Field studies of police behavior have tended to focus on the generalized patrol function in major urban areas. Largely absent from this body of literature are considerations of specialized units, particularly in smaller communities. Studies of police discretion often center on the arrest decision, giving less attention to other aspects of sanctioning discretion. This study seeks to examine how police officers in a mid‐western college community used leniency and coercion to negotiate order in policing the consumption of alcohol by college‐aged youth.
Field observations and interviews were used to study decision‐making patterns among both general patrol officers and personnel assigned to a specialized unit tasked with patrolling alcohol establishments.
Findings suggested that officers employed leniency in variable patterns, primarily based on duty assignment. At the same time, citizen demeanor was often a key in shaping sanctioning outcomes in alcohol‐enforcement encounters. Within the enforcement unit, interactions between officers and young adults were surprisingly amicable, despite the potential for more contentious relations.
The use of qualitative methods in a single agency renders the findings exploratory in nature; further inquiry might examine the policing of youth drinking using more systematic means in similar communities.
Study findings contribute to understanding of police discretion by exploring the issue in an under‐studied venue and by contrasting enforcement decisions between officers with different duty assignments.
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