Negotiating Order in the Policing of Youth Drinking

Joseph A Schafer. Policing. Volume 28, Issue 2. 2005.


In the abstract, policing is highly structured and officer discretion is constrained/shaped by law, policy, structure, and supervision. In actuality, officers enjoy tremendous independence in choosing from various courses of action in the performance of their duties. This is a function of the reality of policing structures and supervisor-subordinate relations (Brown, 1988; Lipsky, 1980), public expectations of leniency (Klockars, 1985), and even statutorily prescribed discretion granted to officers in an effort to ensure that they might account for a range of legal and extralegal factors in the pursuit of individualized justice. From this reality emerges questions about how officers employ their discretion, and what ends are served by the use of discretionary leniency (the choice to use “less law” than the law allows).

One objective served by discretionary leniency is that it allows officers to negotiate order in the areas they police (Manning, 1997). By using more/less law, officers can attempt to construct the best possible resolutions to a specific problem (Brown, 1988) or they can seek to set an overall tone for a particular area (Klinger, 1997). The task of the individual officer is negotiating various uncertainties to achieve a resolution that is optimally agreeable for the officer, his/her agency, the citizen(s) involved, and the public at large. The absolute enforcement of the law is often not an option for an officer; rather, for a variety of reasons (finite resources, community expectations, legal restrictions, personal predilections, etc.) officers must engage in non-enforcement, under enforcement, and the use of informal sanctions in order to preserve social order. In effect, officers must weight out competing demands and expectations, both in general and in the specific case at hand, to identify the optimal “situationally justified action” (Manning, 1997). Despite unique aspects of situations, officers often rely on implicit and explicit frameworks for handling categories of offenses and offenders (Stalans and Finn, 1995). These frameworks are general in nature, and may vary by local ecology, duty assignment, and officer predisposition (Klinger, 1997).

This study explored the negotiation of order by describing police operations and police-citizen interactions in a medium-sized college community. In particular, it considers how officers employed discretionary leniency in response to the dominant problem in this community, crimes involving alcohol consumption and its associated behaviors. The study’s focus is on the use of discretionary leniency in response to a particular set of violations (alcohol-related offenses) within a specific population (college-age youth), as opposed to studying a particular discretionary decision (e.g. to arrest, to ticket, to search, etc.). The latter focus has dominated the research on police discretion (Black, 1980; Bogomolny, 1976; Brown, 1988; Engel and Calnon, 2004; Engel et al., 2000; Feder, 1996; Kane, 1999; Klinger, 1994, 1996; Mastrofski et al., 1994; Mastrofski et al., 1995; Novak et al., 2002; Riksheim and Chermak, 1993; Robinson and Chandek, 2000; Worden and Shepard, 1996); the former has received less consideration (notable exceptions include Fridell and Binder, 1992; Fyfe et al., 1997; Green, 1997; Lundman, 1979; Mastrofski et al., 1987; Meyers et al., 1989; Meyers et al., 1987; Pendleton, 1998; Uviller, 1984). The intent is to describe the way police officers in the study community used both formal and informal means to negotiate order with the drinking behavior of its young residents, through general patrol and a specialized enforcement unit. An important finding emerging from the study was that police-youth interactions were decidedly less adversarial than would be expected. Both police and students characterized the dynamic as “a game” in which officers sought to detect violations and students sought to avoid such detection.

Police Behavior and Negotiating Order with the Public

Social research focused upon the police has elaborated their role within American society. The police possess the unique authority to use physical force to secure citizen compliance (Bittner, 1970), a right not enjoyed by other agents of the government (Kobler, 1975). Throughout American history, the police have used violence to maintain social control (Westley, 1970); at times the police have preserved the social control of the elite classes at the expense of the average citizen (Institute for the Study of Labor and Economic Crisis, 1982). The “working personality” of the police has been characterized by such traits as danger, isolation, solidarity and authority (Skolnick, 1994). These characteristics and others (Crank, 1998) are believed to shape the occupational experiences of the police (Barker, 1999) and to influence the relationship between the police and the public (Niederhoffer, 1967; Reiss, 1971).

The net result of these, and other findings, is the development of an image of the police as dominant, authoritarian, violent and socially isolated. Officers would be presumed to have (or seek) full control in their encounters with the public. Research examining police decision making, however, has tended so shed a somewhat different light on these issues. It is suggested that the police are primarily concerned with preserving the image of authority, rather than authority itself (Manning, 1997). Prior to the 1960s police officers were generally viewed as exercising little discretion in the performance of their duties. It was presumed that officers acted as neutral agents of the law, taking enforcement actions whenever and wherever criminal violations were observed (Mastrofski et al., 1994). In the intervening decades, researchers have recognized that officers routinely have the authority to invoke “more” law than they actually invoke (Black, 1980; Brown, 1988; Klockars, 1985; LaFave, 1965). Situational realities necessitate that the police selectively enforce the law (Klockars, 1985). Such selective enforcement may take two forms. First, officers may engage in the non-enforcement (Brown, 1988) of some laws by choosing not to take action in response to a violation. second, officers may under-enforce through the use of informal sanctions (e.g. warnings, directives, requests, etc.), rather than formal sanctions (e.g. arrests and citations) in response to some situations.

