July 29th, 2015. Philadelphia PA. Officers Paul Watson, right, and his partner Officer Richard O'Brien make a traffic stop with  as neighbors look on. After the police searched his car, the man was released.
Officers Paul Watson, right, and his partner Officer Richard O'Brien make a traffic stop as neighbors look on. After the police searched his car, the man was released. July 29, 2015. Philadelphia, Pa.Natalie Keyssar for TIME
July 29th, 2015. Philadelphia PA. Officers Paul Watson, right, and his partner Officer Richard O'Brien make a traffic stop with  as neighbors look on. After the police searched his car, the man was released.
July 28th, 2015. Philadelphia, PA. Officers respond to a call regarding a young woman being threatened by an ex boyfriend. After asking a series of questions the police filed a domestic report. (Natalie Keyssar)
July 28th, 2015. Philadelphia, PA.  First year officer Jonathan Dedos (a "foot beat") questions a group of young men, after a shooting suspect was described as an african american wearing white and on a bike, a description which would imply the majority of young men in the neighborhood. This group, at a local park, was vouched for a by a man who works with local youth, and the police moved on. (Natalie Keyssar)
July 31st, 2015. Philadelphia. Officers Damon Linder and Edwin Vaughn speak to neighbors who looked on in disapproval as they threatened to impound a car which was being driven by a man without a license in West Philly on Friday evening. Ultimately the man was ticketed and the car was released to a licensed driver.
July 30th, 2015. A neighbor watches as officers search the scene for shell casings after reports of a man shooting off a shotgun to threaten him from his porch. As no one heard shots and there were no casings, police suspected the man had brandished the weapon but not fired it.
July 28th, 2015. Philadelphia, PA. After a shooting nearby with reports of a suspect fleeing on a bicycle, officer Ryan Mundrick (center, black clothes) joins "foot beats" Ashley Sipos (center right police officer) and Jonathan Dedos (right) in questioning a group of youth as they come out of a bodega. Dispatch had sent out information that there was a black male suspect on a bicycle so police fanned out looking for people of that description, including many of the youth in the neighborhood. After a brief interaction the police and youth went their separate ways without incident. (Natalie Keyssar)
July 31st, 2015. Philadelphia. A boy rides by a patrol car on his bike on Friday evening.
July 28th, 2015. Philadelphia, PA. First year officer Jonathan Dedos (a "foot beat") walks his beat, searching for a shooting suspect. (Natalie Keyssar)
July 28th, 2015. Philadelphia, PA. First year "foot beat" officers Jonathan Dedos (left) and Ashley Sipos (right) run down the street in West Philadelphia after a radio call comes in that someone has been shot in a nearby housing complex.(Natalie Keyssar)
July 29, 2015. Philadelphia, PA. Officers Brian Dillard (left) and Robert Saccone (Right) detain a young man who fit the description of a criminal suspect in West Philadelphia. After being searched and questioned he was released. (Natalie Keyssar)
July 30th, 2015. Officers search the scene for shell casings after reports of a man shooting off a shotgun to threaten his neighbor from his porch. As no one heard shots and there were no casings, police suspected the man had brandished the weapon but not fired it.
July 31th, 2015. Captain Joe Bologna chats with Louise Robinson in her kitchen after she called him in off the street to look at a problem with overgrowth in her back yard. Robinson has lived in her home down the street from the 19th District station since the 50's, and says that hers was one of the first black families to move to the neighborhood.
July 27th, 2015. Philadelphia, PA. Sergeant Rodney Linder, center, speaks to a group of officers before they head out on patrol for the evening. (Natalie Keyssar)
July 29th, 2015. Philadelphia PA. Officer Jade Howard inspects the patrol car's computer which gives information about incoming radio calls and suspects.
July 29th, 2015. Philadelphia PA. A young boy watches as the police car passes with its sirens on.
July 28th, 2015. Philadelphia, PA.  A young woman watches from a West Philadelphia corner as police drive by. (Natalie Keyssar)
July 29th, 2015. Philadelphia PA. A man is arrested for allegedly violating a Protection From Abuse order by Officer Paul Watson, right, and his partner, Richard O'Brien. His case is pending judicial proceedings now.
July 31st, 2015. Philadelphia. After running from the police and being caught, a young man visibly shaken and sweaty recovers in the back of a patrol car. When asked why he ran he said he'd had bad experiences with the police in the past. No evidence of criminal activity was found on him or nearby and he was ultimately released.
July 28th, 2015. Philadelphia, PA.  Officer Sean Devlin gives a sobriety test to a man caught driving without a license. Ultimately he was not found to be intoxicated but the car was towed because he wasn't licensed. (Natalie Keyssar)
July 31st, 2015. Philadelphia.  Officer , Richard O'Brien searches an alley where a suspect had fled previously, searching for evidence he might have dropped items like drugs or weapons. He found nothing.
Officers Paul Watson, right, and his partner Officer Richard O'Brien make a traffic stop as neighbors look on. After the
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Natalie Keyssar for TIME
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This Photographer Shows What It Means to Be a Cop Today

