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Why wearing sagging pants on a college campus becomes a criminal offense

Why are there so many escalations with the police on campus? Paul A. Hernandez, CC BY

Why wearing sagging pants on a college campus becomes a criminal offense

A disciplinary board at Hinds Community College in Raymond, Mississippi, has ruled that a student arrested earlier this month for failing to show his student ID to campus police officers when asked to do so will not face punishment from the school.

Officers testified during the hearing that the student wasn’t rude during the encounter and did not violate the school’s dress code policy that prohibited wearing sagging pants (“sagging”), initially believed to be the reason for the arrest.

The panel also ruled the student was not disorderly and that aside from not showing his ID, he did not violate any school policy.

The incident, however, made national news.

This is the second noteworthy incident involving campus police in less than three months. In late July, former University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing shot and killed an unarmed motorist, Joseph Dubose, during an apparently routine traffic stop near the UC campus.

Officer Tensing was later indicted on murder charges and is awaiting trial.

As one who has studied the history, structure and function of campus police departments for nearly 20 years, I find incidents involving campus police officers apparently exceeding their authority troubling, particularly given the current backdrop of conflicts occurring between police officers and members of the African-American community in varied locations around the country.

Granted, these are isolated incidents. But one can certainly ask why such escalations occur during apparently routine interactions between campus police officers and citizens.

Who becomes a cop?

Campus police officers, like their municipal counterparts, engage in what are called field interrogations of people both on and (increasingly) off campus.

Field interrogations occur when an officer stops and questions someone – what’s their name, what are they doing in the location – because the officer reasonably infers from the circumstances that the citizen has committed or is likely to commit an offense.

In some cases, field interrogations may escalate into physical conflict between the officer and student.

Who becomes a cop? JOBAfunky, CC BY-NC-ND

Some observers have suggested such escalations are not accidental.

For example, research has found that police officers possess traits that are associated with authoritarian personalities. That is, they rigidly adhere to certain values, including a strong belief in hard work, that people should not be “given” anything (particularly by the government) and that one’s family is extremely important. An additional trait of authoritarians is a tendency to express hostility toward people unlike themselves.

There is also evidence that police officers are generally more conservative than are the people they police.

It could also be argued the way that police departments recruit and screen prospective officers is designed to result in certain “types of people” making the cut: those that embody (or are amenable to learning) the culture of that particular department – in effect, its values and beliefs.

Enforcing the status quo

The authority of these police officers is announced well before the officer even says a word: he or she wears a uniform and carries a host of accouterments associated with their authority (a sidearm, handcuffs, impact weapons (baton), pepper spray and/or a TASER, a radio, ammunition, etc). The officer is also trained to use his or her voice to gain compliance from citizens.

The authority that police officers represent is the status quo; challenges to it are thus taken seriously.

“Old school” characterizations like “contempt of cop” or “pissing off a police officer” (POPO) describe someone failing to act deferentially toward a police officer and, therefore, “deserving” what they get – arrest, a beating, or worse.

Are campus police overreacting? MCC Current, CC BY-SA

What this means is that some campus officers who experience nondeferential behavior from students may overreact and thereby create conflict.

How an officer responds to such challenges is a function of both the officer’s individual judgment and how well he or she is indoctrinated into the culture of the department (specifically) and the culture of policing (more broadly).

The police culture variously has been described as including certain core values: group loyalty, the police as “crime fighters,” organizational tension with superiors and distrust of citizens. Those values are then learned by new officers and reinforced by veteran officers.

Ideology and policing

Conservatives, including those who are police officers, typically support traditional social and cultural arrangements, thereby emphasizing stability and continuity. Such themes also fit nicely into the culture of policing.

For these police officers, challenges to stability, such as those posed by “fashion statements” like sagging, must be dealt with swiftly and with certainty.

Research shows that officers who closely embody the values of the police culture are more coercive during interactions with citizens compared with those failing to align with that culture.

If campus officers whose political and social ideology falls more on the conservative side of the ledger have been socialized into and accept the values associated with the police culture, which includes higher levels of authoritarian personality traits, we should not be surprised to learn of such incidents where officers may respond inappropriately.

What’s the solution?

Today’s college campuses are increasingly diverse and complex places that often resemble small cities. Further, not since the 1960s have college students been involved in activism like they are today.

This situation creates unique challenges – and opportunities – for campus police officers.

Campus officers are “real cops,” sworn law enforcement personnel who have completed training in academies certified by the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training (IADLEST). IADLEST serves as the national forum of Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) agencies, boards and commissions as well as statewide training academies throughout the United States.

On the other hand, unlike officers employed in municipal and state police departments, there is wide variation in the availability of in-service training for campus officers.

One solution might be for the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators (IACLEA), the organization responsible for accrediting campus law enforcement agencies, to design and implement some required annual number of hours of in-service training in conflict resolution and related activities to help campus officers better understand social cultural differences between them and the students they police.

Doing this may help reduce conflicts arising between campus police and citizens – students and nonstudents alike.

Ensuring that campus police officers have the best possible preparation for doing their jobs benefits everyone: the officers, the college or university and those interacting with the officers.

Implementing in-service training to help campus officers adapt to an increasingly complex and changing landscape would seem a reasonable step to help reduce conflict between officers and citizens and increase student trust of, and confidence in, their campus police.