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  • “It doesn’t matter if I’m trying to get better,” Tyler said, “[My past is] just gonna follow me around. Every time a cop runs my plate, it’s gonna be there.”  Tweet This
  • Distrust of police officers is part of this crisis of distrust among white, working-class Americans, especially when the distrust is rooted in personal experience.  Tweet This
  • Distrust often begins firmly rooted in reality, a rational response to real experiences—whether it’s distrust of marriage after witnessing the demise of your parents’ union, or distrust of police after repeated questionable encounters. Tweet This

Tyler, a married father of four with a past history of opioid addiction, figures that in the 11 years since he’s had a driver’s license, he’s been questioned or stopped by the police about 40 times. He can count about 20 stops alone in the year and a half after he completed drug rehab. By now, he’s learned a well-worn pattern: the officer says he’s stopping Tyler for something minor—such as, driving four miles over the speed limit, failing to have his seat belt on, or walking into a gas station to pay for gas and then into a McDonald’s to buy a sandwich (the officer said he suspected Tyler was a drug dealer)—and the situation quickly escalates, with, for example, Tyler sharing his understanding of the state’s speeding laws and ending up in handcuffs with his vehicle getting searched. 

Tyler is white. He grew up in a small, white, working-class town on the edge of Cincinnati’s suburbs, and now lives in a racially-mixed neighborhood. In both places, Tyler says he has felt targeted by the police.

“It’s always the same,” Tyler told me, recently. “I’m gonna search your vehicle whether you like it or not, I’m gonna search you whether you like it or not, I’m gonna put you in handcuffs no matter what you did.” 

Tyler thinks many of the police tactics he’s experienced are at least borderline illegal, but he feels powerless to do anything about it. 

“They figure out what you’re known for,” he said, “and then they’re just real sly . . . making you feel like, ‘I’ve gotta put these handcuffs on you. I have to search you and your vehicle. And I have every legal reason to do it.’ When they honestly don’t. They’re bullies,” he said, his voice betraying indignation, but also resignation, as though, it’s just the way things are, so what can he do? 

Tyler is not anti-cop—his cousin is a police officer—and he recalls fondly the officer in his hometown who would sometimes find a younger Tyler smoking marijuana on the sidewalks and, instead of busting him, tell him in a friendly but firm voice, “Put that out and go smoke it in your backyard.” Tyler knows that officer by name. 

Another time, when Tyler had overdosed, the cop who revived him with Narcan told Tyler gently that he didn’t need to be doing this to himself—that he was a better man than that.

 But overall, Tyler doesn’t feel like the police are on his side, and he thinks the bad cops outnumber the good. “They’re power-hungry power abusers; they swing that authority around like they can,” he said. “They’re not here for us…they’re out to get you.”

Tyler, who was abused as a child, grew into a young man who became addicted to drugs and built a resume of trouble. He is now a young husband, reformed and resolved to stay that way. But he feels that it’s him versus the police in this quest.  

“It doesn’t matter if I’m trying to get better,” he said, “[My past is] just gonna follow me around. Every time a cop runs my plate, it’s gonna be there.” 

Tyler’s story illustrates that police profiling may come with a heavy social cost, hemorrhaging the social trust of communities being policed and sending a message to people like Tyler: you’re a bad guy and we’re going to prove it.

We know from research that well-intentioned programs like D.A.R.E., which aim to scare people into good behavior often don’t work, and, in fact, may inadvertently encourage the opposite results. If this is true for scared-straight programs, what kind of effect does aggressive policing—policing that can veer into misconduct and brutality—have on the people being aggressively policed? 

When my wife, Amber, and I first began interviewing white, working-class residents in southwest Ohio in 2010, police misconduct was far from our minds. Our interviews were focused on young people’s experiences in relationships. But every now and then, someone would mention their distrust of the police. In our interviews about relationships and marriage, the sentiment bubbled to the surface enough that we wondered if there was a story there. 

Mark, a white man in his late 20s with a suspended driver’s license thanks to multiple DUI’s, felt that he could drive all night long through downtown Cincinnati and not get one suspicious look from a police officer, but as soon as he hit his white, working-class small town, the “social profiling” started.

“You get in this town after midnight,” he told us, “[the cop] is gonna be right on [you].” 

Sarah, whose stepdad was a police officer, said, “I’ll go on for hours about how corrupt that [police] system is.” 

A single mother of four told us: “My favorite show is 'Cops,' but I can’t stand police officers.” 

