The Influence of Police Encounters on Perceptions of Campus Law Enforcement


Campus law enforcement officers play a crucial role within the campus community. While research about policing has focused on public perceptions of municipal police, much less attention has been given to campus police departments. This study examines the influence of encounters with campus police officers on overall perceptions of campus police. Using survey data from a mid-sized public university in the southeast, this study examines the perceptions of the campus police by 313 campus community members. Findings from a linear regression analysis indicated that campus members who have encountered a campus police officer in the previous year report higher overall perceptions of their campus police.

Keywords: Campus policing, Perceptions of campus police, Campus police encounters


Campus law enforcement (CLE) is not a new phenomenon. It is believed to have started in 1894 when two New Haven officers were hired to work at Yale University (Sloan et al., 2000). Since then, CLE has steadily spread across the nation. A 2015 special report by the Bureau of Justice Studies (BJS) revealed that 68% of US 4-year colleges and universities with 2,500 or more students have a sworn police force on campus, and 75% of those universities/colleges employ armed officers (Reaves, 2015). The percentage of sworn officers on university/college campuses is considerably higher for public institutions (92%) than private institutions (38%). Moreover, the percentage of sworn officers on university and college campuses grew from 75% in the 2004-05 study to 77% in the 2011-12 study. The percentage of armed officers also grew from 68% in 2004-05 to 75% in 2011-12.

The early duties of CLE primarily entailed patrolling the campus (Sloan et al., 2000). By the 20th century, their duties evolved into the watchman style of policing, which included maintaining order and performing tasks such as addressing parking issues (Allen, 2021; Sloan et al., 2000). With the rise of campus violence, the nature of the work of CLE has evolved into performing many of the duties that municipal police currently perform, including crime investigation and the power to arrest (Paoline & Sloan, 2003; Peak et al., 2008). The Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, codified at 20 USC 1092 (f), is a driving force behind much of the change in CLE responsibilities (Peak et al., 2008). Originally enacted by Congress in 1990 as the Campus Security Act and renamed the Clery Act in 1998, the law requires colleges and universities to release criminal information/statistics (e.g., sexual violations, violent acts) to the campus community and do so in a timely fashion. More recently, CLE has taken an emergency preparedness focus in response to high-profile national security events such as 9/11, the 2007 mass murder at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech), and more recent active shooter incidents (Bromley, 2013).

While much attention has been devoted to studying police in state and local municipalities (Wilson & Wilson, 2015; Worrall, 1999), very little attention is devoted to CLE agencies. As campus police are a specialized component of the larger police community, identifying their function and public perceptions is necessary. As of 2018, campus police made up 4.5% of all law enforcement agencies in the US (USDOJ, 2023).  Yet, while much of the attention has been devoted to improving policing in state and local municipalities, very little is targeted at improving campus CLE. The purpose of the current study is to help fill that void. The study aims to build upon previous examinations of students’ perceptions of campus police by capturing the perception of the entire campus community including staff, faculty, and administration rather than just students to provide a fuller understanding of perceptions of campus police. More pointedly, we contend that diversity in the expectations of campus police by students, staff, faculty, and administration can lead to differing perceptions of the campus police.


Literature Review 

As much of the literature on public perceptions of the police focuses on municipal policing, there remains a dearth of knowledge on students’ perceptions of campus police. This is unfortunate, for not only has there been a dramatic increase in the use of campus law enforcement (Peak et al., 2008; Reaves, 2015), but as Dizon (2023) explains, in the same way, “driving while Black” on the nation’s highways can result in negative consequences, so too can “walking while Black” on college/university campuses. Importantly, results from empirical studies on attitudes towards the police suggest that perceptions of the police can be conditioned by several factors, including demographics of the respondents and broader contextual factors such as encounters with the police, all of which also apply to campus communities which operate like a small city within a larger city (Griffith et al., 2004).

Demographics of Respondents

Among the demographic factors, one of the most explored is race/ethnicity. Although some studies have found no statistically significant differences based on race/ethnicity (Socia et al., 2021), a paucity of studies has found evidence indicating that Blacks have more positive views of the police than Whites (Frank et al., 1996; Sims et al., 2002). More recently, Allen and Jacques (2020) found that Black college students perceived campus police to be less racially biased than municipal police. However, the larger body of literature on citizens’ perception of the police tends to show that relative to minorities, Whites have more trust in the police (Dongarra, 2014), more confidence (Lee & Gibbs, 2015), view them in higher esteem (Cochran & Warren, 2012), have higher overall views (Youstin & Kopp, 2021), higher satisfaction (Ferdick et al., 2022), are more likely to perceive the police as legitimate (Fine et al., 2022; Wada et al., 2010) and possess an overall more favorable disposition towards the police (Correia et al., 1996; Hurst & Frank, 2000; Mbuba, 2010; Rosenbaum et al., 2005; Wheelock et al., 2019).

