Photograph by Natalie Keyssar for TIME
TIME nation

What It’s Like to Be a Cop in America

Natalie Keyssar for TIME Police officers respond to a young woman who said she was threatened by an ex-boyfriend on July 28 in Philadelphia’s 19th District

“Every time a police officer fires his weapon, the reputation of the police department is on the line”

‘Every time a police officer fires his weapon, the reputation of the police department is on the line.’

–Captain Joe Bologna, Philadelphia Police District 19

Trevor Peszko wears the uniform of a Philadelphia cop with the same earnestness that made him a success in his first career, as a corporate trainer for Chuck E. Cheese’s. “They flew me to Vegas to dress up as the mascot for their GM convention,” he says. “That was my first time in Vegas. I was 19.” And at 31, he’s back in the city where he grew up, walking slowly toward the driver’s-side window of a car that has just run a red light in a high-crime patch of town. Peszko is white. The driver is black. And as if the neighborhood does not look sufficiently desolate already, flies buzz around a rat dead on the pavement between them.

Peszko walks past it and, when he reaches the rear of the car, pauses briefly to press his fingertips on the trunk. It’s a routine move intended to address hazards that predate all recent controversies attending police work. The touch assures that, first, the trunk is indeed latched and will not, in some dramatic motion perhaps not seen outside of Hollywood, spring open to allow a hidden gunman to spray the officer with bullets. It also assures that in the somewhat less remote chance that the driver opens fire and takes off, he flees with his victim’s fingerprints on the car.

But when Peszko reaches the driver’s window and peers down, the only thing pointing at him is a cell phone. It’s propped on the speedometer ledge with its lens turned outward, recording everything he does and says, which turns out to be: “Just be straight with me: I know you’re late for work.” And “Next time it might be a ticket.”

Wherever a cop shows up today, so do people with cell-phone cameras. They hold them out from their bodies, like shields, and up in the faces of the officers, like taunts. “They got a cell-phone ‘gun,’” says Anthony Jones, who like Peszko patrols some of the city’s roughest neighborhoods. The phones have become so common in the crowds that are increasingly thronging arrests that the department circulated a flyer showing a “gun” with the barrel opened to hold an iPhone. It went out at roll call, along with the usual “Be careful out there,” in the hope that Philadelphia might avoid joining a list that much of the country can now recite from memory: Ferguson, North Charleston and, sadly, onward.

“Nowadays we’re in a culture where everything’s against the police, at least in the areas I patrol,” says officer Ernie Williams. “Social media, news outlets, they’re really coming down on police. And we still gotta come to work. I pray nobody’s going to get shot or hurt, but the reality is, somebody probably is. We still have a job to do. And at times it can be a very difficult job.”

Now would be one of those times. There are some 680,000 sworn police officers in the U.S., and in the past 12 months, every one of them has had to answer, in one way or another, for the actions of colleagues they will never meet except on the screens running the latest viral police incident. “There’s times,” says Sergeant Francis Kelly, “when you get resistance because of what happens in some other part of the country.”

For most cops, the scrutiny is not debilitating. It is not even new. In many ways it is merely an intensification of what police have always encountered: the public’s wary attention. Whether wrestling a suspect to the ground or buying a coffee at 7-Eleven, they are instantly the center of attention. The watchmen are used to being watched.

What’s changed is something else: the assumption of who is good and who is bad. In a Gallup survey in June, just 52% of Americans expressed confidence in the police, down 4 points from a year earlier and tying the lowest level since 1993. The atmosphere then was defined by the beating of Rodney King, recorded by a man on the balcony of his Los Angeles apartment with a Sony Handycam. Cops have always been tribal, keeping to their own in the weary belief that what they do is work only another cop could understand. Now everyone is an expert, and the zeal of bystanders “with their cameras out, ‘waiting for something to happen,’” as one Philadelphia officer puts it, has altered the fraught dynamic between the arrested and the arresting.

