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“He Did that Because I was Black”: Black College Students Perceive Municipal Police, Not Campus Police, as Discriminating

This article examines qualitative data obtained from 66 Black college students about perceptions of their interactions with municipal police (MP) and campus police (CP). Participants described MP and CP as acting severely, but only attributed racial bias to MP. This finding ...

Published onDec 11, 2018
“He Did that Because I was Black”: Black College Students Perceive Municipal Police, Not Campus Police, as Discriminating


This article examines qualitative data obtained from 66 Black college students about perceptions of their interactions with municipal police (MP) and campus police (CP). Participants described MP and CP as acting severely, but only attributed racial bias to MP. This finding is explored in light of theories of procedural justice and legitimacy. The theories explain why participants view MP’s actions as racially biased. In light of those theories, however, it is less clear why CP’s actions were not viewed as racially biased.


There is a wealth of research on Blacks’ experiences with and perceptions of police. Yet, it could be argued the core findings have not changed much since DuBois (1996 [1899]) published The Philadelphia Negro. As still rings true, he observed that Blacks “are wrongfully suspected” (p. 263) by police and “arrested for less cause” (p. 239), which results in “many unsustained charges of crime … made against Negroes, and possibly more in proportion than against other classes” (p. 267). These problems persist for Blacks, especially for those living in predominantly Black communities (Anderson 1999; Brunson 2007; Gau and Brunson 2010; Goffman 2014). This assessment is evidenced by official statistics and other data (e.g., Alexander 2010; Hagan, Shed, and Payne 2005; Weitzer 1999, 2000; Weitzer and Tuch 2002; Western 2006; but see Smith et al. 2017).  

For some Blacks, problems with police and discrimination start while in primary or secondary school. Research consistently finds that compared to their White peers, Black minors are more likely to be investigated and punished by police and other school authorities, as well as to perceive school safety practices as less fair (Ferguson 2000; Kupchik 2016; Kupchik and Ellis 2008; Morris 2005; Skiba et al. 2011; Skiba et al. 2002; Wallace et al. 2008). Moreover, secondary and primary schools with predominantly Black student bodies have higher levels of surveillance and punishment (Kupchik 2009; Kupchik and Ward 2014; Irwin, Davidson, and Hall-Sanchez 2013; Payne and Welch 2010). This discrimination negatively impacts Blacks’ educational achievement and has other enduring effects (Archer 2009; Gregory, Skiba, and Noguera 2010; Kupchik 2016).

Though that body of scholarship is well developed, there is little research into Black college students’ experiences with and perceptions of police. Their lives should be interesting to sociologists and criminologists, too. This is not only because the population of Black college students is nearly 3 million and growing (NCES 2017).[1] Thinking in terms of social justice, the result of discriminatory policing may be a publicly available criminal record that offsets the employment and income opportunities gained from a college education (see Pager 2007). Also, researching this issue may improve theoretical knowledge and cultural understanding. With respect to discriminatory policing, it could be that Black college students’ lives are similar to or different from those of other Black adults or youths in primary or secondary school. Either way, findings will point to reasons why.

Thus, in this article, we examine Black college students’ perceptions of their interactions with police officers. To do so, we analyze qualitative data obtained from a sample of 66 such students attending a 4-year public university with a predominantly Black student body, located in a city and county that has a majority Black populace (USCB 2017). Also, we consider not one but two types of police – “municipal police” (MP) and “campus police” (CP). It is advantageous to study both groups because it provides the variation that (social) science craves (Stinchcombe 2005). Indeed, and as a bit of foreshadowing, we find that though participants had negative perceptions of their interactions with MP and CP, they only characterized MP as acting racially biased. After presenting illustrative cases, we describe and interpret them in light of Tyler’s (2003, 2004) theoretical ideas on procedural justice and legitimacy; note that we do not review these earlier to reduce the paper’s length and redundancy. Finally, we conclude by suggesting how our findings inform the importance of racially diverse college settings.