Results on the influence of sex on perceptions of the police are also mixed. While much evidence suggests females maintain more positive attitudes toward the police than their male counterparts (Griffith et al., 2004; Hurst & Frank, 2000; Mbuba, 2010), other studies (Brown & Coulter, 1983; Correia et al., 1996; Youstin & Kopp, 2021) have found that men, not women, hold a more favorable view of the police. Still, there are those who found no association between police perception and gender (Aiello, 2020; Cao, 2001; Davis, 1990; Jesilow et al., 1995; Kusow et al., 1997; Murty et al., 1990). Griffith et al. (2004), for example, sampled 557 students at a mid-sized university. Griffith et al. (2004) controlled for several demographics, including age, ethnicity, and gender. However, the researchers found gender was the only demographic factor to reach statistical significance: female respondents reported higher levels of satisfaction with campus police.

Suspicious that observations of independent variables can mask nuances of citizens attitudes towards the police and in response to Hancock’s (2007) call on the use of intersectionality as a research paradigm, Kule and colleagues (2019) went further by examining the intersectionality of race, gender, and social class. Their findings suggested that White males with incomes above $40,000 had high levels of satisfaction with the police (Kule et al., 2019). Similarly, Aiello (2020) used a sample of 519 undergraduate students in a mid-sized university, to examine the interactions between legitimacy and crime types as a determinant for willingness to report a crime. Not only did sex fail to condition students’ perception of police legitimacy, but his examination of the interactions between legitimacy and sex, race/ethnicity, and prior criminal experience were also statistically insignificant (Aiello, 2020).

Police Encounters

Also, of interest to police researchers is the relationship between personal or vicarious encounters with the police and the influence of the encounter on attitudes towards the police. Franklin et al. (2019), for example, found that Black students who had negative personal or familial experiences with the police had significantly lower confidence in the police than students who had no prior experience. Their finding is consistent with the earlier work of Miller and Pan (1987), who surveyed 277 students and found that those who experienced proactive or police-initiated encounters with the police had a more unfavorable view of the police. This was especially the case for those who received tickets for traffic violations. In fact, Miller and Pan (1987) found that receiving a traffic ticket from campus police had a more negative influence on the perception of the police than being arrested or detained for questioning. According to Mbuba (2010), minorities are expected to have lower perceptions of the police because they have more contact with the police. However, some evidence indicates that encounters with law enforcement may be conditioned by prior attitudes about the police rather than the other way around (Brandl et al., 1994; Dizon, 2023; Rosenbaum et al., 2005). For example, Dizon (2023) sampled 31 black males at a private research university in what he describes as “the largest campus public law enforcement agencies in the nation” (p. 413). He found that while some of the males in his study reported personal encounters with the police that were negative, over half the men discussed racist examples of campus policing practices but did not have personal experiences of racial profiling. Allen and Jacques (2020) focused on 66 Black and biracial males at a mid-size university and, like Dizon (2023), found evidence that some of the respondents harbored negative views of the police prior to their encounter with the police.

Student Perception versus Staff, Faculty, & Administration

Although there is a scarcity of literature on students’ attitudes towards campus police, less is known about the perceptions of staff, faculty, and administration and even less about the contrast between those two groups (students versus university employees). In Jacobsen’s (2015) study of students’ perceptions of the legitimacy of campus police, she interviewed 23 students and one staff member. Although she did not specify how the staff’s perception differs from that of students, she did acknowledge that students may have different expectations of the police due to their status as young adults living away from home for the first time and trying to navigate a life of independence while simultaneously seeking to establish their own identity.

Seemingly aware of the differences in experiences between students and faculty/staff, Kyle et al. (2017) surveyed 410 students, faculty, and staff in their study on support of a campus safety initiative at a large public university. Their findings revealed that students and faculty/staff did hold divergent views of the proposed safety initiatives. Students reported stronger support for safety policies that address the carrying of firearms on campus. In contrast, faculty/staff reported stronger support for safety policies that address information sharing and enhanced restrictions on who can enroll or remain on campus. Notably, the study revealed that when there was agreement on an issue, the level of support varied greatly between the two groups. For example, while 83.1 percent of faculty/staff expressed opposition to students carrying a firearm, only 62.9 percent of students expressed similar opposition (Kyle et al., 2017). When the issue shifted to faculty carrying a firearm, less than half of the students (47.8%) but more than half of the faculty (62.93%) disagreed that faculty should be able to carry a firearm on campus(Kyle et al., 2017). Other studies that have contrasted the views of students to that of faculty/staff have also uncovered differences in opinions between the two groups(Har et al., 2006; Leavy & Dunlosky, 1989). Collectively, the findings of these studies suggest that we should not assume these two groups share similar views. Relative to faculty/staff, students are at a different phase of their lives and, accordingly, may have different relationships with the campus police. For example, while the campus may serve as a workplace for faculty/staff, it is home to students who live on campus, and those students must therefore rely on-campus police for 24-hour protection.