Aug 13, 2015

For the past year, New York-based Natalie Keyssar has been photographing the Black Lives Matter movement as it spread across the country. She was in Ferguson, Mo., after Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, was killed by a white police officer. She traveled to Baltimore when Freddie Gray died while in police custody last April. And she covered the aftermath of Eric Garner’s death in Staten Island, N.Y.

So when TIME asked her to embed with the police officers of West Philadelphia's District 19 for a week, she didn’t hesitate. “As a photojournalist my interactions with police are almost always quick and frequently during moments of high tension, so having this time to see how they work, hear how they feel, and see what their daily lives are like during this pivotal moment for policing in America, was an amazing opportunity,” she tells TIME.

During her assignment, Keyssar would spend more than 12 hours a day with police officers, often on patrols. “I’d arrive at the station most days between 10:00 a.m. and noon, which allowed me to catch three different patrols each day,” she says. “I spent the rest of my time at the station, photographing officers [as they] do paperwork, eat bagged lunches and talk about their experiences on the street.”

Read Karl Vick's report on What It's Live Being a Cop Today in this week's issue of TIME

At first, the officers were wary of her presence — on any story, a photographer needs to create a trusting relationship with his or her subjects. “It’s sort of universal in a certain way,” Keyssar says. “I’m a big believer in threading lightly, letting people get a feel for you before shooting, especially if you have the time,” she says. That means spending time with your camera hanging on your shoulder, looking people in the eyes and talking to them; letting them getting used to you. “These officers are not accustomed to having an outsider in there,” she explains. “For the first 48 hours, my presence there was a bit off-putting – not in negative way, it was just surprising for them to see a girl running around with a camera. They want to know that you don’t see them as caricatures.”

Cops in America Time Magazine Cover Photograph by Natalie Keyssar for TIME 

Once that initial apprehension disappeared, she fell into the district’s rhythm, allowing her to engage on a more personal level with the officers. Keyssar particularly remembers one instance when, between pat downs and car stops, both officers who she was shadowing pulled out their iPhones and FaceTimed their children. At that moment, she says, their tense demeanor disappeared: “They became parents. They became like anybody else. Seeing those very quick transitions between police officers and moms or dads, that was pretty powerful for me.”

After her week spent in that district, Keyssar feels her perspective on the police has changed. “I’ve spent a lot of time in my career standing next to protesters, and I’ve seen police from that side — they are sort of a caricature [from that side]. They are doing a job and they are sort of representing a system. They are not allowed to express their feelings and that can be dehumanizing,” she says. “I think, after this assignment, I’ll carry that more human perspective. Whether these people are representing the system or not, and whether there are failures within that system that need to be addressed, there are also human elements that I feel are...forgotten.”

And Keyssar’s hope is that others will see it too – at least in her photos.

Natalie Keyssar is a freelance photojournalist and Story Contributor at Institute for Artist Management. She is based in New York.

Myles Little, who edited this photo essay, is an Associate Photo Editor at TIME.

Olivier Laurent is the editor of TIME LightBox. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @olivierclaurent

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