By Jeremy Redmon
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Dwan Peterson is piloting her blue and red police cruiser toward a family fight in gritty Southwest Atlanta on a recent shift when she recalls the night she was dispatched to a raucous protest against the fatal police shootings of black men. Amid the “black lives matter” chants and flashing blue police lights outside the governor’s mansion in Buckhead, a demonstrator shouted at Peterson to remember that she is “black first.”
Troy Cosby — a friend and fellow Atlanta Police Department officer who is white — is patrolling in his hulking blue and red Ford Explorer along Ponce De Leon Avenue in Northeast Atlanta, where some property owners are complaining about a strange man cussing and drinking in their parking lot. His rifle sitting upright in its stand beside him, Cosby is hoping he never has to fire it at anyone, particularly a black person.
Cosby and Peterson recently provided a window into how fraught life on the beat has become following the fatal ambushes of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution shadowed them on patrol across the city and found that both are taking extra precautions. Both are experiencing up close the raw feelings their uniforms provoke following the fatal police shootings of Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Louisiana. And both are feeling different sorts of pressure based on the color of their skin.
Cosby and Peterson are young, ambitious and driven. He’s just 26. She is 32. They studied criminal justice in college, completed police training in Atlanta together and started patrolling four years ago. They love their jobs and both aspire to advance through their department’s ranks. Each is engaged to be married. And they both rely on their Christian faith to guide them through their dangerous work.
But the new tensions have taken a toll. Lately, Some of Peterson’s relatives have been asking her whether she wants to quit. Cosby’s fiancée wants him to find a new line of work.
They are two officers among 865 patrolling a sprawling and diverse city of more than 450,000.
“Lord forbid, I actually have to shoot”
Most of us hear about police when something dramatic happens — a gun is fired or a murder investigated. But the majority of their work is far more mundane and requires the skills of a social worker or therapist.
While patrolling a long stretch of Campbellton Road, Peterson is dispatched to a house alarm, a fight between a mother and daughter and a report of bank fraud — all before lunchtime. Her hair pulled back into a no-nonsense ponytail, Peterson also wears flamingo pink nail polish.
In between stops, she fondly recalls the well-wishers who keep bringing barbecue food and cakes to her precinct office. She shares her disgust at the man who gave her the middle finger as he drove by her cruiser in a grocery store parking lot. She is certain that vulgar gesture was connected to Castile and Sterling’s deaths. Peterson’s voice is edged with frustration as she talks about the pressure she faces as a black police officer.
“Some black folks have a problem with me being an officer just because of everything that is going on and, two, because I am black,” she says as she heads to her first call. “I have even had family members ask me, ‘Are you sure you still want to be an officer?’”
Over the course of his day, Cosby patrols through and around the Atkins Park, Virginia-Highland and Old Fourth Ward neighborhoods, warning a stranger to stop loitering on private property, chasing down a shoplifting suspect and directing traffic around a hissing and smelly gas leak. As he scans his beat for trouble, he remembers the stranger who recently hugged and thanked him for doing his job. He also discloses a nagging fear.
“I think we could all agree,” he says between responding to 911 calls, “the worst thing in the world right now would be if I have to pull my gun — and, Lord forbid, I actually have to shoot — I really hope it is somebody who is not black.”
Someone to listen
Peterson and Cosby are reminded of the mortal danger they face every day they go to work. Cosby’s Zone 6 precinct office sits just off Hosea L. Williams Drive. The first thing he sees coming in the front door is a black and white framed photo of the late Officer Gregory Davis, who was shot and killed in 1988 while questioning a man about a series of burglaries. Davis appears young in the photo. A slight smile plays across his lips.
Baby-faced and exceedingly polite, Cosby grew up in Powder Springs and graduated from McEachern High School, where he played the saxophone on the school marching band. His father is in the pest control industry and his mother works for an insurance company. He’s wanted to be a police officer ever since he was a kid playing cops and robbers. He and his fiancée, a physical therapist, routinely talk to each other on the phone several times a day. She worries about his safety.
As he starts out on his beat, a dispatcher radios a report to him about a man loitering on private property off Ponce De Leon Avenue. When he arrives, Cosby finds a woman waiting for him in the parking lot of drab gray apartment complex.
The woman complains to Cosby: “I just feel like maybe sometimes if you all could come and park in our parking lot or whatever — because it is getting bad… They woke me up. He is just out here in the parking lot. They are drinking.”
Cosby listens intently: “Yes, OK. Do you want me to go and talk to him?”
Joined by another Atlanta officer, Cosby strides down the sidewalk, his expression conveying a mixture of wariness and focus. He finds the man sitting outside a soup kitchen, mumbling and agitated. He doesn’t rise to talk to the officers. When Cosby speaks with people, like this man, he studies their body language and stands with his holstered gun away from them. That makes it harder for anyone to grab it.
Many other men are milling around the mulched front yard, silently watching the tense scene unfolding before them. A sign in front of the soup kitchen pleads, “May Peace Prevail on Earth.” Calmly, Cosby tells the man there won’t be any problems if he doesn’t return to the apartment complex on the corner. And then Cosby heads off to his next call.
“You have to be willing to talk to people,” he says. “Ninety percent of this job is just talking to folks.”
Peterson works in Southwest Atlanta out of the Zone 4 precinct office, a squat brick building on Cascade Circle. High on a wall inside the locker room hangs a photo of the late Officer Joseph Davis, who was gunned down in 1989 while he was arresting a suspected thief.