College Students’ Perceptions of Campus and Municipal Police

To set the stage for the findings and theoretical analysis, we begin with an overview of CP, including how they compare to MP. In the U.S., there are more than 10,000 CP officers working across nearly 4,000 universities (Anderson 2015; Reaves 2008). Though colleges may be stereotyped as safe enclaves, CP are responsible for a sizeable amount of serious incidents. In 2015, college campuses with residential facilities had a total of 16 homicides and, though many cases remain in the dark, there were reports of 7,582 rapes and sexual assaults, 831 robberies, 1,878 aggravated assaults, 10,958 burglaries, 2,473 motor vehicle thefts, and 515 arsons (USDOE, 2016). Given those statistics, perhaps it is unsurprising that CP made nearly 39,000 arrests and issued about 240,000 student disciplinary actions in that same year (ibid.). To be clear, a student disciplinary action is a sanction processed through the university’s student judicial authority, which may entail educational activities (e.g., classes, research papers), restitution, community service, probation, suspension, and expulsion.

Not all students realize it, but it is important to note that the majority of CP are “real police,” not private security guards. About two-thirds of CP officers are “sworn,” meaning they have the same arrest powers as MP, and many carry weapons (Reaves 2015). Across CP departments, about four-fifths and one-third, respectively, permit officers to make arrests on/near campus and also statewide (Reaves 2015). Indeed, CP are in many respects like MP for the very reason they emulate the latter’s organizational and operational styles as well as adopt similar policies and codes of conduct (Paoline and Sloan 2003). Also, CP are increasingly trained like MP for a variety of tasks and similar lengths of time (Peak, Barthe, and Garcia 2008; Reaves 2010, 2015). On that note, CP perform many of the same duties as MP, as they are responsible for preventing and responding to crimes on and near campus, as well as enforcing university student codes of conduct (Reaves 2015).

The likenesses between CP and MP are academically important because, in theory, this should lead students to have similar interactions with and views of them. As relates more specifically to the present article, the similarities between CP and MP may lead Black college students to have comparable (negative) experiences with and perceptions of them. However, there also are notable differences between CP and MP that could produce different outcomes.

Perhaps the major difference between CP and MP is a direct outgrowth of the former predominantly serving campus communities. CP are known to be pressured to act in accordance with the college’s overall goals, not necessarily what is best for controlling crime. This happens as a result of college administrators asking CP to keep campuses safe without using severe tactics against students that could dissuade enrollment (Bordner and Petersen 1983; Carr and Ward 2006; Wolf, Mesloh, and Henych 2007). CP do so by focusing on the detection and punishment of persons unaffiliated with the university, while restraining their sanctioning of students – a practice in line with the in loco parentis doctrine that CP should act in place of the parents (Sloan 1992). This approach to crime control differs from that of MP who follow a “legalistic style” of policing characterized by a single standard of conduct for everyone, and, thus, similar sanctioning for outsiders and insiders (Wilson 1968).

Another difference is that not all students perceive CP as “real police” like their municipal counterparts. This is conveyed in news headlines, such as, “Are campus police officers ‘real’ police officers?” (Chronicle 2015), and, “Campus police: real deal or rent-a-cops?” (Mayer 2014). And though the scholarly research is sparse, it, too, speaks to how CP and MP are perceived. For instance, based on survey data collected from several hundred students at a large Pacific Northwestern university, Wada, Patten, and Candela (2010) found that they attributed significantly more legitimacy to MP than CP (see also Patten et al. 2016). Likewise, Jacobsen (2015) obtained qualitative data from students at Mid-Atlantic University (a pseudonym), and found that they perceive CP as performing less than “‘real’ police work” (p. 322) and being less professionally capable than MP.

There are other qualitative studies on college students’ experiences with and perceptions of police, but they do not specify whether quotes refer to CP, MP, or both. Nonetheless, those studies reveal that some college students hold police in low regard. For example, consider data from Weiss’ (2013) research on Party University located in a “college town.” One participant said police are “bullies with nothing better to do than to hassle them, bust up their parties, and impede their good time” (p. 96). Other interviewees said of officers, “[T]hey should be attempting to prevent more serious crimes” (p. 96), and, “They … don’t seem to bother to pursue crimes when people’s cars are broken into or vandalized. All they care about is seeing how badass they can make themselves seem by messing with drunk college kids” (p. 96).