What’s it like to be a cop in America today? To find out, TIME spent weeks with the police force that calls itself the nation’s oldest–Philadelphia’s was founded in 1797. It’s a relatively diverse force–57% white compared with a national average of 80%–charged with keeping the peace in a particularly violent city. The city’s 248 homicides in 2014 were three-quarters of the 328 in New York City, which is five times larger. Police commissioner Charles Ramsey, who like the mayor is African American, readily acknowledges that America’s cops are facing a crisis.

But what does that mean day to day, more than a year after the killing in Ferguson altered the way many Americans think about police? The answer emerged in ride-alongs, station-house chats and sit-down interviews summed up in the words of one officer: “Everything is just harder.” Confrontations are more numerous, and when the blood is up, so is the risk of the very thing everyone is trying to avoid–in the tattered, volatile neighborhoods to which the rest of the world until recently paid as little attention as possible.

Captain Joe Bologna calls West Philadelphia’s Police District 19 “a microcosm of the city,” and he presides over it like a mayor. It contains only 90,000 of Philadelphia’s 1.6 million residents and 6.4 of its 142 sq. mi., but the 19th extends from some of the most expensive homes in the city–the mayor, district attorney and a Congressman reside in the lush greenery of the north–to hardcore urban neighborhoods in the south, where the precinct house stands next door to Mr. C’s Love Lounge. “Million-dollar homes and million-dollar bails,” as Peszko says. “We got it all.”

It’s a busy place. On a typical day, an eight-hour shift will answer 80 calls from 911 and stop 15 or 20 cars. Each encounter carries the potential to make national news, although most are more likely to produce insult than injury. That was the case inside a squad car on a Friday afternoon in mid-July, racing with siren and lights on toward a middle-class neighborhood where a knife fight has been reported in the road. The officers arrive to find nothing wrong, only a child and a bearded middle-aged man, who frowns. “We don’t pay attention to that,” he says. “Happens all the time. O.K.? So long.”

The officers do a U-turn and bolt north to a driving range where two golfers, one black and one white, are fighting over, yes, a patch of shade. “White privilege stops here, mister,” says the black golfer, who has dialed 911. The white golfer has a bloody nick on his knuckle and a wreath of dried spittle around his mouth. Neither man wants to press charges, and the officers steer back to the 19th’s southern section, where patrols spend most of their time, a dreary grid of broken roads, streetcar tracks and the corner takeouts known as Chinese stores. It is a rough neighborhood made just a bit rougher by a rich local tradition of cussing the police.

“F-ck the law,” a woman says, glaring into the open window of a cruiser easing past a corner. “That’s the public, right there!” chirps officer Damon Linder, smiling behind the wheel. The cops are so accustomed to the guff that when some 19th District veterans visit neighborhoods like South Philly, where people wave at cops, they feel disoriented. A truly exceptional event like the deadly May 12 Amtrak derailment on the city’s northeast side, which brought residents and first responders together in an almost transcendent sense of community, has as the weeks passed assumed the quality of a dream: Did that really happen?

“I grew up in North Philly. Even up there they wouldn’t yell at you when you drive by,” says Ron Burgess, Linder’s partner for the night. “It’s been going on a long time, but it’s definitely getting worse.”

A moment later, an “officer needs assistance” call crackles on the radio, and Linder floors the cruiser, a Chevy Tahoe, and hits the siren. At each intersection he eases off until Burgess says, “Good, right,” indicating clear passage from his side. Year after year, roughly as many U.S. cops die in traffic accidents–49 last year–as in shootings (50), a toll that would likely be reduced by the use of seat belts, which police famously do not use. Officers say that’s because a seat belt can snag on their thick police belts, and though it might require only a second to take off, what quickly becomes clear as the cruiser pulls up to the scene is how much a second can matter.

We arrive to see a pair of stockinged feet being pushed into the backseat of another Tahoe, the socks dangling from toes an officer is quickly feeling between. A few moments earlier, the suspect had been behind the wheel of a silver Pontiac now askew in the road. Tucked between the driver’s seat and center console is a .45-caliber pistol, grip and trigger fully accessible for a quick draw. The car was registered to a different man wanted in a shooting, and when the trailing squad car hit his lights, the driver chose to leave the gun behind. The officer tackled him as he climbed out of the car.