These various perspectives cast the police as having a high degree of discretion, authority and autonomy under the law. Concurrently, the police are faced with practical limitations which result in a decision making process based not only upon the law, but also upon extra-legal factors (Black, 1980; Brown, 1988; Stalans and Finn, 1995). The day-to-day occupational realities of policing are influenced not only by the letter of the law, but also by personal habits, organizational culture, community expectations, ecological influences and situational considerations (Campbell, 1999; Freeman, 1992; Novak et al., 2002; Schellenberg, 2000).

This reality leads to various questions concerning patterns of officer discretion in the performance of their duties. Much of the extant research has focused on a finite range of police decisions, often the decision to arrest. From a research perspective, this focus has a highly pragmatic basis because it simplifies enumerating a sample of police-citizen encounters for multivariate analysis. At the same time, there is also utility in examining police discretion across a range of offenses and potential offenders. This is important because many discretionary decisions made by the police are not dichotomies (arrest/no arrest; use force/do not use force) (Fridell and Binder, 1992; Pendleton, 1998). This is particularly true in encounters involving the enforcement of the law (Schellenberg, 2000), where officers can employ the law (arresting and/or citing), employ “less” law (arresting and/or citing for less serious or fewer offenses than the law might allow), employ the threat of the law (implicit or explicit warning and/or coercing through the implication of using the law), and/or employ no law (ignoring observed offenses altogether). This study used field observations and interviews to study how officers in a mid-western college community regulated alcohol offenses among the community’s youth population using a range of legal and non-legal measures. Consideration is given to both general departmental responses to these offenses (by patrol officers) as well as the choices and behaviors observed in an alcohol enforcement unit.

Police Discretion and Alcohol Offenses

Alcohol use and abuse have been long-standing concerns on and around American college campuses (Wechsler et al., 1998). Although sizeable proportions of college students and young adults abstain from the use of drinking, alcohol plays a central role in the social interactions of many. More than two-fifths (44 percent) of college students responding to a 1999 survey were classified as binge drinkers (defined as “the consumption of five or more drinks in a row for men and four or more for women, at least once in the two weeks preceding the survey”) (Wechsler et al., 2000, p. 199).

An additional one-third (35 percent) of the respondents consumed alcohol below the level of binging. In college communities, substantial proportions of police resources may be devoted to directly and indirectly regulating alcohol consumption and associated criminal behaviors.

The policing of alcohol offenses represents an interesting arena in which officers must negotiate order. Alcohol establishments (bars, nightclubs, liquor stores, etc.) tend to generate a high demand for policing services (Berkley and Thayer, 2000). The consumption of alcohol in public areas may lead to the occurrence of alcohol-related criminal violations (public intoxication or drunk driving), while also generating other types of criminal behavior (public urination, fighting, disorderly conduct, etc.). Society may expect a strong police response to some offenses (drunk driving), while others are viewed as less serious issues of social disorder (public urination). The police seek to use their discretion to negotiate order, a process made more challenging in areas with concentrations of alcohol establishments (Berkley and Thayer, 2000) given the volume of violations and the presence of a potentially aggressive audience. The situation is compounded by what officers may perceive as the consequences of invoking too much or too little law (Findlay et al., 2000).

Police enforcement decisions are derived through a complex calculus of sociological, psychological, and organizational factors (Worden, 1989). As scholars have noted (Brown, 1988; Klockars, 1985), officers often use their discretion to employ less law than they are allowed, routinely showing leniency by engaging in non-enforcement and under-enforcement of the law, even in the face of serious alcohol offenses (Meyers et al., 1987; Meyers et al., 1989).

When officers use their discretionary leniency in response to alcohol-related violations, research has found their choices may be motivated by sociological factors (offender demographics, the nature of the police-citizen encounter, prior relationships with the offender, etc.), psychological factors (officers’ perceptions of the severity of alcohol offenses, officer work-style, beliefs about the extent to which the enforcement of alcohol crimes is a priority for departmental supervisors, etc.), and organizational dimensions (training, policies, resource constraints, incentive systems, etc.) (Mastrofski and Ritti, 1992; Mastrofski et al., 1994; Meyers et al., 1987; Meyers et al., 1989). To date, however, most studies considered police enforcement behaviors relating with drunk driving; little is known about responses to other alcohol and alcohol-related offenses.

Specialized Enforcement Units

Within a single police agency, patterns of discretionary behavior can vary based upon environmental and organizational factors, including duty assignments (Klinger, 1997). It has become increasingly common for agencies to adopt specialized units, organizational structures, and enforcement foci in an effort to target offenses and offenders, believing that specialization will make efforts more efficient and effective (see Katz, 2001; Walker and Katz, 1995 for divergent views).

These specialized enforcement efforts have been used to address a variety of community problems, including hate crimes (Boyd et al., 1996), drug and vice enforcement (Reaves and Hart, 2000), repeat offenders (Martin, 1986; Martin and Sherman, 1986), “hot spots” of criminal behavior (Koper, 1995; Sherman and Rogan, 1995; Sherman and Weisburd, 1995), and various “special operations” needs (such as bomb disposal, search and rescue, “SWAT” units, and underwater recovery efforts) (Reaves and Hart, 2000). Specialized enforcement efforts remain popular, perhaps due to their symbolic value (Katz, 2001), although there is evidence that some approaches may generate desired outcomes (Skogan and Frydl, 2004).

Policing in Non-Urban Settings

Social observation and analysis of the police typically focus upon the general patrol function in major urban departments (Chambers, 2001; Falcone et al., 2002). This focus is largely a function of research pragmatics, such as:

  • The ease with which scholars may find access to large numbers of officers in a single agency;
  • The broader range of situations encountered in a shorter time frame within major urban areas;
  • The heightened visibility of the general patrol function;
  • The frequency with which general patrol officers come into contact with citizens; and
  • The large proportions of officers assigned to work in patrol divisions (the “backbone” of police departments).

