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One LA cop’s beat: using hugs and hellos to help the homeless

Officer Deon Joseph hands out flyers, hugs and hellos as he walks through one of the biggest homeless encampments in the U.S., the Los Angeles area known as Skid Row.

It’s a neighborhood seemingly far removed from the trendy restaurants and condo buildings popping up nearby in downtown L.A. — five square blocks in the nation’s second largest city with nearly 2,000 people living on the street.

Joseph, senior lead officer in the Los Angeles Police Department’s Central Division, has been walking this tough beat for 17 years.

“We’re just in the middle trying to change it, trying to create an environment that is conducive to change,” he said.

photoJoseph in front of LAPD Central Division. (Geneva Sands/Fusion)

Joseph has become part of this downtown community of homeless, addicts, drug dealers and the mentally ill. His approach is outreach, but he doesn’t hesitate to enforce the laws and make arrests.

“If they need a jail cell, I’ll book them,” he said. “I’m going to do what it takes to keep this community safe.”

He makes it sound easy, but it’s not.

This is a challenging time to be a police officer. Fatal encounters with police in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City drew national attention and sparked anti-law enforcement protesters to the streets around the country.

The national eye has stayed focused on the public’s discontent with law enforcement. Earlier this month rallies were held in North Charleston, SC after Walter Scott, was shot and killed by a police officer. This week, demonstrators came out in Baltimore to protest the death of Freddie Gray, who suffered a spinal cord injury while in police custody. Police – so often portrayed as heroes – are being fiercely criticized for perceived violence against the communities they serve.

After Fusion interviewed Joseph, Skid Row itself became embroiled in the nationwide controversy when a video surfaced of Los Angeles Police Department officers involved in a fatal shooting of a homeless man in early March. The incident led to protests against the LAPD and demands for an independent investigation, reported ABC7 Los Angeles.

The police and Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office are conducting investigations. Joseph was not involved.

fus_sm_deon_street Joseph investigating a physical altercation in Skid Row. (Serena Marshall/Fusion)

Confidence in the police among African Americans living in urban areas is at just 26 percent, according to a December Gallup poll.

Officer Joseph hopes by reaching out to the Skid Row community, he’ll be able to reform the negative image of law enforcement.

“You know my goal is to break the indoctrination of African American community. I remember being a young black male and being told that the police were here to kill you, it’s a conspiracy, I remember hearing all those things and I believed it,” he said.
Now, as a veteran officer, he believes it’s his job to convince people otherwise.

“They know if I take someone to jail it’s not because I’m trying to hurt the community,” he said. “I’m trying to make the community better,” he said.

Joseph allowed Fusion to walk his beat and drive through the L.A. enclave in his patrol car, viewing the landscape through his eyes.

fus_sm_skid_row_sign Mural in the heart of the L.A. neighborhood. (Serena Marshall/Fusion)

He cannot make it more than a block without hearing his name called out.

“Hey, Officer Joseph,” said one man. “I got my place now,” said another.

He greets almost everyone he sees with a “Hey, man,” as he hands out his large stack of missing persons flyers to the masses crowded on corners and sidewalks.

The Golden State has some of the highest rates of homelessness in the country. There are 50-60,000 homeless people living in L.A. County and roughly 1 in 3 of those have a mental or physical disability.

Fusion_Homelessness_CHART_1b
Captain Michael Oreb, of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Central Division, said the causes of mass homeless are difficult to pin down.

“You can blame a lot of people, you can blame a lot of policies and systems,” he said. “There’s no one reason, it’s a combination of many things.”

Fusion_Homelessness_US_1a

Skid Row wasn’t Joseph’s first choice as a rookie officer.

“I didn’t want to come here,” he said. “But when I got here after a few months I started to feel comfortable because of my upbringing.”

Fusion_Homelessness_CALIFORNIA_1a

Joseph says his childhood has influenced the work he does today, remembering how his parents treated their 41 foster children.

“They loved them just as much as they loved us, and it changed their life,” he said.

fam4Joseph and his family. (Photo courtesy of Tosha Joseph.)

Joseph didn’t always receive the same kind of love from the people of Skid Row. When he started out as a beat cop out of Central Division, he earned the moniker “Robocop.”

family pic Joseph and his family. (Photo courtesy of Tosha Joseph.)

“All I did was pull up, arrest people, fill up the back of my car. Didn’t explain myself, I didn’t have time. I was a regular patrol officer,” he said. “I lost RoboCop and I got Deon now so that’s good.

-Video shot by Geneva Sands and Drew Chesnutt. Edited by Gary Westphalen, Mike Labella and Geneva Sands.

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