American Sociological Association

ASA Footnotes

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
July/August 2020

Race, Violence, Justice, and Campus Police

John J. Sloan III, Professor Emeritus of Criminal Justice, University of Alabama-Birmingham

John J. Sloan III

John J. Sloan III

Extensive media coverage has occurred of ongoing nationwide protests over issues like racial profiling and violence perpetrated by municipal police officers against people of color. Less well covered have been protests at Yale, the University of Chicago, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Minnesota (among others) over campus police officers allegedly engaging in the same kind of behavior toward people of color as their municipal counterparts. As punishment, protestors have called for defunding, disarming, or abolishing campus police departments that are found at over 60 percent of all four-year postsecondary institutions in this country enrolling 2,500 or more students (see Table 1).

Having studied, written about, and worked with campus police agencies for nearly 25 years, improper behavior by “campus cops” is not surprising to me because both campus and municipal police agencies:

  • are relatively complex bureaucracies with high levels of specialization;
  • are paramilitary organizations relying on a system of ranks and chain of command;
  • serve similar functions; and
  • have officers who are part of an occupational culture that values the “blue wall of silence” which proscribes them from “turning on their own.” 

Why wouldn’t agencies adopting the same organizational model, processes, and procedures, and whose members possess the same occupational culture experience the same problems

To understand why this moment in campus policing arrived, one must first understand the history, structure, and function of these departments. One needs to also understand both the context and complexity of campus policing. Finally, one must understand how these factors combine to create problems that campus law enforcement agencies need to address. 

The Evolution of Campus Police in America

The first recorded instance of police officers patrolling a college campus occurred in 1898 when Yale University hired two off-duty City of New Haven police officers to walk around campus and check for open doors, signs of forced entry or vandalism, and identify spots where fires could develop. Enough schools copied Yale that over the next 50 years, watchmen became a feature of many college and university campuses. These individuals, acting primarily in a custodial capacity, were tasked with protecting university property. During the 1950s, their duties expanded to include more quasi security guard-related endeavors that included enforcing campus rules, reporting crime incidents to local police, and detaining suspects. 

In the late 1960s and early 1970s the first campus police departments appeared, largely in response to growing levels of campus unrest. As protests became more national in scope, so did the specter of local police (and even National Guard troops) in full riot gear coming on campus to quell them. The presence of state or local police on campus was untenable for many faculty members and most students. Postsecondary administrators realized, however, they had to take appropriate measures to keep order on campus — otherwise outsiders would do it for them. The solution was for colleges and universities to create their own police departments that would keep order but also be part of the larger campus community. With the help of legislators, school administrators were successful in getting enabling legislation passed in multiple states. Thus were born campus police agencies that organizationally resembled municipal police agencies, replete with ranks, written policies and procedures, and operating budgets, whose officers would be uniformed, sworn law enforcement officials, possessing full arrest powers, who would patrol campus, deter crime, respond to calls for assistance, and maintain order. 

Beginning in the 1980s and extending into the 1990s professionalization of campus policing took center stage and focused on making campus officers even more like their municipal counterparts, partly in an effort to bring campus officers needed legitimacy. This professionalization began with officers wearing a military-style uniform (complete with badge, name tag, and markings indicating rank and years-in-service) and utility belt which stores the equipment of law enforcers. Campus officers eventually began wearing bullet-proof-vests as well. 

Professionalizing campus police also focused on enhanced recruitment of, and training for, campus officers. During their infancy, campus police departments typically “fished” officers, especially at command levels, from local police and county sheriff’s departments and/or hired officers who had retired from other agencies. As departments grew and matured, they not only continued to lure officers from other agencies but they also began to seriously recruit into their ranks current and recently graduated secondary and postsecondary students interested in law enforcement careers. Further, applicants for sworn officer positions would now undergo screening similar to that experienced by applicants for municipal police positions. New hires would also be required to complete the same police academy basic training program required of new hires in other agencies. The end result was not only that campus officers would look like “real” police, they would undergo the same screening and training to prepare them for their work. But what exactly is the work of the campus police? 

The Complexity of Campus Policing

Scholars generally agree that the police serve three primary functions in society: crime control, order maintenance, and service. These functions are reflected in an officer’s “scope of duties.” Focusing on the scope of duties of campus police, surveys of campus law enforcement agencies find officers most often engage in the standard model of policing that relies on preventive patrol of campus and rapid response to on-campus calls-for-service. Additionally, officers provide security for events, facilities, and people; are involved with vehicular enforcement; perform public safety functions; and engage in specialized functions including representation on multi-agency task forces, participation in search/rescue actions, or staffing special weapons and tactics (SWAT) teams. Importantly, these duties are often performed in incredibly varied contexts. 