It is difficult to exaggerate the prevalence of guns in the Philadelphia streets and the level of hazard that embeds in a cop’s workday. Bullets fly so often in the district that at the scene of a shooting on North Allison Street–a young man shot in the hip and cursing the police who had rushed to help save him–I noticed a glint of something on the street outside the house where it had happened. It turned out to be a slug, the lead crumpled from impact. “I think that’s an old one,” said Jones, who had already spotted the bullet. “Looks like it’s been there a while.”

There’s so much lead in the air, Burgess a few months earlier witnessed a murder without realizing it: three muzzle flashes, one of which killed a man on Master Street. His own brush with death also caught him by surprise. In March 2013, while wrestling a suspected robber to the ground, Burgess learned the man was carrying a pistol only when it was fired four times beside his face, blowing out his eardrum. He rolled away, drew his own weapon and fatally shot the man who had been shouting, “I’m gonna die! We’re gonna die!” Burgess says the man turned out to be “wet,” meaning he was on the animal tranquilizer PCP, still common in these parts.

“Once you do something like that, you feel like you’ve done something wrong, even though you didn’t,” Burgess says. “I had to reflect on that for a time. It’s not routine at all.”

Not at the human level, perhaps, but Philadelphia cops shot and killed 15 people in 2012–a particularly striking number since violent crime was in sharp decline citywide, as the news site pointed out. Ramsey asked the Justice Department to investigate. That decision helped put Philadelphia ahead of the curve on the national debate over police abuse, a new experience for a department still defined in much of the public memory by the 1985 police firebombing of the militant group Move, which killed 11 people and destroyed 65 homes. Ramsey has embraced many of the Justice Department’s recommendations, and last year the number of people killed by Philadelphia police dropped to four. He is banking on education to reduce it further. Beginning this fall, new cops will be trained to identify their own biases and spend a week at the city’s National Constitution Center learning about the history of policing in America. It has plenty of dark chapters.

“If you were in the South, you might have been tracking down slaves,” Ramsey says. “Who enforced Jim Crow laws? Police. So just as our democracy has evolved, so have we. But what about those people who were on the other side of that? That baggage is still there. It ain’t gone away. So why is there more tension in one community vs. another community? A lot of it has to do with the history of policing. Now I’m not saying you spend your life looking in the rearview mirror, but I am saying you can’t move forward until you understand where you’ve been.”

Police see the viral videos just like everyone else but sometimes watch them differently. Some, like the shootings in North Charleston and Cincinnati, are not open to interpretation. But others show behavior that may look bad to the layperson but that police recognize as ambiguous. Watching the dash-cam footage of the Sandra Bland arrest, Sergeant Mariana Caprara wanted more information before condemning the Texas state trooper who appears to be escalating the situation out of spite. “We can’t see inside the car,” she said. “She could be reaching into her purse.”

But for cops, the main beef with the videos that make the rounds on social media, collecting outrage, is that they begin long after the police have arrived at the scene. Viewers see the tussle around the arrest but almost never what the cops see: the behavior that summoned them to the scene in the first place and what transpired in the minutes before the crowds gathered and the cell phones came out.

A few years ago–until Ramsey ordered them to stop, on First Amendment grounds–that feeling of injustice had Philly cops confiscating phones. Now it sharpens the appetite among police for cameras of their own, the “body cams” that departments around the country are using or considering. “When we get a body cam, everything will be changed up,” says Jones. “When we do a traffic stop, we have to inform the driver immediately that the camera is on. That’s why I’m all for it.” So is Ramsey, though he warns against rushing. Serving as co-chair of President Obama’s task force on policing gave him a clear view of the trap doors of privacy, expense, technology and, not least, storage that come along with cameras, all of which are better sorted through by departments now rather than in court challenges later. It also left him almost strikingly optimistic about where all this is headed.

“Oh, it’s gonna be good,” Ramsey says. “Listen, it’s a crisis. But as they say, never waste a good crisis. Because it’s in crisis that you can implement the kind of change that you need. You wish you didn’t have to go through it, but we’ll come out better tuned to the community as a result.”

