What’s It Like To Be A Cop in America
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“Every time a police officer fires his weapon, the reputation of the police department is on the line”.
Trevor Peszko, …, 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.
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,’”
“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.
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.
.. 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.
… 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.”
“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 … accustomed to the guff.
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.
Ron Burgess, [h]is 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!”
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. 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.”
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.”
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.
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. “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.
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