Tyler’s story illustrates that police profiling may come with a heavy social cost, hemorrhaging the social trust of communities being policed and sending a message to people like Tyler: you’re a bad guy and we’re going to prove it.

My friend, Lance, told me about the time an officer with a police dog stopped him and searched his car for no apparent reason. He figures it was because of the kind of car he was driving and his appearance—the tint of the windows, or maybe the tattoos lining his arms—and that he was “coming out of a low-income neighborhood that is known for drugs.” He thinks they were looking for drugs, and he looked like the kind of (white) guy who did drugs. 

It wasn’t the first time that Lance says he has felt profiled for his ZIP code or for his looks; give him an hour, and he’ll describe a long history of  experiencing what he calls getting “financially profiled”—targeted because he lives in a working-class neighborhood. For instance, there was the high school teacher, knowing the area where Lance lived, who publicly told him, “You’re not worth teaching because you’re gonna end up in jail anyway!”  

Then, Lance says, there is the stereotype he feels as a white person that “you’re either rich or a red-neck hillbilly.” 

In other words, both Lance and Tyler know what it’s like to be treated derogatorily based on the neighborhood that they live in—they know what it’s like to feel profiled. They may view current debates differently—Tyler supports the recent protests against police brutality, Lance takes a dimmer view; Tyler believes there are deep-rooted problems with police culture, Lance thinks there are some bad apples but most cops are basically good; Tyler thinks President Trump is a terrible president, Lance is a devoted supporter. Still, I can’t help but wonder: what’s stopping Lance and Tyler’s experiences of police misconduct and social profiling as white, working-class men from being integrated into a multiracial, bipartisan coalition to address police misconduct?

Data suggests that these aren’t just isolated anecdotes from southwest Ohio. A 2016 Cato Institute/You Gov national survey captures the nuance with whites’ experiences of police. As the study reports, “White Americans with annual incomes exceeding $60,000 a year are 23 points more favorable toward the police than white Americans with incomes less than $30,000 a year (79% vs. 56%).” In other words, lower-income whites are less likely to have favorable views of police than higher-income whites. 

Moreover, a study by the People’s Policy Project suggests that white, working-class people are particularly vulnerable to police brutality. As Jacobin reported, the study found that

the rate of police killings increased as census tract poverty increased, with the level of police killings in the highest-poverty quintile more than three times that of the lowest-poverty quintile. In layman’s terms, you’re overall more likely to be killed by a police officer if you’re working-class or poor.

While it’s certainly true that Blacks are more likely to report unfair experiences with police, it’s important to understand the scope of police misconduct and distrust of police in white, working-class America. And it’s simplistic to think that people in white, working-class America possess unvarnished trust for the men and women in blue, and that experiences of police misconduct are alien to them. 

Indeed, I’d be surprised if there wasn’t pervasive distrust of police among the white, working class. As my wife and I learned from our interviews, many white, working-class young adults experience a profound crisis of trust that often begins in one’s family of origin and romantic relationships, then extends outward: from one’s employer to the local daycare center to the federal government. Distrust of police officers is part of this crisis of distrust, especially when the distrust is rooted in personal experience. 

And here’s the thing: distrust often begins firmly rooted in reality, a rational response to real experiences—whether it’s distrust of marriage after witnessing the demise of your parents’ union, or distrust of police after repeated experiences of questionable police encounters. The distrust is a symptom that something is probably rotten, even if those of us with higher incomes and greater social capital are more shielded from that rottenness.   

For all these reasons, it’s important, as the Jacobin article concludes, “to continue building a multiracial working-class mass movement that stands in opposition to both racist police brutality and brutal class stratification.” 

If Tyler had his way, he’d reform police training so that it would focus on teaching cops “to save instead of to kill.” 

“Anybody can shoot somebody,” Tyler offered, “but not everybody can sew somebody up. Anybody can escalate a situation; quite a few can de-escalate a situation.” 

Tyler says he’d like to be part of a police reform movement that roundly affirms human life, no matter how marginal.

“The homeless guy on the street, whether he’s white or Black...he matters,” Tyler said. “It doesn’t matter if he’s been shooting up heroin for years. I mattered back then, I matter now. Every life is precious.” 

Could police reform efforts include the voices and experiences of working-class whites like Tyler and Lance? I see no reason why they shouldn’t.  

David Lapp is a co-founder of Braver Angels and a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies. Along with his wife, Amber, David serves as co-investigator of the Love and Marriage in Middle America Project. 

*Photo credit: Erik Mclean on Unsplash