why are you asking me questions?”

Participant 29 explained, “No, I don’t agree that they should at their own will stop and question someone, especially if they’re not doing anything wrong.” As she alludes to, respondents who generally did not support SQP granted its acceptability in certain situations. Participant 29, for example, went on to say:

If there’s a situation that’s going on, if there’s a crowd of people that may suspect that something unsettling may be going on, [then yes, they should stop and ask what’s going on. [For example,] “Why’s everybody gathering here?” In a situation like that [stopping and questioning is okay], but if you’re just walking down the street by yourself then, no, I don’t think they should be able to stop you if you’re not doing anything wrong. But if it’s a crowd of people that’s out of the norm, then yeah, that may be a little suspicious.

Whereas Participant 29 granted that SQP may be acceptable in situations without clear evidence of crime, other respondents set a higher threshold. They held that the only situations warranting SQP were those in which an officer had probable cause, which, recall, is a higher legal standard than reasonable suspicion. Referring to campus police, Participant 72 stated, “They shouldn’t have the right to stop and question people unless there is probable cause.” Participant 37 thought “you gotta have probable cause [to stop and question].” Participant 41 asserted, “Unless they commit an infraction, then no [they shouldn’t stop and question].” And Participant 8 thought that if campus police “don’t have probable cause, then they shouldn’t have to stop anyone on campus. If you going to school, they shouldn’t be stopping you just because they [campus police] say something may be wrong.”

Discussion & Conclusion

To briefly summarize the findings, the majority of participants in this study agreed that campus police should be empowered to use SQP. Respondents provided three interrelated explanations for this assessment: it is simply the job of campus police to do so; it is an effective policing tactic; and, moreover, it is useful given the features and functions of college campuses. Interviewees explained that SQP was effective for preventing crime, including dreaded mass shootings, and responding to recently committed offenses. They also noted that SQP is justified because campus police are supposed to protect insiders – students, staff and faculty – from outsiders; and, because campuses are places of education (and thus should be orderly) that spread over a large area (which makes them more difficult to control), yet confine students in buildings and classrooms therein (which limits their ability to defend themselves). However, many of the respondents who generally believed that SQP was an appropriate campus policing tactic added that there should be a legitimate reason for the stop to occur.

Not all respondents were in general support of campus officers using SQP. Among those not in favor, the concern was that police would use this tactic despite not having a good reason to do so. As they explained, if individuals have done nothing wrong – or, at least, there is no evidence of wrongdoing – then campus police should not be able to stop and question them. With that said, many of these interviewees granted that certain circumstances called for SQP, namely those in which campus officers had probable cause to investigate a suspect.

A similarity across participant groups – for and against SQP by campus police – is the view that the tactics’ appropriateness depends on the situation. This finding shows that people may share a concern yet come to different conclusions about its implications. But how could it be that people with the same concern about SQP arrive at different assessments of its general appropriateness? A few possibilities are apparent.

Persons who across the board are more concerned about victimization, or less involved in lawbreaking, may be more likely to deem SQP acceptable. For example, college students who are involved in underage drinking or illicit drug use may be more concerned about being stopped and questioned by campus police and, therefore, less likely to approve of this practice or hold a higher threshold for granting its appropriateness. Or, people with personal and vicarious victimization experiences may be more worried about being violently attacked or stolen from and, thus, in more support of police tactics meant to prevent and respond to such events. Another possibility is that people who hold the police in higher regard may be more likely to deem SQP acceptable. Research finds that when citizens view the police as legitimate, they are more likely to embolden the police to perform their duties (Sunshine and Tyler, 2003b). In effect, this would mean that individuals who see the police as legitimate may be more likely to feel that officers should be able to use SQP.

One contribution of this paper is it informs how campus and municipal police are similar and different in citizens’ minds. One consistency is that citizens recognize the value of SQP for handling crime and thereby ensuring the public’s safety (see, e.g., Grynbaum and Connelly, 2012). Relatedly, participants in both this study and Gau and Brunson’s (2010) believe that SQP is useful for investigating suspicious persons, albeit police should not do so without (good) reason.