The Context of Campus Policing

According to the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, postsecondary institutions in this country can be classified along more than 90 different dimensions. Campus police departments are thus found at large, world-class, research-intensive, publicly controlled, doctoral granting institutions and small, private, special focus colleges. Agencies are found at schools in the heart of large cities and schools in very rural areas. Campus police are used at largely commuter schools and those where most students live on campus. Agencies also police campuses that feature large-scale medical centers drawing people to them from all over the world. Institutional diversity thus creates the context of campus policing. One could thus reasonably expect different “models” of campus policing for these varied contexts. The problem is that very often campus agencies over-rely on the standard model of policing, “tried and true” methods of recruitment, and police academy-based training for new hires. It is from these features of campus law enforcement that problems can arise. 

Issues Confronting Campus Police 

Organizational theory can explain not only why campus police agencies were created, that mimetic isomorphism — the tendency of organizations to imitate another’s structure because the structure is believed beneficial to achieving organizational goals — was the mechanism used, and municipal police agencies were the model being emulated. Further, as campus agencies became common, pressure developed to professionalize them, a movement that was also occurring in policing more broadly. Campus executives and their law enforcement experts again looked to municipal police for guidance in how to respond.

Because campus agencies have mimicked their municipal counterparts, claims of serious improprieties being perpetrated by campus officers are hardly surprising. But note that I strongly reject the argument that miscreant officers are “bad apples” spoiling the barrel, and that the best solution is to fire and/or prosecute them. Although employment and legal action should be taken when warranted, this will not solve the problem of police mistreating people of color. Rather, blame should be squarely placed on the mimetic isomorphism that continues to push campus police to become ever more like their municipal police counterparts, despite mounting evidence that many problems confronting these agencies are systemic. Although bad apples certainly exist, the real problem is the barrel and the fact is both municipal and campus police agencies are effectively using the same one.

The first problem with the barrel is that it is selective but not necessarily in good ways. While gains are clearly being made, compared to their share of the population, white males are disproportionately found among the ranks of municipal and campus police officers. In some instances, the lack of diversity among campus police officers is stunning. For example, during 2011-2012 — the most recent years for which agency data are available — among campus agencies with sworn officers, 33 percent of them had no sworn officers of color. About one-half of agencies (48 percent) had between zero and two female sworn officers. While these data are out-of-date, I’m fairly certain there has not been a radical change in the (lack of) diversity of campus police officers the past decade. 

The lack of diversity in campus policing is strongly tied to recruiting to the status quo. For over 50 years, the recruitment of people into and screening processes for sworn officer positions have revolved around four areas: physical agility, psychological fitness, medical fitness, and possessing the proper values. While significant advances have occurred in testing and screening procedures in the first three areas, little has changed regarding screening prospects for possessing “proper values” that can then be fine-tuned via police academy, field, and in-service training. The problem is that the skill-sets and values deemed “proper” too strongly relate to the “noble cause” of policing which is to “get the bad guys off the street.” Until recruiting and testing focuses less on “the noble cause” and more on the importance of possessing values and skill-sets relating to cultural diversity, mediation, and conflict management, real change is unlikely. Yet fewer than 40 percent of campus agencies report that they use screening procedures that include testing on cultural diversity or assessing the mediation/conflict management skills of applicants.

Further, while police academy training for new campus officers may be “good for professionalizing campus policing,” I question the usefulness of academy training: 

  • that can occur at any one of nearly 600 different academies run by state police, county police or sheriff’s departments, municipal police, and colleges and universities, among others; 
  • whose scope and cumulative requirements widely vary; 
  • whose atmosphere may intentionally mimic a military style “boot camp”; 
  • whose curricula cumulatively devote less than five percent of total contact hours to topics like conflict de-escalation, use of excessive force, community building, problem solving, ethics, and cultural diversity and 44 percent of total contact hours to operations and weapons training; and 
  • whose completion rates evidence significant differences by trainee race and gender.

Finally, I would be remiss if I failed to mention how the history, recruitment, and training of campus police along with the professionalization movement risks militarization. In 2011-2012, 27 percent of campus police agencies surveyed had officers assigned to a tactical operations (SWAT) team. This means that of the approximately 900 campus police departments operating at that time, about 250 of them had a unit using specialized military tactics and equipment to address “high-risk” situations — threats of terrorism, crowd control, and hostage taking — that are beyond the capabilities of “ordinary law enforcement.” Radley Balko has been among the most vocal critics of a growing tendency by many different types of police agencies to overutilize SWAT teams to perform routine tasks (e.g., serving search warrants) that ultimately result in unnecessary casualties among citizens and damage to property.


Over the past 50 years, uniformed, armed, sworn police officers with full arrest powers have become part of the fabric of life at many postsecondary institutions. Increasingly, campus police officers and the agencies employing them reflect their municipal counterparts not only organizationally, but in recruitment practices, training required, and tactics used — including those associated with the military. They also increasingly face criticism similar to that levied against municipal police over excessive force used during arrests, overly aggressive patrol tactics, racial profiling, and militarization. Explanations that “bad apples” are to blame have limited utility. Instead, explanations that holistically consider the history, structure, function, and culture of campus policing offer better insight into problems that need addressing. In this watershed moment in American policing, as potentially radical change comes to policing more broadly, campus police agencies will once again undergo change.