Based upon both these practical and methodological considerations, researchers may deem it “better” to conduct studies in large agencies. Scholars have given less attention to the study of police operations in agencies serving smaller jurisdictions and/or specialized enforcement units in smaller agencies (recent notable exceptions include Chambers, 2001; Christensen and Crank, 2001; Crank, 1990; Falcone et al., 2002; Maguire et al., 1991; Sims, 1988; Thurman and McGarrell, 1997; Weisheit et al., 1999).

Little specific attention has been given to the use of police enforcement discretion in medium size communities, including college communities. Within college communities alcohol-related offenses can represent a significant demand on police resources (Berkley and Thayer, 2000) and, in contrast to urban areas, smaller communities may be able to devote greater resources to policing such crimes (Mastrofski et al., 1987). This study considers how a mid-western police agency policed alcohol consumption, particularly by the community’s sizeable student and young adult populations. In particular, it examines how officers used coercion and leniency to negotiate order within the context of offenses directly and indirectly related with the consumption of alcohol.


Data were gather through a series of interviews and fieldwork conducted in the “Prarietown” Police Department (PPD). General patrol officers, patrol supervisors, and members of the Alcohol Enforcement Unit (AEU) were included in the study population. One particular officer, “Martin Riggs,” played an integral role in the research process. The relationship between the author and Riggs closely approximates “active collaboration” as described by Van Maanen (1988). Riggs provided the author with access to the study organization and verified that the author was “alright.” It is believed that Riggs’ actions greatly enhanced participation on the part of PPD officers. Since the termination of data collection, the author has remained in touch with Riggs, who has provided additional clarification and insights on the author’s interpretations of PPD practices and police-student interactions during the enforcement of alcohol-related offenses. Riggs was hired by the PPD in 1994 after he completed a BA in the social sciences. During the data collection phase, he was in his late 20s, married and the father of two young children. His first four years with the PPD were spent working general patrol on the night shift (11:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m.). Officers reported that it was during this shift that the department made most of its alcohol-related contacts with the college students.

Prarietown is a mid-western community with a population of less than 100,000 residents. Prarietown is home to a state university enrolling nearly 25,000 students; a large proportion of the community’s population is in the 18-25 age bracket. Field observations and officer accounts suggest that a high percentage of police-citizen encounters made by the PPD involved members of this age bracket. Officers contended that a significant proportion of Prarietown’s crime and disorder problems were associated with the student’s and their alcohol consumption. Although department records were not structured a way to test this assertion, the patrol beats in which most students lived were notoriously busy, particularly with calls involving young adults and alcohol-related problems. Demands for police resources within these beats were centered in three distinct areas:

  1. The “Wallace Street” area (a business district adjacent to the campus with a high concentration of bars, pool halls, and late-night take-out restaurants).
  2. “Greek row” (a zone where many fraternities and sororities were located).
  3. A residential area with a high concentration of student renters.

The PPD had around 50 sworn officers, most of whom were assigned to the patrol division, with small proportions working in investigations, community service, or special operations.

The author began an on-going series of interviews and field observations with Riggs during his second year of service. These interviews and observations continued through Riggs’ seventh year of employment; during this five year time frame, the author carried out more than 400 hours of field work and conducted more than 20 hours of interviews. In the course of interacting with Riggs, the author had the opportunity to engage 21 other officers in interviews (carried out at police facilities, local restaurants, and while accompanying officers on patrol). In the course of accompanying officers on the job, the author also had shorter interactions with virtually every other employee; these were not interviews, but the encounters did offer limited amounts of additional insight. In the course of conducting the fieldwork, the author adopted the role of an observer who was actively interacting with the research subjects (Adler and Adler, 1994; Manning, 1987; Van Maanen, 1988). This coupling of field observations with unstructured interviews has a long history in qualitative studies of social settings (Fontana and Frey, 1994).

All interviews were unstructured and casual in nature, however they tended to focus on common themes, such as: officers’ orientations toward police work, interactions with young offenders, the regulation of alcohol consumption, perceptions of police-community relations, attitudes toward the agency and administrative matters, and views of how police work in PPD contrasted with police work in other agencies. All officers who engaged in formal interviews and observations were provided confidentiality in their responses and in any on-the-job behaviors witnessed by the author. To minimize reactivity (Adler and Adler, 1994; Berg, 2001), interview proceedings and observations were recorded using short-hand notes recorded in small notebooks in the most unobtrusive fashion possible under the circumstances. After each interview/observation, these notes were used to prepare more detailed field notes (Berg, 2001). Some interviews with Riggs were tape recorded and transcribed. With this exception, data were not captured verbatim; rather, the notes focus on broader views, attitudes, and behaviors.

In his fifth year of employment, Riggs volunteered for a one-year assignment to the Alcohol Enforcement Unit (AEU). The AEU consisted of a supervisor and three patrol officers, and served a dual-function within the PPD. A total of 40 percent of the officers’ time was spent supporting the investigative unit and various general-service needs of the department. Officers typically worked in this capacity (wearing plain clothes) during business hours on Tuesday and Wednesday. Their duties included handling evidence and seized property, and assisting with the processing of routine paperwork. The AEU earned its label during the other 60 percent of the work week. AEU officers worked in uniform from 8p.m. to 4a.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. Operating in teams of two, their sole responsibility was to patrol the community’s bars and taverns on foot, in search of underage drinkers and other alcohol-related problems. By virtue of their proximity to alcohol-related problems, AEU officers were also the first on the scene of many physical altercations and acts of vandalism. During this year, the author was able to observe Riggs and his three co-workers. In addition to these direct observations, many PPD officers interviewed in this project had worked in the AEU at some point during their career and all could speak with authority on the subject of alcohol related problems and police interactions with students.