Data & Methods

This study aimed to examine the influence of encounters with campus police on the overall perceptions of the campus police. The study data are from surveys administered to campus members in a mid-sized 4-year southeastern university during the Spring of 2021. At the time of the study, there were approximately 12,735 faculty, staff, and students. The University Institutional Review Board approved the research protocols. A total of 364 campus staff, faculty, students, and administrators completed the survey. Cases missing data for the study were removed, and the final sample was composed of 313 respondents.


The dependent variable for the study was the overall perception of the campus police. Respondents were asked, “Which of the following best describes your overall perception of the campus police?” A five-item scale with higher values indicating higher overall perceptions of the police was provided. About 40.6% of the respondents reported very positive perceptions of the campus police. The average response was 3.05.

The study’s independent variable was encounters with the campus police. Respondents were asked, “How many times in the last 12 months have you had contact with a campus police officer?” The majority of the respondents (69%, n=216) reported having some form of contact with the campus police in the previous 12 months. The study also controlled for three respondent demographics: gender, race, and status. Respondents were asked their gender, with four options: male, female, trans/non-binary/general non-conforming, and prefer not to answer. Due to a low response rate in the trans/non-binary/general non-conforming (1.4%) category, a dichotomous variable of Male (0) and Female (1) was created. The majority of the respondents were female (62.3%, n=195). Race/ethnicity was measured as White, Black, Hispanic, or Other race. Due to low responses in some categories, race/ethnicity was collapsed into two categories: White (86.9%, n=272) and Non-white (13.1%, n=41). White was the referent category. Finally, campus status was considered. Respondents were asked about their affiliation to campus: Administrator, Faculty, Staff, and Student. Due to the low representation of Administrators (n=13), they were excluded from the study. Most of the respondents were staff (40.9%, n=128). See Table 1 for all descriptive statistics.

Table 1
Univariate Statistics (N=313)

Variable Mean SD Range n %
Perception of Campus Police 3.05 1.002 0-4 313
Encounter with Campus Police
     No 97 31.0
     Yes 216 69.0
     Male 118 37.7
     Female 195 62.3
     White/Caucasian 272 86.9
      Black/African American 23 7.3
      Hispanic 6 1.9
      Other 12 3.8
    Staff 308 5.9
    Faculty 1,908 36.2
    Student 2,795 53.1



To assess the bivariate relationship between the independent and dependent variables, an independent samples t-test was performed. The 216 respondents who had experienced encounters with the campus police (M=3.18, SD=0.993) compared to the 97 respondents who had not encountered the police reported significantly higher overall perceptions of the campus police,  t(311)=-3.471, p=0.001. The effect size for this analysis (d=-0.418) was found to exceed Cohen’s (1988) convention for a small effect (d=0.20). See Table 2.

Table 2
Bivariate Statistics (N=313)

Encounter Yes No t(311) p Cohen’s d
Perception 3.18 0.993 2.76 0.993 -3.471 0.001 -0.418


Multiple regression was used to determine whether an encounter with the police was a predictor of overall perceptions of the campus police, while individual factors. See Table 3. The regression model demonstrated an F-score (4.745) that was statistically significant (p<.001), indicating that the model explained a significant amount of variation in perceptions, and the R2 was .268. VIFs were less than 2 and all tolerances greater than 6, indicating there were no issues with multicollinearity.

The independent variable, encounter with the police, was statistically significant (b=.312, SE=.127, p=.014) after controlling for other factors. This illustrates that those who had experienced encounters with the police reported higher perceptions of the campus police compared to those who had not had encounters. Looking at the control variables, sex and status were significant predictors. Compared to males, females are report lower perceptions of the campus police (b= -.258, SE=.114, p=.024). Compared to staff, faculty report significantly lower perceptions of campus police (b= -.291, SE=.137, p=.034). Student status and race were not significant predictors.


Table 3
Linear Regression (N=313)

Variable b SE
Encounter: Yes 0.312* 0.127
Sex: Female -0.258* 0.114
Race: Non-White -0.232 0.167
Status: Faculty -0.291* 0.137
Status: Student -0.126 0.138
Constant 3.151*** 0.160
R-squared .268

Note: *p <.05. **p <.01. ***p <.001.