An issue that, to the author’s knowledge, has not featured prominently in prior research on citizens’ views of SQP is the notion that this tactic differentially affects insiders and outsiders (but see Weitzer, 1999). Several participants herein thought of SQP as a matter of protecting campus insiders from outsiders. Broadly, this resonates with community policing models and, in fact, was a key feature of Wilson and Kelling’s (1982) vision of broken windows policing. As originally conceived, this policing model was supposed to involve officers working with residents to determine what would be allowed in the community and then expelling – via arrest or other means – nonresidents who violated those rules or laws. Yet in reality, this policing model has been criticized as targeting the very residents it is supposed to protect from outsiders. One New York City resident, for example, told of a time in which, “The cop was like, ‘What are you doing in the hallway?’ and I said, ‘What do you mean what am I doing in the hallway? I live here’” (Ruderman, 2012). 

As relates to the campus context, specifically, the insider/outsider distinction reflects the in loco parentis doctrine. This doctrine maintains that campus officers should act in the place of students’ parents by protecting them from outsiders, rather than treat them principally as offenders (Sloan, 1992). Relatedly, this doctrine holds that campus police should arrest outsiders but refer student offenders to the university’s judicial system (Sloan, 1992). This notion is a longstanding feature of discussions about how campus policing should be done, as it has been around since the mid-twentieth century. Though no participant outright named this doctrine, they thought campus policing should follow this model.

A final noteworthy difference between this study’s findings and those of prior research pertains to perceptions of racial discrimination by officers and how this relates to perceptions of what they should be allowed to do. It is understandable that members of racial/ethnic minority groups who view policing as biased against them would be less likely to support discretionary police tactics like SQP. Participants in earlier studies spoke to this very point, yet none of the present study’s participants referred to this as a reason for not supporting SQP by campus police officers – despite the fact that 85% of participants are black.

Why did participants in the present study not mention race when explaining their views of whether campus police should use SQP? Perhaps it is because they do not associate campus policing with racial discrimination. Or, conversely, perhaps because race is such a salient feature of their interactions with police it becomes taken for granted and, thus, left unmentioned. Future research should do more to examine why minority members do not assess police practices in light of racial/ethnic issues or, at least, do not verbalize this matter during interviews (see also Jacques, in press).

 On that note, this paper has implications for future research and policing. Regarding the former, the major path forward is an outgrowth of the present’s study findings and limitations. Given the unknown generalizability of the results, future work should examine whether other students, or citizens more broadly, provide similar reasons for why they support, or not, the use of SQP by campus or municipal police. Additionally, qualitative research could also be used to gain insight into why people hold certain views, and how those views affect offending or the willingness to request police assistance when victimized. Subsequently, quantitative work could determine the extent to which these various explanations of (non-)support are found within any given population, and whether theories of their causes and effects are valid and generalizable.

The findings also inform how to improve police work. Participants differed in whether they generally support SQP, but both supporters and non-supporters stated that the tactic’s appropriateness depends on situational factors. The implication of this finding for officers is that when they decide to stop and question someone, they should immediately verbalize their reason for doing so to suspects. This should help to relieve ill feelings that can arise during such stops, assuming, that is, suspects are willing to be reasonable – which, of course, is not always the case. Such an approach to SQP may benefit all parties: suspects should be more likely to comply with officers’ demands, and officers could thereby save themselves from actual or perceived discriminatory policing. Another practical suggestion is for police to use public awareness campaigns or community meetings to clarify that the legal threshold for stopping and questioning someone is reasonable suspicion, not probable cause. This could elucidate what officers have the legal right to do. Citizens may still not approve, but at least they will have less reason to think that police are acting outside the law and, therefore, be more likely to comply with officers and not make complaints about their actions.


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[1] By coincidence or not, the available academic coverage of SQP by campus police primarily comes out of Chicago. Though beyond the present paper’s scope, future work may want to examine why SQP by campus police has received more attention in Chicago than elsewhere.  

[2] It is important to note that citizens’ views of one area may affect their views of the other. For example, persons who have had negative experiences with SQP may be more likely to think it should not be allowed, and vice versa. Thus, it should not be inferred that these are fully distinct facets of how SQP is evaluated. However, they are reviewed separately to help simplify the issues at stake.

[3] The authors defined moral solidarity as “the belief that the values and tenets of law enforcement authorities are consistent with one’s personal beliefs about right and wrong, as well as with the group’s normative values” (p. 156).

[4] To be clear, because the paper’s focus is solely on pedestrian stops, the review of SQP is limited to foot stops.

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