The nexus between alcohol consumption, young adults, and demands on PPD resources was profound enough that officers associated much of the community’s crime and disorder problems with alcohol consumption by college-aged community members. While this representation did not encompass the full range of crime problems within the community, in the minds of officers, one of their core roles was to regulate the consumption of alcohol. Department records were insufficient to fully establish the prevalence of alcohol in the working environment of PPD officers, as the presence of alcohol was not systematically recorded for most reported incidents. Simply examining the reason for a police-citizen encounter (e.g. a field stop) or a call for service (e.g. a loud party complaint) does not indicate what role, if any, alcohol played in the incident. Despite the absence of quantitative proof that alcohol played a prominent role in policing Prarietown, field observations and interviews indicated that regulating the alcohol-related crimes helped define the police role in the community, particularly in the minds of officers.

PPD officers reported that much of their contact with the student-aged population involved alcohol, either as a primary or secondary factor. Alcohol was a primary factor in police-citizen contacts involving public intoxication, open container violations, drunk driving, and the possession of alcohol under the legal age. In addition to these common criminal offenses, alcohol was frequently observed to be a secondary factor in police encounters with the student body. Acts of vandalism, assaults, disorderly conduct, urination in public, disturbing the peace and quiet, and many medical calls involved the use of alcohol. The chief of police set a crucial informal tone by encouraging officers to be “firm but friendly” in responding to drinking within the student-aged population. Officers were expected to regulate alcohol consumption and its associated problems, but formal enforcement actions did not always need to be taken.

For many common alcohol-related offenses, general patrol officers were very lenient in their overall enforcement practices. Similar to accounts describing the regulation of drinking within dormitories (Rubington, 1996), PPD officers had certain standards and expectations for the consumption of alcohol and subsequent behavior. As long as these parameters were not exceeded, leniency was the norm. Threatened or actual use of citations and arrests were typically used to coerce citizens into complying with an officer’s requests, rather than as the punishment for a violation. Informal sanctions were very common when officers encountered: loud parties, persons possessing alcohol under the legal drinking age who were inside a private residence, persons intoxicated in public, people engaging in disorderly conduct, and people possessing open containers of alcohol in public.

Despite this tendency toward lenient conduct, the agency’s “firm but friendly” demeanor had its limits and officers did respond to certain circumstances with more serious sanctions. Formal sanctions were commonly utilized when a person committed “contempt of cop”, engaged in vandalism or assaults, violated a liquor law in a motor vehicle (e.g. open container, drunk driving), possessed alcohol under the legal age in public or at a bar, or used a fake identification. Formal sanctions were also commonly invoked in response to bootlegging liquor and when a business was caught selling alcohol to persons under the age of 21. Because of their work environment, members of the AEU were also more likely to invoke formal sanctions, in part because of the visible nature of both the offenses and their response.

The PPD was called upon to serve as a controlling, watch-dog presence in the bars and taverns throughout the community (particularly around the college). The clearest manifestation of this expectation was the Alcohol Enforcement Unit. During their evening/night shifts, the AEU was only responsible for policing the consumption of alcohol in public places, primarily through foot patrols in bars and taverns. Officers in the AEU were less likely to be lenient, in part because there was an organizational expectation that these officers would produce a large number of “stats” (citations and arrests), particularly for alcohol-related offenses. The AEU was specifically established to regulate drinking in public spaces. At the same time, the high volume of offenses officers encountered allowed them a reasonable degree of discretion; department and unit leaders expected productivity on the whole, but did not attempt to regulate how officers handled individual violators.

AEU officers were focused on youth who were in bars and taverns under the legal age (21 years old). It was believed that regulating youth drinking in public spaces was the key to regulating and controlling alcohol-related problems through the community. Although a surprisingly difficult process, AEU officers attempted to locate “under age” violators. This was accomplished by observing visual cues (an individual’s behavior when the officers entered a bar) and conducting sporadic random checks. Officers rarely checked a subject based simply on their apparent age, which experience had shown to be a poor indicator of actual age. It was believed that much of the deterrent value in the AEU was not in their actual enforcement decisions, but in their visibility within bars and the Wallace Street region.

The first two portions of this section present the research findings based upon the formal and informal ways in which PPD officers responded to alcohol-related behavior among area youth. The findings elaborate upon the ways in which alcohol-related problems defined the working environment of Prarietown police officers, both in the general patrol division and within the context of the AEU. The final section describes the specific ways in which AEU officers policed the alcohol consumption, how underage youth sought to elude encounters with the police, and how these processes shaped the nature of the relationship between officers and the young adult population within Prarietown.

General Patrol and Informal Responses

General patrol officers in Prarietown were frequently called upon to deal with alcohol-related problems involving young adults. Such incidents were particularly common in the evening hours, on the weekends, and in the patrol beat that housed much of the community’s college-age population. When dispatched to a call involving college students, officers routinely anticipated that alcohol was either directly or indirectly involved with the problem. According to Riggs:

I guess when it comes to the students it always seems to be alcohol related; whatever call it is, there’s always alcohol involved in some way. At loud parties there’s always alcohol … Sometimes it’s a situation where alcohol is the problem; other times alcohol is a contributing factor. A person may have been in a fight or had their car windows kicked in … on a routine basis our contacts with students have to do with alcohol in some way.