Discussion & Conclusion

A primary finding of the study is that police encounters condition perceptions of campus police. This outcome is consistent with previous studies that also found a relationship between those who have previous encounters with the police. However, our study is limited in that we did not explore the nature or the outcome of the encounter. This is important because there is reason to believe that citizens who have a positive encounter with the police may have a different opinion of the police than someone with a negative encounter. Similarly, a citizen whose encounter with the police was proactive might have a different perception from those whose encounter was police-initiated (Theobald & Haider-Markel, 2009). For example, Rosenbaum et al. (2005) found that the quality of the encounter influenced attitudes toward the police but only for citizen-initiated contacts; a negative experience from a citizen-initiated contact produces a significant negative attitude toward the police. However, when the police initiate the encounter, a negative experience does not influence the perception of the police. Youstin and Kopp’s (2021) examination of college students revealed that merely having an encounter with the police was not a significant predictor of perception of officer behavior. However, when the type of interaction was considered (e.g., positive or negative), White students emerged as having a more positive attitude towards the police than non-whites (Youstin & Kopp, 2021).

Cognizant of the fact that very few people have direct experiences with the police, some scholars (Callanan & Rosenberger, 2011; Intravia et al., 2020; Rosenberger & Dierenfeldt, 2022) have turned to the examination of other conditioning factors, such as media consumption influence in shaping perceptions of the police. Rosenberger and Dierenfeldt’s (2022) findings, for example, show that despite representing opposite ideological viewpoints, viewers of liberal-leaning CNN and conservative-leaning FOX both profess confidence in the police, albeit it only held true for White viewers. This suggests that more work needs to be done to understand not just the sources of the perception but also the factors that influence it.

Future research should also expand to include not just students. While we were able to assess student, staff, and faculty perceptions, our study was limited by a low response rate for administrators and were therefore removed from the study. We believe that the different expectations of the police by administrators, faculty, students, and staff require an exploration of how those diverse expectations can influence perceptions of campus police. For example, Jacobsen’s (2015) study of college students’ perception of the legitimacy of campus police revealed that students’ views of the police were predicated on their expectations of the role/duties of the police. Specifically, she found that while students yearned to feel safe and protected, students nonetheless felt a level of discomfort in being overly policed. If the police acted as protectors, student views of the police legitimacy were positive. However, if students felt their college experience was being hampered by police behavior and tactics, views of CLE were negative. Along similar lines, Allen (2021) explains that campus police must strike a balance between the university administrators’ expectations of the police to keep the campus safe yet avoid aggressive tactics and severe sanctioning that can affect enrollment. While Jacobsen (2015) did include one staff member in her study, there are compelling reasons for the broader incorporation of staff, faculty, and university administrators in future studies of campus police.

The policy implications of our results are far-reaching. Evidence of a relationship between perceptions of the police and police encounters signals the importance of building a strong and positive relationship between the police and campus community members. Campus law enforcement agencies are best characterized as an agency focused on safety and security rather than the primary emphasis on the crime control mandate of municipal law enforcement agencies (Wilson & Wilson, 2011). As such, there is an expectation that CLE officers would be more community oriented. Their goals and efforts of reform should then be centered on establishing and building a strong campus community. Community policing is ideal for college/university campuses (Basham, 2022; Hancock, 2016) and can be successfully implemented to help build community trust in the police. Community policing is a philosophical approach to law enforcement focusing on police-community partnerships, proactive practices, and a problem-solving perspective (Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, 2014). The promotion of positive interactions between campus police and campus community members can be accomplished by increasing the use of foot patrol, participating in campus community engagement, or integrating the campus police into campus orientation and other new student events. Additionally, through communication with the campus community, administration can promote the role and services of the campus police and assist with building trusting police-community relations.



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Gale Iles, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice in the Department of Social, Cultural, and Justice Studies at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Her research interests lie in sentencing practices, particularly the identification and examination of unwarranted sentencing disparities and racial and ethnic inequalities in the administration of justice. She has also done work in the areas of comparative cross-national crime and delinquency. Her most recent works have appeared in the International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, and the Journal of Ethnicity in Criminal Justice.

Sherah L. Basham, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Social, Cultural, and Justice Studies at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She holds a Ph.D. in Criminal Justice and has over 20 years of experience in the criminal justice field in the areas of investigations, campus security, and higher education. Her research interests include policing, campus law enforcement, and emergency preparedness. Her most recent research appears in Policing: An International Journal, the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, and the Journal of Criminal Justice Education. ORCID:

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