It’s all part of the imperative–transparency, show your work–that the Internet has enforced in so many other realms and which comes now to law enforcement. “A lot of times the cameras on us are not a bad thing,” says Brian Dillard, who grew up in the 19th and remembers that cops used to follow up a warning with a beating. “A lot of cops had to know it is not the old days,” says his partner, Robert Saccone. “Time was, if you ran, you paid the running fee,” meaning the punches dispensed to a fleeing suspect once caught.

“It’s right that we’re held to a higher standard,” says Bologna. “We have tremendous power.” Like Ramsey, Bologna extols community policing, getting cops out of cars and back into the social mix. That prevention-based approach is difficult to pull off when modern policing is based on responding after a crime has been committed. Still, Bologna reaches out to citizens like a ward politician and urges his officers to explain themselves at every opportunity. “It’s amazing how many times people will say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that,’” says Jade Howard, an eight-year veteran.

But if it’s possible to change the way officers approach the job, there is no changing some aspects of it. “I’m not sure that my family wants to see the ins and outs of policing,” says Linder. “I mean, the people in this district might, but if someone doesn’t want to be arrested and you have to arrest them, it’s not going to be pretty.”

The uglier, more stubborn reality on the streets of the 19th and of every other inner-city neighborhood. While Bologna’s troops were patrolling in mid-July, a parade of U.S. politicians was across town at the national NAACP convention, where Topic A was law enforcement. Bill Clinton apologized for sentencing laws that produced the mass incarceration of African-American youths that even some conservatives want to end. The next morning, Obama became the first U.S. President to visit a federal prison, as Pope Francis will do in Philadelphia in September.

But is the fundamental problem law enforcement or those darker stretches of American history that Ramsey will send new recruits to ponder? The implications of the Black Lives Matter movement reach beyond how police conduct themselves to the question of what we ask police to actually do. Cops say at least 80% to 90% of inner-city crime stems from drugs, and though police know the damage of narcotics better than most–Bologna’s brother died of a heroin overdose–what drugs offer is escape from reality and access to a rewarding underground economy. Is it a coincidence they dominate neighborhoods circumscribed as off limits to the American Dream? The FHA for decades forbade mortgage loans to the black neighborhoods that today could pass for what soldiers call a kill box. A more profound reckoning lies ahead, if Americans have the stomach to face it.

“Basically, we’re the wall between the haves and the have-nots, to make sure those over here don’t get over there,” says Linder, nodding. “And yet,” he adds, taking things back to the here and now where police are most comfortable, “in these neighborhoods, there are the 20% who are jerk-offs, and the 80% who are hardworking people. We’re the wall for those too.”

For their trouble, police officers in America earn $59,000 a year on average, and in major cities like Philly, a veteran on a special squad can earn far more. Police work remains one of the few avenues to a middle-class wage without a university degree. Yet to face what they do every day, most cops need an operating philosophy, beyond the passion for locking up bad guys that drives many rookies and usually fades into something more nuanced over time. In interviews, most spoke of service. “You don’t have to like me,” Dillard said. “But I’m still here to help you.” The sense of calling seems even more essential for black officers, who make up for a slight majority of the squad, not that there was any apparent racial tension in the ranks. Nothing bonds human beings to one another like shared risk.

“All lives matter,” says Williams. “I’ve been an African-American male longer than I’ve been a police officer. [But] if I’m working with a partner, his life matters. I want him to go home to his family too.”

At midafternoon on a Friday in late July, the 19th station house emptied at the report of a major road accident, a hit-and-run at a red light that had flipped a Chevy Blazer. The first there was Robert McDonnell, a desk officer who happened upon the crash on his way home. Still in his uniform, he pulled himself across the bloodied asphalt into the wreckage and comforted the woman hanging upside down inside. The fire department arrived–“everyone loves firemen,” as Bologna says–and within minutes the intersection was crowded with a blend of uniforms and neighbors. Many held their phones in front of them, recording.