Although these situations did not exclusively involve college-aged citizens and/or the use of alcohol, officers perceived that exceptions were in the minority. General patrol officers were inclined to follow the chiefs “firm but friendly” guideline and utilize informal sanctions in the process of policing the consumption of alcohol by young adults.

Loud parties serve as an example of how Prarietown patrol officers routinely used leniency to police the consumption of alcohol by young adults. Responding to complaints of loud parties was extremely common after sunset, on weekend evenings, and during warmer weather (when residents would have windows open or would be outside, making noise more noticeable). Loud party complaints ranged from small groups of people talking loudly in an apartment to a fraternity “kegger” with a live band and hundreds of people in attendance. Upon responding to a loud party complaint, the responding officers) would attempt to locate a resident who was responsible for the party. The officer would inform the person of the complaint and would ask the citizen to “quiet things down.” If the host was cooperative or if it was a busy night around town, officers would typically issue a verbal warning. If the resident was argumentative or uncooperative (engaging in “contempt of cop”) officers were more likely to issue a citation and/or shut down the party.

The process of contacting a residence pursuant to a noise complaint frequently alerted the police to other criminal conduct – primarily, underage drinking. Because the area bars were closely policed (described below), those interested in consuming alcohol before they were legally of age often had to do so at private residences, periodically generating a loud party complaints. When officers responded to loud parties they usually discovered persons consuming while under the legal age. Under these circumstances, officers could opt to issue tickets to the violators and “shut down” the party. All open alcohol would be poured out in the officers’ presence. Sealed containers could be removed from the property by anyone over the age of 21. People were told to leave and were warned that if the officers had to return, “someone will go to jail.” Despite routinely capitalizing on the opportunity to shut down alcohol parties, officers rarely took formal enforcement measures in these circumstances. The reason for this was largely pragmatic; parties routinely involved too many under age citizens for the officer to ticket in a timely manner. The agency believed it was better to have officers warn the violators, break up the party, and return to patrol, rather than spending several hours checking identifications and writing numerous citations. Formal actions would only be taken if a citizen was uncooperative and belligerent toward an officer (engaging in “contempt of cop”), or if there was ample evidence that alcohol was being sold at the party.

Another example of general patrol leniency can be seen in the policing of public intoxication. Despite the presence of a municipal ordinance empowering officers to arrests persons who were drunk in public places, officers actively avoided making arrests for this offense. Unless an intoxicated person was causing a serious problem or was placing their well-being at risk, officers were reluctant to invoke formal sanctions. Persons who were subjected to a formal sanction (arrest) for public intoxication had typically exhibited some additional behavior that influenced the officer (being very loud or disorderly, impeding the follow of vehicle traffic, public urination or nudity, etc.). Officers feared that excessive enforcement of this ordinance might encourage drunk driving:

Unless a person is breaking another law or behaving in a way that places them in imminent danger, I won’t make an intox [Public Intoxication] arrest. I’d rather see them walking than driving. I was a college student once and I understand what its like to go out on the weekend and get lit. It’s a part of the college experience and I don’t have a major problem with people doing it. But, when they are hurting others or damaging other people’s property, when they are placing themselves in harms way, that’s when I feel obliged to intervene and make an arrest.

Officers appeared to be less consistent in their handling of citizens exhibiting disorderly conduct. Such “rowdy” behavior was very common among young males, particularly as they traveled to and from bars. A group of males might engage “horseplay” (e.g. wresting, snowball fights, impeding the flow of traffic, boisterous and flirtatious yelling); minor levels of disorder were routinely ignored. Greater levels of disorder might result in an officer stopping an individual or group of citizens. Provided that the disorderly citizens were compliant, warnings were typically employed in lieu of formal enforcement actions. When informal sanctions were applied, officers routinely warned citizens that further transgressions would result in arrest.

A final offense that typically received an informal response was the possession of open containers of alcohol. While on routine patrol it was common for officers to come into contact with people carrying open containers of alcohol. According to the municipal code of Prarietown, this “consumption on or about a public highway” was illegal. Persons in possession of open containers could be formally sanctioned; however officers rarely took such action. The usual response to an open container violation was to stop the person and ask them to pour out the drink, a request with which most citizens promptly complied. Failure to comply in a timely fashion might have resulted in an officer deciding to issue a citation. Some officers would also check the identification of the citizen to ensure they were old enough to legally possess alcohol. Officers indicated that open containers violations were far more common during the first part of the academic year. Students who were new to the campus did not always know that they were breaking the law. Many thought that as long as they were over the age of 21 and were not driving a car, such conduct was lawful.

General Patrol and Formal Responses

Despite their general tendency to prefer coercion and leniency, there were certain offenses and situations that almost always resulted in the imposition of formal sanctions by general patrol officers. As indicated above, a minor offense that would typically result in informal sanctions could quickly result in more serious consequences based upon a citizen’s demeanor. Officers were willing to be lenient as long as a citizen was respectful and compliant. Citizens who “hassled” an officer by asking too many questions, refusing to comply with requests, or in some way challenging the officer’s authority were less likely to enjoy leniency. “Contempt of cop” almost always resulted in an officer issuing a citation or making an arrest, provided valid legal cause existed to support the officer’s action.