Those studies are enlightening, but it is unclear to what extent their findings reflects the experiences and perceptions of Black college students, especially those in predominately Black student bodies and wider communities. Wada and colleagues’ (2010) participants were 81% White and 2% Black; the student body was 78% White and 3% Black, with a similar city population according to the authors. Jacobsen (2015) does not specify her participants’ race, but notes the student body was 50% White and 8% Black, and the surrounding community’s residents were 54% White and 10% Black (also, 18% Asian, 16% Hispanic). And, Weiss’ sample was 93% White and 3% Black, mirroring the wider community, which was about 90% White and 4% Black.

To our knowledge, only one study explicitly examines the unique circumstance of Black college students as relates to police. In Getting Wasted, Vander Ven (2011) explores the party culture of “Midwestern State University” (a pseudonym). Similar to the above studies, Vander Ven’s students were mostly White, though he also interviewed three Blacks. For a few pages, he focuses on their perceptions of drinking, some of which relates to their perceptions of policing. Interestingly, he quotes one of them, Dennis, as saying the following in response to being asked whether a Black college student would get in more trouble than a White college student for committing an alcohol-related offense: “I absolutely do. … I mean stereotyping and discrimination still exist and we would be wrong to say that they didn’t. […] I think it’s more socially acceptable for them [Whites] to drink in like large quantities” (p. 57).

Method and Data

We present and analyze qualitative data on Black college students’ perceptions of their interactions with CP and MP. In 2014 and 2015, interviews were conducted with 66 such individuals, including five of whom are biracial. Other demographic traits are as follows: approximately two-thirds were female; their average and median age were 29 and 24 years, respectively, with a range of 19 to 58 years; about 12% were married and nearly a quarter had at least one child. In terms of college-specific characteristics, 5% were freshman, 2% sophomores, 32% juniors, and the rest seniors; one-fourth lived on campus.

They were recruited into the study through purposive and convenience sampling techniques. Five undergraduate research assistants recruited participants to the study by asking friends, roommates, and fellow social science classmates to participate. Of course, this non-probabilistic sampling method means the findings may not be generalizable to other students at the institution under study, or students at other universities.

Participants attended a 4-year, medium-sized public university. At the time of the study, enrollment was 7,012 students, of which 94% were undergraduates and 46% enrolled part-time. The student body was 63% Black, 22% White, and the remainder of another or unknown race/ethnicity. Sixty-eight percent were female. The average age was 27 years, and 32% of enrolled students were “non-traditional,” meaning at least 25 years of age at the time of undergraduate matriculation. Sixty-two percent of the undergraduate students were awarded Pell Grants (USDOE 2015), indicating a majority were of a disadvantaged background.

The university’s CP department employed 15 to 20 patrol officers from month to month. These officers were divided into four teams, with each working twelve hour shifts. All officers were POST certified, carried firearms, and were “sworn-in” (i.e., had full arrest powers). Their jurisdiction included the university campus, which is about 200 acres in size, and up to 500 yards beyond the campus, all of which they patrolled by car and foot. At the time of the study, crime statistics show that the following offenses were reported to or handled by police: 1 murder/non-negligent manslaughter, 1 rape, 1 burglary, 2 cases of dating violence, and 2 motor vehicle thefts. There were no arrests for liquor law violations, though there were 4 arrests for drug abuse violations and 2 arrests for illegal weapons possession. Additionally, there were 35 and 42 judicial referrals made for liquor law and drug abuse violations, respectively, as well as 1 referral for illegal weapons possession.

The university is situated in a county of metropolitan Atlanta, Georgia. In 2015, this county had a population of about 274,000 persons, of which 69% was Black and 23% White (USCB 2017); the median household income was almost $41,000, with almost a quarter of residents below the poverty level. The city in which the university is located had about 6,400 residents as of 2010 (the most recent year for which there are data), of which 45.5% were Black and 22.1% White (USCB 2017). In 2015 per 100,000 residents, the city had 574 violent offenses and 8,946 property offenses, whereas the county had a similar rate of violent offenses but half as many property offenses; note that the nation’s rates were 374 violent and 2,487 property offenses per 100,000 persons (FBI 2016; GBI 2016).

Data were collected from participants during audio-recorded, semi-structured interviews. Typically, these lasted about 45 minutes. Prior to the start of each interview, participants were made aware of their rights as a research subject (the study is IRB approved), including that they would remain anonymous, could choose not to answer any question, and could terminate participation at any time. This not only protected participants, but also helped to reduce their motive to lie or otherwise distort “the truth.” Of course, such distortion is a concern for any study based on self-report data. Thus, to further minimize that problem, as well as to gather more detailed data, participants were asked follow-up questions that could help them recall events and illuminate unusual or seemingly baseless responses.           