A woman named Vanessa Brown walks up and down the line of bystanders, urging them to click off. “They’re not doing anything wrong,” she says. She introduces herself as a state representative and flips her phone to her Facebook page, where she posts videos purporting police abuse. But that’s not what’s going on here, she emphasizes. “They were on the scene immediately,” she says. “When they say Philadelphia’s Finest, this is Philadelphia’s Finest.”

The crowd is silent to the point of reverence as the driver is pulled out, and after an ambulance carries her away, people linger. A man points to a security camera on a nearby store, which may have caught the miscreant. Another man approaches McDonnell. “You the officer who was in there?” he asks, extending his hand. “Thank you, sir.” McDonnell nods. “Anytime,” he says.

It isn’t the Amtrak crash or even South Philly. But at least for a moment, it’s clear who the bad guy is–the driver of a battered gray minivan, captured as hoped on the store videotape–and something feels different at 52nd and Master Street. “Can I go to my car?” asks a woman in a hat, stuck on the wrong side of the yellow tape. “My car is way over there.” A lieutenant named O’Brien takes her arm. “I’ll walk you,” he says.

First Person biographies reported by Olivia B. Waxman from New York

Angelo Harris, 37
Senior patrol officer, Hampton, Va.

On Christmas Day 2001, I got shot in my grandma’s front yard. An individual approached me asking if I knew how to get drugs, then a second person came up behind me and tried to reach into my pocket. When the first guy took out a handgun, I turned to run, and that’s when I felt the impact near my left knee. My grandparents called the police. The officers were so reassuring. It was remarkable how fast they came up with suspects. It touched me to the point where I wanted to do the same.

Nancy Hove, 49
Sheriff, Pierce County, Wisc.

I wanted to be a doctor because I wanted to help people, but couldn’t afford the education. When I was 18, I was bartending in Hager City when a detective who’d come into the saloon suggested I go into law enforcement. Since I wanted a job with benefits instead of living paycheck to paycheck, I got my associate degree in criminal justice. I worked as an EMT, a patrol officer, a dispatcher, a jailer, a school liaison officer, and was elected Pierce County sheriff nine years ago. It’s old-fashioned up here. People show up at the doorstep of my hobby farm to tell me about an issue.

Bryan Shelton, 31
Sergeant, Birmingham, Ala.

Growing up, my home was burglarized, someone stole my car radio, and at college in Troy, when I was walking to church, a guy pulled out a fingernail file and said, “Since you’re carrying your Bible and you’re supposed to be a Christian, how about you give me some money?” Why do these things happen? Is there a way to stop this stuff? The majority of crimes committed are poor people stealing or committing crimes against other poor people. I wanted to break that cycle.

Juan “Paco” Balderrama, 38
Captain, Oklahoma City

My twin brother and I grew up in a single-parent home in an El Paso, Texas, project. When we were about 7, Mom signed us up for an assistance program where, around Christmas, the police took us downtown and bought us shiny white sneakers. It was a big deal for us. When we moved to Oklahoma City, the campus police officer at our high school made us security personnel at events. We never had a father figure, so for this older man to tell people we were his boys, it inspired me and made me feel like we had a chance to succeed.

Chris Goble, 33
Patrol officer, Arvada, Colo.

I was an Army sergeant in combat in Afghanistan. When I came back, I was edgy, nervous, always waiting for something bad to happen. I had great counseling sessions and tried to figure out how to turn my anxiousness from a liability into a tool. That’s why I thought about being a cop. There’s a certain alertness trained into us that most people don’t have. The police academy felt like basic training all over again. It felt like home. Yeah, this fits.

Bill Wolf, 57
Police officer, Prescott, Ariz.

I have a Ph.D. in Russian history from Ohio State. I taught history at a community college, but as an adjunct working 50 to 60 hours, my highest yearly income was $11,500. I opened my own landscaping business for two years to make more money, and driving between jobs, I heard on the radio that Prescott was looking for police officers. I was 48 and thought, “I bet that pays more, and it’s respectable.” Starting off with a low $40,000 salary was a big step up.

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