PPD officers also exhibit a low-level of tolerance for fighting and acts of vandalism. Physical confrontations occurring in and around bars could become very large and weapons were occasionally involved. When young males had been drinking they often gained what officers referred to as “beer muscles” or “liquid courage.” Officers endeavored to make arrests whenever they encountered a physical confrontation. Alcohol was also believed to result in frequent acts of vandalism by younger consumers. This problem was particularly acute along common foot traffic routes between bars and student residential areas. Despite the prevalence of vandalism, offenses were not typically witnessed and officers rarely observed incidents. Perhaps for this reason, officers tended to make arrests for vandalism whenever possible.

Consistent with public demands and expectations, Prarietown officers were rarely lenient in enforcing the state’s drunk driving laws. The size of Prarietown and the geographic dispersion of student housing meant that some young adults choose to drive between bars and their residences. Despite public education programs intended to dissuade this conduct, drunk driving and alcohol-related accidents were still problems. Consequently, officers kept a watchful eye for possible drunk drivers and leaned towards arrest in response to observed offenses. During the course of the data collection, one night shift officer decided he was going to attempt to make 100 drunk driving arrests during a calendar year. By “engineering” (Brown, 1988) his workload, he ensured he was free to patrol major thorough fares around the times bars closed. Upon observing a car he believed was operated by a drunk driver, this officer would seek out any possible pretext to initiate a traffic stop. Upon initiating the traffic stop, the officer would quickly attempt to determine if the driver had been drinking. If there was no evidence of alcohol consumption, the officer would warn the driver about the offense which justified the stop and terminate the traffic stop, returning to his searching.

The Alcohol Enforcement Unit and Policing Public Drinking

Although sometimes called to deal with matters in private venues, the bulk of the AEU’s time was dedicated to regulating underage drinking in public areas (bars and taverns). Youth who frequented local bars and taverns appeared to have a general awareness of the AEU and its operations. Those who were under the legal age (21 years old) took a calculated risk by entering a bar (by either using a false identification or trying to avoid having their age checked by a bar employee) during the hours the AEU was on patrol. Although young adults may not have known the exact hours of operation for the AEU, they seemed to have a general sense that officers were patrolling bars during the evening and early morning hours on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Underage youth indicated that they knew they were facing a citation and fine if they were caught, but they also knew that there was a “game” that was played between the officers and the students (described in the appendix). This game pitted underage youths (who were seeking to drink in public places without legal repercussions) against police officers (primarily members of the AEU, who sought to locate and sanction underage drinkers in bars and taverns).

AEU officers were aware of the methods underage drinkers used to avoid detection and used their own tactics to play the opposing side in this duel. Riggs and other officers reported the tactics used in the AEU differed from those used by general patrol officers. The AEU was more enforcement-oriented than the patrol division; the AEU was expected to generally respond to alcohol-related violations with the use of formal sanctions. Officers reported that there was a learning curve involved in starting an AEU assignment; it took several weeks before officers became more skilled at learning to recognize fake ID’s, learned how to question someone believed to be using a fake ID, understood the evasion tactics used underage drinkers, and learned to read a person’s behavior to recognize potential underage drinkers. In a sense, underage drinkers believed that there were things that could be done to avoid detection, so they played a defensive game with officers. Members of the AEU, on the other hand, were playing the game on offense. They had to learn to read the defense in order to effectively “score” (catch a violator) on a regular basis.

One of the key ways AEU officers “played the game” was to focus on demeanor, rather than physical appearances, in determining which bar patrons to check. When they entered a bar, officers were looking for people who put down their drinks, passed drinks to friends, quickly went to the bathroom, headed for the back door, or who otherwise attempted to avoid having contact with the officers. This process not only involved watching for these visual cues, but also moving through bars in unpredictable manners. Officers would frequently split up as they walked through a crowded bar, reducing the chances someone would have of avoiding contact. Upon entering a crowded bar, one officer might stand by the main exit, while the other walked through the crowd trying to “flush out” underage drinkers. The stationary officer would carefully watch for patrons who seemed to be avoiding the patrolling officer.

On rare occasions, officers would enlist the aid of bar patrons when they were attempting to locate underage drinkers. This tactic was likely to be employed when male officers suspected that an underage female member was hiding in the restroom. In one observed incident, two AEU officers entered a bar that only had a dozen patrons. They observed a female patron quickly go to the restroom. After almost ten minutes, she had not emerged. The officers noticed another group of female patrons who they recognized as being “bar flies”. They jokingly “deputized” one of these patrons and asked her to check if there was anyone in the ladies restroom. This “deputy” was eventually able to locate the underage female (who had turned off the lights and was hiding in a stall).

One of the key ways in which officers played the game was through their interactions with the patrons they were checking, in particular those who they suspected of using fakes. The AEU maintained a collection of hundreds of fake IDs they had seized so that officers new to the unit could learn how to spot fakes while on the job. Officers quickly became skilled at learning the short-comings of fakes purchased from merchants. Although technology has improved this process, there are still problems that officers learned to spot.