Among other questions, participants were asked about their experiences with and perceptions of CP and MP. Participants who reported one interaction with CP were asked, “How did it unfold from start to finish?” Subsequently, they were asked, “How do you feel about how the officer treated you and others?” The same questions were asked of participants who reported one interaction with MP. Additionally, participants who reported more than one interaction with CP or MP were asked to describe, for each type of police, their most recent interaction and most memorable interaction (other than the most recent one). These questions led some participants to describe incidents in which they requested help from police or were bystanders, but we will focus on incidents in which the participant was treated as a criminal suspect.

Also, for each reported student-officer interaction, subjects were asked, “Before today, did you think that your race had to do with you being stopped?” The same questions were posed about how officers investigated and sanctioned each incident. Some readers may consider those questions to be leading ones and, thus, prone to produce invalid data. But that assessment itself would be invalid, we would argue, as those are pointed questions, not leading ones. Nonetheless, the clause “Before today” was included to minimize post-hoc sense-making by participants, and it was explained to them that they should focus on their thoughts at the time of each encounter. As discussed below, far from every participant described each officers’ actions as racially biased, which suggests that our data on perceptions of racially biased acts did not simply “pop into” our participants’ heads upon being asked about the possibility. Ideally, it would be better not to ask such pointed questions, but, instead, allow attributions of racial discrimination to emerge without prompts. But that is a somewhat unrealistic, or at least overzealous, expectation because race is such a salient feature of Blacks’ lives that it often goes unsaid, instead being assumed as relevant. By our count, in Brunson’s (2007) article, “Police Don’t Black People,” only one participant specifically mentions race as a relevant factor (see also Jacques 2017; Rios, Carney, and Kelekay 2017). Still, it remains a possibility that this interviewing technique may have affected the findings in an undue manner.

In preparation for analysis, each audio-recording was transcribed verbatim and then uploaded into NVivo 10. This qualitative software package allows for data to be coded with identification tags that then may be retrieved for further analysis. Following inductive analysis techniques (see, e.g., Glaser and Strauss 1967), the analytic goal was to determine whether and why participants perceived severe treatment by CP and MP as due to racial discrimination by them. By “severe,” we mean cases in which participants deemed officers to do or say more than reasonable to handle the situation.


We begin with data on participants’ perceptions of CP acting in a severe manner. Respondents described this as first occurring during the investigatory stage of the citizen-officer encounter. At this point, severe treatment refers to the perception that CP did more than reasonable to gather evidence about suspects’ wrongdoing. Anthony provides an example of severe investigatory tactics by CP, who he said went “way too far” to handle a case of marijuana smoking and possession:

A friend of mine invited me over because she was cooking. She had a few friends over and they had smoked weed in the room previously, and the roommate told on them. By the time I got there, nobody was smoking, but the RA came to the room because the roommate told on them when I got there, and police came as well. There was an odor of marijuana, but I didn’t take part in that, and I didn’t have anything to do with that, and when I tried to leave, they wouldn’t let me leave, and I couldn’t figure out why. I felt like I was being treated as a criminal, even though I didn’t do anything. … He searched the people in the room that lived there, but he also tried to search backpacks and all of this to go home, and I guess when they didn’t let me do that [go home], it kinda angered me … They were taking their job way too seriously. I feel like them as a team were going way too hard over a marijuana odor; … definitely taken way too far.

Perceptually severe investigatory tactics may unfold in the course of traffic stops, too. Consider Aliyah’s description of an incident involving CP:

Me and a couple of my friends were coming back from the grocery store, and when we got to the parking lot we just sat there ’cause we were talking. … The officer called in someone to come back him up, so it’s two police cars. They were crowded around the car, like looking around the car and we had to keep the windows up. We weren’t allowed to get out. Like they didn’t ask us anything, and it was like they were trying to search around the car. Like what were they looking for? We had no idea.

