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An Unlikely Love Affair

L.A. Garment & Citizen, News Feature, Walter Melton Posted: Apr 19, 2009

Deon Joseph now knows that it's possible to fall in love with Skid Row.

It's an unlikely love for Joseph, a veteran officer in Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Central Area, which includes the hard-scrabble Skid Row district on the edge of Downtown.

"Before I got down here, I came from the Pacific Area, which is latte, Venice Beach, beautiful things," Joseph says, sipping a coffee at Downtown coffee shop. "We had our share of homeless issues [in Pacific Area], but none compared to what I experienced when I first got down here."

Joseph is a cop who has become a teacher and counselor on the streets. He's also learned a lot himself while patrolling Skid Row, where he's seen assumptions formed from afar broken down and belied by everyday experience.

It took awhile to see beyond the obviously rugged conditions that made Skid Row's reputation, to be sure.

"The sidewalks were lined with tents and human bodies not dead bodies, but live bodies that were either unconscious from drinking, or overdosing on heroin or cocaine," Joseph says. "People were sitting or sleeping on the sidewalks doing God knows what. Gang members were charging people to use the porta-potties. Drug addicts and prostitutes used them more than people who needed the facilities for sanitary purposes. You can imagine the sight and smell of Skid Row it was horrific."

Joseph arrived in Skid Row with plenty of personal experience to draw upon as he as he set out to make a difference. He remembers his mother offering food and clothing to the homeless in his hometown of Long Beach. His father, a self-employed businessman, regularly afforded ex-convicts a chance to get back in the working world. Joseph himself continues to spend time caring for a family member who suffers from mental illness.

Skid Row still managed to overwhelm Joseph when he first arrived, though. He questioned whether he could make a difference in the lives of the people in the community. He found himself patrolling the streets with little intention of actually engaging the residents of Skid Row.

Then he found out that Skid Row had his own way of engaging him.

"Skid Row has a way of bringing you to it," Joseph says. "It is so violent when you drive down the street, you see that every other woman or man a has black eye where a drug dealer has beaten them up or gang members has brutalized them or [they have brutalized] each other as a result of their mental illness coupled with their drug addiction."

Joseph says he initially took it all as a treadmill, answering calls and making arrests and feeling as though he was getting nowhere.

The outlook began to change when Joseph earned a promotion to senior lead officer for the Skid Row district. His role in the community expanded from being a patrol officer to serving as a liaison with the community. He says the job calls on him to serve as the eyes and ears for commanding officer of Central Area on one hand, and a representative of the community on the other.

The idea, says Joseph, is to bring LAPD officers and community members together in efforts to find creative ways to fight crime and improve the quality of life. He says that the residents of Skid Row have reached out to him in his new role, engaging him in his role as senior lead officer. They've approached him in ways that are different from the old days when he simply responded to crime calls. And the role of senior lead officers means that it's part of his job to be approachable.

"I took the time to listen to the people of the community, and I got to know several of them as people," Joseph says. "There is a story behind every drug addict. They were not born drug addicts. A great many of them are mentally ill it is not their fault."

Joseph's role as senior lead officer has given him the opportunity to develop alternatives to putting small-time drug addicts in jail. It has given him the chance to make long-lasting changes in the lives of the residents and the community but he couldn't do that alone.

"Community policing is about utilizing the tools in your environment," he says. "However I needed a jewel that every lead officer needs to help him further his agenda that is positive for the community."

Joseph found his jewel in the Skid Row missions, the various non-profit organizations that offer everything from shelter for the homeless to rehabilitation programs for the addicted, and job-training for the newly clean. Joseph says he took the time to learn about the missions, joining the representatives of the various organizations to develop new systems to keep drug dealers away from folks in recovery programs.

"There are many drug addicts that want to change," he says. "It's difficult to change when drug dealers sneak into those missions and tempt addicts with drugs. Sooner or later those addicts are back on the streets and eventually they become a police problem."

Joseph says he also took the time to educate the community about police procedures that are designed not to inflict brutality but to keep both the suspects and police safe.

The back-and-forth between the cop and the community reduced feelings of hostility, Joseph says. That, he adds, is the true spirit of community policing

Joseph had just returned from vacation as he told his Skid Row story on a recent morning at the coffee shop. Did he miss the neighborhood?

"You know it is a funny thing," he says with a smile. "I never thought I would miss it. But each time that phone rang, I rushed to pick it up. I even got in trouble with my wife for doing so."

Yes, his wife remains his first love but Joseph has found room to love Skid Row, too.

"I fell in love with these people," he says. "They were black like me, or brown...minorities. I understood their plight and wanted to make things better for them."

The community did its part, too.

"They reached out to me in so many ways," Joseph says. "We are finally getting the job done, and it is very fulfilling. People who once hated me now thank me."

Joseph reflects for a moment over his coffee, offering a charismatic smile before he sums up his mission on Skid Row."

"I just want to help," he says.

Walter Melton is a writer for the L.A. Garment & Citizen.

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