AEU officers were fully aware that underage drinkers who used fakes would attempt to memorize all the requisite personal information. To counteract this process, officers employed several tricks and processes. While underage drinkers might attempt to appear legal to bar staff by using fakes that bore their picture and personal information (with a modified date of birth), they could not change the state’s motor vehicle bureau computer system. AEU officers could simply radio or telephone a police dispatcher for a verification check, a process that normally took 10-15 seconds. It was more difficult for officers to catch violators who were using someone else’s personal information (via that person’s valid identification or a fake which merged the bearer’s likeness with another’s personal information). Computer checks on these individuals would indicate that they were of legal drinking age. Among other tactics, officers could ask the bearer if they had recently received a traffic ticket or been in a traffic accident, information that could be verified through a computer check. If the bearer was a college student, officers might ask their year and major, which police dispatchers could confirm by checking university records. Officers also made use of more subterfuge to identify false statements or inconsistencies. For example, officers might pretend that a license check indicated a recent accident or traffic ticket; the bearer of a suspected fake would then be asked to “tell me about the accident you had last summer.”

Errors or inconsistencies in these areas never proved that a person was using a false identification; however, they gave officers additional reason to continue their inquiries with the bearer. An underage drinker who tried to explain a non-existent accident could be confronted with this fact. A person who did not know their own major or year in school might have a difficult time explaining this to the satisfaction of the officers. When youth were caught in a lie, they would often confess to the officer, particularly if the officer threatened to charge them with additional violations if they did not “come clean.” For officers, the challenge of the game was to see how quickly they could identify someone using a fake and elicit a confession to that effect.

Despite the high potential for an adversarial relationship to emerge between the AEU officers and young adults frequenting the Wallace Street bar district, the relationship was largely positive. Many of the officers were college graduates who had once engaged in drinking while under the legal age. The officers were not attempting to eliminate the consumption of alcohol by minors; rather, they sought to regulate this behavior. Although they did not use the label, AEU officers seemed to be following a “broken windows” approach to policing the Wallace Street bars (Wilson and Kelling, 1982). Illegal and disorderly behavior was allowed, but only within certain normative limits (Berkley and Thayer, 2000). The department sought to be very consistent in policing youth drinking so that these norms would be clearly (although implicitly) understood by members.

AEU officers had very friendly relationships with many bar patrons. Officers would develop amicable relationships with the “bar flies” who frequented various establishments. It was common for officers to enter a bar and spend a few minutes in a friendly social encounter with that bar’s regular patron(s). Officers were often asked to pose for pictures with bar patrons who were celebrating a major event (e.g. birthdays, bachelorette parties, graduations, major academic achievements, etc.). One long-time member of the AEU would only pose for a photo if the patrons promised to send him a copy of the photo; he had scores of such photos adorning the wall above his desk. Another local custom of unknown origin involved “junior police officer” stickers, gold foil badges that were normally given to young children during crime prevention programs. A tradition had evolved in which AEU officers would give these stickers to bar patrons who were celebrating their birthday. These badge stickers would be worn proudly by the birthday boy/girl. The officers routinely had to fend off good-natured requests for the badges by persons who were not celebrating their birthday. The AEU appeared to be an institution among the young adults frequenting the Wallace Street bar district. Much like a school teacher, AEU officers were in a position of authority and were viewed as obstacles to a good time, but they were not resented for this position.

Riggs and others stated they were routinely approached by young adults who would actually ask to have their identification checked. These youth, typically in some state of intoxication, would indicate that they had been ticketed by the AEU before they were 21. The youth did not initiate these encounters in a hostile manner; rather, they were seeking to show that they held no animosity toward the officer and that they were now “legal” to be in the bar. In one observed interaction, an intoxicated male stopped Riggs and his partner as they were walking through a crowded bar. The youth quickly produced his identification and, with a smile on his face, stated:

You guys wrote me [a citation] last fall, but look – I’m legal now.

Although officers in the AEU were more enforcement-oriented than their peers, they still did exhibit leniency of a different sort. General patrol officers would normally issue warnings for many alcohol-related violations. AEU officers were far more likely to issue a citation or make an arrest, but they also tended to under-enforce by not taking formal sanctions in response to every violation they observed. When an AEU officer located an underage drinker, there were typically several violations. First, the individual was in a bar while under the legal age. second, many of these underage individuals were in possession of alcohol. Third, offenders were frequently intoxicated. Finally, some offenders had used a fake or altered identification (ID) to enter the bar and/or purchase alcohol. Despite being presented with multiple violations, officers would usually only issue one citation. Though exceptions might be made based upon demeanor and compliance, officers did not believe they needed to engage in full enforcement in order to achieve the desired deterrent outcome of the AEU.


These findings must be tempered with certain methodological limitations. Because recording interactions would have increased potential subject reactivity (Nastasi, 1999), it was necessary to use “short-hand” field notes to capture broader themes and observations. As with any form of qualitative research, its impossible to determine the extent to which the observer’s presence influenced the social scene under observation (Adler and Adler, 1994; Babbie, 1986). Interviews were conducted with purposive officers (those who would consent to be interviewed/observed) from a single agency in one college community; the extent to which study findings might be generalized is unclear. The findings are largely descriptive and exploratory in nature (Berg, 2001; Manning, 1987); they have not been systematically tested to determine whether officers’ beliefs translated into actual behaviors (Adler and Adler, 1994). Other interesting issues, such as how students and others central to the process of youth alcohol consumption (e.g. bartenders, bouncers, store clerks, residence hall personnel, etc.) view and interpret the regulation of this behavior, cannot be directly addressed.