After an investigation, officers choose whether and, if so, how to sanction suspects. On and off campus, sanctions range from a verbal warning to a ticket to arrest; also, recall that CP may issue student disciplinary actions. Participants perceived officers’ sanctions to be severe if they exceeded, in their minds, a reasonable punishment. Caleb, for instance, thought the CP’s punishment of a party was unreasonable:

[T]he party was just winding down, and everybody was leaving. … [O]ne of the guys that was in the party, he was kinda drunk or whatever, and he ended up stumbling outside, and the cops, they saw that in the parking lot. They questioned the guy about where he was coming from, and then he told them where the party was, and they came to our door, and they questioned us about the party and all, and just let us know what was going on outside in the parking lot. … [A]fter that, they wrote us a ticket, and that was that. … I felt that he treated us kinda unfair. Even though we threw the party, it wasn’t our fault that he was drinking excessively, or stumbled, or was about to drive intoxicated. He was under his own power, and he knew when to stop. He knew what he was doing, so I felt like that was kinda unfair that we got fined for it.

In another case on campus, Destiny parked in a handicap spot and was then approached by CP, who she thought acted severely:

He [CP] gave me the parking ticket [for parking] in the handicap [spot]. … It was a bad experience. … I seen him doing it [writing the ticket], so I just went outside. … He was like “This your car?” I was like, “Yeah. I’m just about to leave”, and he was like, “Well, you know you parked in a handicap?” and I was like, “Yeah. I wasn’t here two minutes.” … He still gave me a ticket. I kinda got mad, like this don’t make no sense. I was like, “You park in the handicap all the time and you wanna give me a ticket?” He was like, “What?” and I was like, “Nothing, just give me the ticket”, and he gave me the ticket, and he tried to be rude. … He told me to turn around and I was like, “You can’t lock me up for nothing. I hadn’t done nothing.” He was like, “You know if you get locked up, we can impound your car?” I was like “How you can impound my car? My friend can get my car, so my car can’t get impounded.” He was like “I can have it impounded if I wanted to.” I was like “Alright, whatever.” … Gave me the ticket, and that was it. … He was trying to use his power too much. You ain’t gotta do all that, talking about arresting me and stuff, like a ticket, parking in the handicap. You park in the handicap everyday!

MP, but Not CP, are Perceived as Acting Racially Biased

Participants also perceived severe treatment by MP. Moreover, respondents attributed some of these instances to racial bias, though they did not think the same of CP’s severe actions. For instance, when interviewees were asked if their interaction with CP was marred by racial discrimination, they gave answers such as, “I don’t think he would have cared who was in the car” (Jordan), “No, I don’t think so” (Taylor), “No, not really” (Brianna), and many simply stated, “No,” as did Kiara and Laila.

Yet when asked the same questions about the actions of MP, participants did cite racial discrimination as a factor. To be clear, the following incidents occurred off campus, with some taking place in the surrounding county but others in adjacent ones. For example, Elijah wondered whether his race was the “real” reason he was stopped by MP, as he felt the officer otherwise “didn’t have a reason” to do so:

Me and my friends were leaving the club. We were sitting in the parking lot and, I guess, the cop, he was patrolling the parking lot after the club, or whatever, and we all just sitting there trying to figure out what we going to do. So, we left and he just followed us …, he was just following us for no reason because we left the parking lot. And we got pulled over and he said he smelled marijuana, but we were just in the club so that’s why he smelled that. He let us go, but it was still just the principal that he stopped us … I feel like he didn’t really have a reason. … He didn’t do anything [else] bad, but the reason he stopped us – he didn’t have a reason. It pretty much let me know that maybe racial profiling is real. It does exist.

In addition to racially biased stops, participants considered some MP’s investigatory actions to be a manifestation of racial discrimination. For example, Anthony suggested that less is asked of non-Black suspects stopped under similar circumstances:

I wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. … He pulled me over. I forget where I was going, but I was late. I gave him my license and stuff. I basically just wanted him to just go ahead and give me the ticket, but he didn’t wanna write the ticket, but instead he asked me to step out of the car and questioned me about where I lived, and where I was going, and did I have any problems with other people, and was anybody bothering me, and asked why I was on probation, and all of this good stuff. It was entirely too much for a seatbelt ticket. I felt profiled. Definitely [an] unpleasant experience. I didn’t like it at all. I don’t feel like everyone [would have] received that treatment, but I feel like sometimes young, Black, whatever, you kinda look like you’re up to something, even though I just wasn’t wearing a seatbelt.