An affable Philadelphia native with a radiant smile, Peterson is the daughter of an ex-Marine and a retired Internal Revenue Service worker. Following in the footsteps of several of her relatives who are police officers, she moved South in 2012 when she learned Atlanta was hiring. Her fiancé is also an Atlanta cop. They worry about each other’s safety, so they routinely scan their department’s radio traffic for each other.
Early in her shift she receives a call about a fight between a mom and her 15-year-old daughter off Campbellton Road. Pulling into the parking lot, she immediately spots the girl. She is sobbing so hard she can barely get her story out. Peterson’s tone turns tender as she speaks with her. She learns the two got into a scuffle after the mother accused her of spending all of their food stamps. It’s blazing hot and cicadas are buzzing around them.
Half-crying, the girl complains: “She kept coming at me!”
The mother sounds worn out. She wants her daughter gone: “We just had a little altercation.”
The girl’s sisters are coming to pick her up. Peterson advises them: “Sometimes stuff happens. I get into disagreements with my mom all the time, to this day. Sometimes it is best to separate for the moment and let it be.”
Peterson grew up in a bleak part of North Philadelphia among abandoned buildings, so she identifies with the impoverished people she helps in parts of Southwest Atlanta. She routinely responds to domestic disputes and other situations that require her to be more than a police officer. Some people, she says, just need someone to listen.
“I was born and raised in the ‘hood, so I can relate to people’s situations that go on out here in Zone 4,” she says. “A lot of folks out here — they feel as though they can’t count on us and they can’t trust us, but that is just not the case for all of us.”
‘Any day my life can be over’
Peterson gets a call about an intruder alarm at a brick home with white trim in Southwest Atlanta. She doesn’t know what she’ll find as she pulls into a tidy subdivision with well-manicured lawns and swing sets. Is it a false alarm? Is someone burglarizing the house? Is it an ambush? She has learned to keep her head on a swivel, to remain constantly on guard, to fight off complacency.
“Any day my life can be over,” she says.
No cars are in the driveway when she pulls up. She jiggles the handles of the garage doors, confirming they’re locked. She glances at the blinds in the windows, searching for movement. She peers over the fence and into the backyard. She knocks on the front door and then promptly takes a few steps backward.
“It could be a setup. You never know,” she says. “I don’t ever want to be that close up on anybody’s property because I don’t know what is behind that door.”
Nobody answers. The alarm must have been a mistake.
The day she learned a heavily-armed sniper had gunned down five officers in Dallas, Peterson considered calling in sick. She wondered if the same thing could happen in Atlanta. She wondered whether she was in the right job. But she mustered her courage, put on her gun belt and headed into work that day.
She understands why the Black Lives Matter demonstrators are protesting and she sympathizes with the families of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. But police, she says, are sometimes painted with a broad brush. When she moved from Philadelphia to Atlanta in 2012, she had no friends or family here.
“This is my family now,” she says of her fellow officers. “So whether you guys like us or not, this is who I am going to stick with.”
A chase and a prayer
A call comes over the radio about police chasing a shoplifting suspect on foot near the Ponce City Market. Cosby accelerates and then grits his teeth as his Ford Explorer briefly refuses to switch gears.
His SUV carries a lot of heavy equipment, including his rifle, a helmet and an upgraded bullet-proof vest. He was issued all of that after volunteering for a special job that requires him to immediately respond in case of any mass shootings like the Nov. 13 terrorist massacre that killed 130 people in Paris. In such a scenario, Cosby says, he would be the “first rabbit in the door.”
“Somebody has got to do it,” he says. “So why not me?”
Cosby parks his car in an alley and then sprints down the Atlanta BeltLine, running past joggers and cyclists in the shadow of the towering Ponce City Market. He is scanning for a man who stole some chips from a nearby CVS store and then struggled with an employee who tried to stop him.
A fellow officer steps in front of the suspect on the BeltLine as Cosby comes up from behind him. Caught between the two officers, the suspect appears bewildered and gives up peacefully. They check him for weapons. Then Cosby asks him: “You are not hurt or injured are you?” The man says he isn’t. And then the officers guide him into the back of a patrol car.
Cosby says his Christian faith helps him deal with the dangers of his job as well as the graphic scenes he sometimes witnesses, such as the bodies of people who have been shot or hit by cars.
“Even with all this going on, it doesn’t scare me one bit to strap on the gun belt and come to work because God is in control,” he says. “So if it is your time, it is your time. It definitely helps having that type of belief whenever you see some of the stuff we run across.”
“I don’t know if it is just my belief,” he continues. “But if you don’t have religion whenever you start this job, somehow I got a feeling you are going to have it by the time you get out of this job.”
Peterson holds similar views and prays for safety every time she and her fiancé leave for work.
Toward the end of her shift she stops for lunch at a deli near the Atlanta airport. She takes her sandwich to a table near the front door and in full view of the restaurant. As she sits down to eat, a pair of strangers sitting next to her introduce themselves and ask if they could pray for her safety. The man and women explain they were shaken by the shootings in Texas and Louisiana. They briefly hold Peterson’s hand and bow their heads as the other diners look on. Peterson hugs and thanks them. Then she heads back out on patrol.
“I am proud to put this uniform on,” she says in her lingering Philly accent. “There is never a moment where I feel embarrassed or ashamed, or like I don’t want to walk the streets in this uniform. Not at all. I believe with this job and in this career I am sent here to help folks.”