Nonetheless, important observations can still be made. This study is not simply an analysis of urban policing on a smaller scale. While elements of an urban officer’s “working personality” (us vs them, competitiveness) and operational tactics (coercion) were still employed in Prarietown, patrol officers (particularly those working in the AEU) had a very different focus. Their primary concern was not simply controlling crime and preserving their personal safety, but negotiating order in the process of regulating alcohol consumption by college-aged youth and, in the context of AEU officers, winning “the game.” Officers made extensive use of leniency and informal responses to the problems they encountered. In many instances, informal responses were partially a product of pragmatic considerations. It would be very time consuming and difficult for an officer to cite every underage drinker found possessing alcohol at a larger private party (although this did happen on occasion). The department was too small for officers to spend large amounts of time dealing with these “non-serious” violations. At the same time, the enforcement of the law was viewed not as the end objective, but as a means for ensuring community order.

Officers in the PPD saw their job as primarily relating to policing the consumption of alcohol and associated behaviors. This situation was enhanced by Prarietown’s low crime rate and the community’s high level of economic stability. Most Prarietown residents worked for the university, for businesses supporting the university, or in white-collar occupations. The community has a reputation for having one of the lowest crime rates in the state. During the late 1990s, Prarietown averaged between 28 and 23 Part I offenses per 1,000 residents, a rate that consistently made Prarietown one of the three safest communities of its size in the state. Officers were acutely aware of the low rate of serious crime; Prarietown was just a “quiet” community where “nothing ever happens.”

Prarietown officers were occasionally assaulted while on duty, did come into contact with citizens who possessed weapons, and did respond to “shots fired” and similar high-risk calls. These incidents were, however, rare in contrast to their prevalence in other communities. Many officers reported believing that their personal safety was rarely a major concern as they went about their duties. This issue was the subject of frequent internal jokes. While “officer safety” was a constant concern, PPD personnel tempered this concern with the knowledge that their physical safety was rarely threatened. Physical altercations with the students were common, but the intent of the students was typically to evade arrest, rather than to actively harm the officer. This situation was clearly noted by several officers who had prior work experience in larger departments or correctional facilities. Prarietown officers did worry about their safety while performing their duties, however this concern was not a defining aspect of their occupation (Barker, 1999), particularly in policing youth drinking.

Officers in PPD tended to become very cynical about college students. It has long been noted that urban officers tend to become jaded and suspicious of the public because they rarely contact the “good” citizens in their community (Niederhoffer, 1967). Analogously, PPD officers were cynical in their attitudes toward the student-aged population. As they rarely had contact with “good” students, all students were stereotyped in a similar fashion. All students were assumed to “partiers”; they spent more time in the pursuit of alcohol, a good party, and the opposite sex, than they did studying or working. It was assumed that students would reflexively lie to the police and could not be trusted. Although officers knew this stereotype was untrue (many new officers were college graduates), the use of this stereotype simplified their worldview. Like the urban officer who does not see the “good” residents of their community, PPD officers had little contact with the vast numbers of students who were responsible, hard working, diligent students.

One of the hardest things for PPD officers to remember is that their negative contacts with the students are not representative of the behavior of the student body as a whole. A small portion of the student body was likely responsible for most of the contacts with the police. The officers lacked opportunity or cause come in contact with a large segment of the student population. They never saw the student who worked full-time to pay for college. They never saw the straight A scholar who was working hard to graduate in three years. They never saw the non-drinking student who spent the weekends in a peaceful and lawful manner. Just as an urban officer may lose sight of the “hard working” and “decent” members of their community, the Prarietown officer lost perspective on the fact that the culture of drinking did not necessarily reflect upon the entire student body, or young adults, as a whole.

In the process of negotiation orderly outcomes to situations involving alcohol, officers made extensive use of leniency, including both non-enforcement and the under-enforcement of the law. Throughout the department, leniency was the prevailing norm in the enforcement of alcohol related crime, although patterned exceptions are noted. Officers did not just show leniency or not show leniency (Schellenberg, 2000); rather, they alternately fully enforced the law, under-enforced the law, used non-legal coercion, warned offenders, and ignored crimes altogether. Duty assignment also influenced sanctioning choices, with less leniency shown by members of the AEU (Campbell, 1999; Novak et al., 2002). Interestingly, officers seemed to revert to their old rules of enforcement once their time with the AEU had finished. Riggs indicated that upon returning to the patrol division, he returned to his old habits and patterns for deciding when and how to use discretionary leniency.

As an enforcement tool the efficacy of the AEU remains unproven. Although some literature would support the notion that such a targeted enforcement unit could reduce offending behavior (Chermak et al., 2001; Riksheim and Chermak, 1993; Skogan and Frydl, 2004) in absence of evidence no clear assessments can be made. The AEU’s long-term status differs from the short-term crackdowns that have exhibited modest effects on crime and disorder in other communities. The study findings also highlight the strong role demeanor played in enforcement decisions. Regardless of their duty assignment, officers tended toward strict enforcement of the law when a violation occurred and the offender failed to show appropriate contrition, cooperation, and deference. Brown (1988) refers to such situations as failing the “attitude test”; when a citizen does not exhibit the demeanor deemed appropriate by the officer, leniency in sanctioning becomes much less likely. Observed sanctioning for “contempt of cop” always occurred when a valid offense was at hand; officers did not manufacture or use pretextual evidence to support an arrest simply as a mechanism for establishing their authority. Nonetheless, legitimate questions emerge as to whether displays of non-deferential behavior are legitimate criteria for officers to use in make enforcement decisions. Future research might examine public support for officers using such “attitude tests” as a valid extra-legal factor influencing their discretionary behavior.