After being pulled over for an unlit tag light, Brianna came to suspect that the questions asked of her by MP were about her race and that of her passenger:

It [the interaction] was pretty ok, until he started asking me had I been drinking. I feel like that was kind of unnecessary. I hadn’t been drinking and I hadn’t acted like I had been drinking. … I felt like it was unnecessary, like his questioning. He didn’t have a good reason to be asking me all that stuff. … I’m a Black female, and the person that was riding with me was also a Black male. … When I rolled up the window I was like, “He did that because I was Black.”

 Respondents also described cases in which an unreasonable stop was immediately followed by severe investigatory actions, both of which were attributed to racial discrimination. Josiah’s experience serves as an example:

I was driving with my friend in a car and they pulled us over and took us both out of the car and set us on the curb and searched the entire car. [It was b]ased off of something that had happened in that area, and the description just being two Black males. We didn’t even match the description. There was no way we could have done it. … They were real assholes about it. … I feel like all of it was unfair, unjust, and it was just really no reason to pull us over because I was not doing anything wrong. I had my seatbelt on, my lights were on, and everything was fine. I was not speeding. They just felt the need to pull us over and ruffle us up like that.

 Matthew drew on the vicarious experiences of his White friends to help explain the uniqueness of Black persons’ experiences with MP:

I have White friends and when they get pulled over, the officer literally told him how to beat the ticket; it was more like a joking thing. The fear that I had and the fear that my White friend had was totally different. It was more of a joke for them versus me, like I don’t know what’s about to happen. I’ve never had an officer tell me how to beat a ticket. I’ve had multiple White friends literally say the officer told them how to beat the ticket, just go to court and say this, like literally tell them what to do. And never questioned to search their car either. … In like any incident [I have with MP,] they always ask is there a reason they need to search my car and will I let them. … [The most recent time I was pulled over, the MP officer] said I didn’t fully stop at the stop sign, but I know I did. … It was ridiculous. … He got on his walkie talkie screaming, “Don’t get out the car!” He had like lights flashing. It was ridiculous.

Interviewees mentioned that the sanctions meted out by some MP were severe, furthermore. As alluded to above, sanctions are cast as severe if greater than what the participants deemed reasonable. In part, a suspect’s assessment of whether a sanction (or stop or investigation) is severe portends to their assessment of whether it is based on legally superfluous information, such as the suspect’s race. In practice, the way suspects make such judgments is by hypothesizing whether, for instance, another sort of person would have been issued the same punishment. The following students describe similar conjectures:

Imani: I was speeding. I was doing 52 MPH in a 40 something, so it was only 10 or so over. Basically, he pulled me over and asked me why I was going so fast and I was like, “There’s not really a reason, that’s just how I drive.” And he was like, “Well, I’m going to need you to slow down.” Then, he asked me about my [window] tint. I was like, “Can’t I just get a ticket for one thing?” Honestly, he was pretty rude, but I expect that problem with the municipal police. … I honestly feel like if I was a Caucasian female, he wouldn’t have gave me the ticket, especially for doing 10 to 12 over.”


Jada: I’m in a two lane [road] heading towards the light, and there’s a cop in the middle of the intersection. I guess he was pulling someone over ’cause he had his lights on. So I’m driving, minding my own business, and all of a sudden I see lights behind me, so I’m like, “Ok.” So I pull over, turn off my car waiting for him to pull up. [He says,] “License and registration.” I’m like, “Ok, may I ask what the traffic stop is for today?” He was like, “Yeah, you didn’t see me back there?” And I was like, “Of course I seen you; yeah, I seen you. I noticed your lights.” He was like, “How come you didn’t get over?” And I was like, “Well, I was in the two lane and there was someone on my backhand side; there was no way for me to get over.” So he runs my stuff and he comes back and says, “Well, I’m going to go ahead and give you a ticket because you should have pulled over. Anytime you see a police or an emergency vehicle in the intersection you’re supposed to pull over.” … I feel like he singled me out. I feel like race plays a very large part … Not just dealing with cops, just everything. In everyday life. … I feel like if I had blonde hair, blue eyes, I would have been sent on my way.

