Year of Award


Document Type


Degree Type

Master of Arts (MA)

Degree Name

Sociology (Criminology Option)

Department or School/College


Committee Chair

Dr. Dusten Hollist

Commitee Members

Dr. Dusten Hollist, Dr. James Burfeind, Dr. Laura Kirsch


police, police discretion, social space, traffic stop, traffic enforcement


University of Montana

Subject Categories



This research extends Donald Black’s (1976) theory of law to a large, more diverse sample of traffic stops than previous research. The theory suggests that with every citizen-police encounter, there is social distance separating the two parties. This distance is based on observable characteristics of both the officer and citizen involved. Specifically, their gender, age, race, demeanor, and whether they differ across these variables or not. A large difference in “social distance” increases the likelihood that an officer will cite a motorist; while a small distance reduces this likelihood. Social distance is the amount of diversity between two parties in conflict (Black 1976). Camera recordings from body-worn and police vehicle camera systems were viewed to retrospectively study traffic stops (n=320) conducted by both a city and county law enforcement agency. Both agencies were taken into consideration to control for outside variables and to increase the generalizability of the results. Data analysis supported Black’s theory in that greater amounts of social space increased the likelihood of motorists being cited. The opposite is also true in that officers who were more similar to motorists often let them off with a warning. Using logistic regression, social space was a significant predictor at the 99% confidence interval. No notable differences between city and county jurisdictions was found, suggesting that characteristics outside of those observable of an individual, do not have a large impact on the disposition of a traffic stop.

Included in

Criminology Commons



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