Theoretical Interpretation and Discussion

The major difference in participants’ perceptions of severe treatment by CP and MP was attributing racial discrimination to the latter. What explains the difference? Though other theoretical perspectives may usefully help to answer that question (e.g., Black 1976), we will draw on Tyler’s (2003, 2004) ideas about procedural justice and legitimacy. Procedural justice is a matter of fairness: whether officers are perceived as making neutral and consistent decisions, treating people with dignity and respect, which includes acknowledging their rights, and being trustworthy in that their acts are sincerely well meaning (Tyler and Wakslak 2004). Legitimacy is about the right to rule, such as citizens’ belief that they should follow police officers’ orders, help them enforce the law, and otherwise cooperate with them (Tyler 2003, 2004).

Speaking generally, citizens’ attributions of racial discrimination by police are relevant to both procedural justice and legitimacy, albeit in different ways (Tyler 2003, 2004; Tyler and Wakslak 2004). Because officers are not supposed to make decisions based on citizens’ race, officers who act – even subconsciously – in racially biased ways are doing so in a procedurally unjust manner. But even if officers are “in fact” being fair, citizens may perceive them as doing otherwise. However, whether to make such an attribution tends to be a subjective judgment, with the exception of cases in which an officer says something that is unambiguously discriminatory. On what basis, then, do citizens decide whether an officer is acting on the basis of racial bias? According to the procedural justice model, such assessments are more likely to occur when citizens perceive officers to be biased and inconsistent, disrespectful of their dignity and rights, and question whether their actions are sincerely well meaning.

These facets of perceived procedural injustice are evident in the accounts of racial discrimination described by participants. Elijah felt profiled upon being pulled over because, saying of the officer, “[H]e didn’t really have a reason.” Similarly, Josiah said of MP who stopped him: “They were real assholes about it. … I feel like all of it was unfair, unjust, and it was just really no reason to pull us over because I was not doing anything wrong” (see also Matthew’s experience). Anthony thought the number of questions asked of him by MP was “entirely too much.” And like Jada, Imani thought she was punished more harshly than would be a White female, adding that the officer “was pretty rude.”

If citizens perceive racial discrimination by MP, they may grant them less legitimacy. As explained by Tyler (2003), “Views about legitimacy are rooted in the judgment that the police … are acting fairly when they deal with community residents,” adding, “Interestingly, this is true both when the public makes general evaluations of the police … and when particular members of the public are reacting to their personal encounters with police officers” (p. 286). Researchers assess citizens’ perceptions of the police’s legitimacy by asking about their trust of, confidence in, and general feelings about them (Tyler 2004). In quantitative research, for instance, citizens are asked about the extent to which they agree, “The police are generally honest” and “I respect the police” (Tyler 2004, p. 88).

For our study, we asked participants an open-ended question about the effect of their specific interactions with MP and CP on their general perception of MP and CP, respectively. After perceiving MP to act racially discriminatorily, some of the participants consequently perceived them as less legitimate. For instance, recall that Elijah’s experience led him to “know that maybe racial profiling is real. It does exist.” “From there,” said Matthew of his perceived racially biased treatment by MP, “my perception of officers were like worse.” Jada commented, “I lost respect [for MP].” And after experiencing what they deemed racial bias by MP, two other Black college students stated unequivocally: “I don’t like [MP from that area] at all” (Michael) and “I hate [those] County Police” (Josiah).

Why did only some of the participants who felt racially discriminated against by MP subsequently asses them as less legitimate? The answer is others already had a very negative view of MP prior to those encounters. Xavier’s experience and perceptions illustrate that finding. He reported being ticketed, taken to jail, and having his car impounded because “me and some friends were sitting in the car …, we were drinking beer and [so had] open containers.” That is a crime in Georgia, but Xavier perceived police intervention as racially biased. In his words:

We just sitting in the park minding our own business and here he come up, the police officer. … I believe certain other people [doing the same thing as us], they would have let them gone. I think the problem is that you was male, and the second problem was that you were black, and I think that that cause two big problems in the officer’s eye. And I don’t think it matters if it was a Black cop or a White cop.

When Xavier was asked how, if at all, that particular incident changed his general perception of MP, he stated:

Well, I never liked them in the first place, so that just compiled the issue. I think that backed my opinion and my perspective. I think more with minorities, I think they got more of a chip, especially black males. They’re [MP] looking for you a little bit more. … They always think that you’re up to something.

Tying back to theory, Xavier’s life is informative by showing that citizen-police encounters do not occur in a cultural vacuum; in other words, they do not start with a clean slate. Rather, citizens enter such encounters with views of police. These preexisting perceptions may lead citizens to perceive what officers do and say in particular ways, for better or worse. Thus, citizens who see the police as racially discriminatory are more likely to perceive subsequent interactions with them as unfolding in a procedurally unjust manner (Tyler and Wakslak 2004). Thus, there is a cyclical process by which preexisting negative perceptions of police lead to negative perceptions of them during interactions, which, in turn, exacerbate or maintain the preexisting negative perceptions.

Recall that according to the procedural justice model, attributions of racial discrimination by police are more likely to occur when citizens perceive them to be biased and inconsistent, disrespectful of their dignity and rights, and question whether their actions are sincerely well meaning. Interestingly, participants assessed both CP and MP as acting in a procedurally unfair manner, but only explained the latter as doing so because of racial bias. For instance, Anthony said of the CP officers’ investigation that it was “definitely taken way too far”; Aliyah explained that it was wholly unclear to her why CP officers called for back-up before crowding around and searching outside the vehicle. Caleb and Destiny thought it was unfair to get ticketed given the totality of circumstances.

Why, then, did the Black college students in our sample characterize severe actions by MP, but not CP, as due to racial bias? Here, the article moves from data to informed speculation and, thus, the call for further research – all the more so given a limitation of our study is the findings have unknown generalizability due to the sampling method. One possibility relates back to prior research, specifically the finding that students perceive CP as less than “real police,” unlike MP (Jacobsen 2015; Wada et al. 2010). From a law and order perspective, it is good when citizens see police as legitimate because this reduces their personal involvement in crime, increases their willingness to report crime, and otherwise cooperate with police (Tyler 2003, 2004). In the college context, the implication is that to the degree college students perceive CP as inferior to MP, they are less likely to be deterred, and call upon and cooperate with the former.

Yet, a limitation of prior studies on students’ perceptions of CP, including how they compare to MP, is they mostly focus on the perspective of Whites. Given that Whites generally hold MP in higher regards than do Blacks, we could expect White college students to perceive MP as more legitimate than do their Black peers. If true, the implication of that difference is Black college students will either see MP and CP as equal in their respective legitimacy, or ascribe higher legitimacy to CP because, in part, they have such negative views of MP. Moreover, and to the degree that Black college students see MP and CP as truly distinct, they may not hold the MP’s history of (perceived) racial discrimination against CP. In other words, Black college students may think MP “don’t like Black people” (Brunson 2007), but not think the same of CP. Xavier, for instance, said, “The campus police, they don’t act like the regular police. They’re more friendly. They’re not as aggressive or hostile as the municipal police. That’s just what I see.” Thus, Black students like Xavier may be more likely to enter and leave interactions with CP thinking they are procedurally fair; and, even if they perceive their interaction with CP as unfolding unfairly, they should be less likely to cast the occurrence as motivated by racial bias.

The other potential answer is a matter of what officers “actually do,” according to a truly neutral observer (assuming there is such a thing), not necessarily what they are perceived as doing by suspects or others engrossed in the interaction. It is possible that our participants perceived racial discrimination by MP but not CP because it really did and did not occur, respectively. If that is true, it will be important to explain the difference, in part because it may provide insight into how to reduce racially biased policing. Among others, the following theoretical factors may explain why CP engage in less racial discrimination toward Black college students than do MP, assuming, again, future research finds evidence of such: Compared to MP, CP may be different insofar as being, one, charged by university administrators to act in place of the parents (Sloan 1992); two, closer to students in social distance (Black 1976); three, different “types” of people who choose this role; and, four, handling less serious incidents and encountering less dangerous people, making them less “on edge,” to put it colloquially. 


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[1] To reduce verbiage, the term “university” refers to colleges and vice versa, and we refer to city police and county police as “municipal police,” though, technically, only a city is a municipality. Also, note that we focus entirely on Blacks because our sample included few Hispanics. Future research should examine Hispanic college students’ experiences with and perceptions of police, too. For research on Hispanics and social control, see, for example, Kubrin, Zatz, and Martinez (2012), Rios (2011), Solis, Portillos, and Brunson (2009).

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