Officer Deon Joseph on the “Heartbreaking” Job of Policing Skid Row

“No cop wants to shoot anybody”

On Sunday, a homeless man was shot and killed in an officer-involved shooting on San Pedro Street downtown. Some say the victim suffered from mental illness, and his death has provoked public discussions about mental health and the homeless, how L.A.’s Skid Row is policed, and what can—and should—be done to help the members of its community. Officer Deon Joseph has patrolled the area for 17 years, 10 as a Senior Lead Officer. We asked him how Skid Row has changed, how he copes with policing what he’s heard described as “a concentration camp without walls,” and what he hopes happens next.

You were first exposed to Skid Row as an officer in 1997. What was your early impression of the area?
I remember the first day! When I got to Los Angeles, I got on the 110 Freeway and saw the beautiful L.A. skyline and thought, This might be nice! I got off and saw people with business suits, ties, lattes—everything was cool. You know how when you go to some bad places it gradually gets bad? This was not that. As soon as I crossed Spring Street it was as if I had tripped into Waterworld, Dante’s Inferno—any disaster movie you could think of, I was in it. There were mentally ill people and drug addicts urinating and defecating on the sidewalk, bon-fires, tents everywhere, people having sex in broad daylight, drugs. I thought it would get better when I got close to the police station, but a fight broke out right there. I knew I was in trouble.

Did that change the way you felt about policing in Los Angeles? Or, did you see this as your calling?
I didn’t realize it was my calling. Initially I couldn’t believe this place existed in one of the richest cities in the nation. It was heartbreaking. I’m an African American, proud of it, and 80% of the people I saw on Skid Row looked just like me. I thought, There’s not a darn thing I can do about it. I didn’t get “a calling” until three or four months in, when I was standing in Skid Row, assigned there against my will, and people were coming up to me saying, ‘Hey, you look like a guy that could help me.’ That came from my DNA, I guess, because my parents were involved in outreach with the homeless and raised foster children. My dad would hire ex-convicts who needed a second chance, and he never told me they were ex-convicts until I was a man because he didn’t want me to judge them. That shaped my worldview.

Have you ever requested to patrol a different area instead?
I thought about it on three occasions, only because I was so disheartened by the depravity, people being thrown away. It was heartbreaking, and I thought I couldn’t fix it. What kept me from leaving was someone would come up to me and say, ‘Thank you for the note you put in my bag’ or, ‘Thanks for helping me get housing, you changed my life.’ When those things happen, it inspires you. It gives you purpose.

Leaving notes for the homeless, helping people find housing—are those things you’ve done?
I don’t like to brag, but people should know that we do more than arrest people. Over 10 years I’ve helped house about 150 people with transitional housing and services outside of Skid Row and have worked with the service providers in Skid Row to house individuals who were ready. All 1,800 of them know that if you need housing, if you need a leg up, call Officer Joseph and he’ll help you, but only 150 have come to me over 10 years. That’s one of the things I’ve done.

The most marginalized group in Skid Row is women. Forty-percent of the population there are women. Two-thirds were victims of rape or domestic violence. So in 2008 I created a grassroots program called Ladies Night to let the women of Skid Row know that no matter their social status, their mental illness, their parole or probation status, or what they were engaged in when they became a victim of a crime, they have a fundamental right to report domestic violence and rape. I thought only five women were going to show up. One hundred and seventy-five came to the first program. That night three victims of the Taxi Cab rapist came up to me and said, ‘We want to make a report.’ We were able to later capture the rapist and put him in jail for the rest of his life because those ladies were told by the police, ‘You can come to us.’

I also started Just Like You. Andy Bales, the president of the Union Rescue Mission, allowed me into the mission to see the kids, just to say hi and introduce myself. Well, I was talking to 20 kids and one girl was extremely honest with me. She said ‘I’m probably going to be like these mother f-ers that I see out on the streets.’ It broke my heart. So I created a program to put mentors in front of the kids whose lives mirror the lives of the kids—people who have been kicked around, disregarded, and who have become a success. It’s a very successful program.

The problems you saw when you arrived—are they the same problems you see today?
It’s the same things, just exacerbated. But there was a change. I came to Skid Row in 1997. In 2006 we created the Safer Cities Initiative, a three-pronged approach to dealing with the poor quality of life and violent crime in Skid Row—you can’t separate one from the other. We started out with enforcement. I’m not going to candy-coat it: We arrested a lot of people, not because they were homeless but because of the high-level of crime. When a celebrity has a drug problem they go to all these great places to get away from their problem. People in Skid Row can’t afford that; they have to get clean in a drug bazaar, and the bazaar attracts two types of people: people who need services they can’t afford and people more than willing to prey on them, so we had to separate the wolves from the sheep. We wrote a whole lot of tickets and I won’t apologize because it saved lives.

The second approach was enhancement. Skid Row was never clean, and because it looked like a dump people thought they could dump things on the streets. It created encampments that were killing people. The streetlights were out. Trees needed to be trimmed because dealers would use the trees to hide drugs. It was a disaster, so we took care of that by working with the city and city entities.

Finally, there was an outreach component, and we offered people drug programs as an alternative to jail. Overall the Safer Cities Initiative lowered crime—all crime—by 40-percent. We reduced deaths by 32-percent. In 2011, an injunction was filed saying that we could not deal with abandoned property, and the encampments got bigger. The drug dealers took advantage of it and started using the homeless to hide weapons and narcotics. With AB 109, individuals were being released from jail, in my opinion, far too early and with a lack of supervision. We saw new faces and crime started to spike. There was an influx of methamphetamines back into the area about two years ago. Now we see more cities pushing their homeless towards Skid Row. Our new challenge is Prop 47, which has knocked the teeth out of law enforcement.

Last summer you penned an opinion piece pleading for more awareness of Skid Row’s mental health crisis. Have things continued to get worse since then?
Yes. Some positive things did happen, though. We caught the ear of the county and the city and they got together to create a task force to proactively reach out to the most vulnerable mentally ill and most chronically homeless, which hadn’t been done before. Initially [the task force] didn’t want to do it with police because they were worried about the optics—and that’s something that has to change because they’re working off stereotypes of the police, not the reality. Officers, we’re out there. We know where the most vulnerable people are. We’re arresting them, we’re taking them to the hospital, and sometimes, unfortunately, getting into fights with them. The first day the task force went out without police they were able to connect only two people to services. The next day they said, ‘Deon Joseph, want to come and join us?’ I went with them and guided them to people I knew needed help and we connected 16 people to services in one day.

The reality of Skid Row is staggering. What rationale do you think allows it to exist here in Los Angeles?
Skid Row was created by two ideologies. It’s the extreme of, Not in my back yard. Let’s get these people out of our areas so they don’t lower our property values and we don’t have to deal with them. Then you have the far Left way of thinking: Because these people are homeless, black or Hispanic, and mentally ill, law enforcement should take our hands off them completely and let them sleep on the sidewalk and do whatever they want. Those two ideas are in Los Angeles and equally responsible for creating Skid Row.

How do you cope?
My faith. I’m a born again Christian. I don’t use my faith to police but I believe I please God when I treat everyone fairly. Also, by watching the little miracles that happen from time to time. I don’t have childish optimism that if give someone a handshake or a hug they are going to turn their life around. I know that the individual I shake hands with is going to one day—or that same day—go around the corner and probably rob somebody. I know that. But if I can continue to be a light in a dark place and not judge them but serve them, they’ll come around. Many of the people I’ve come in contact with have come around.

I know you can’t speak about Sunday’s shooting specifically because an investigation is pending, but were you surprised to hear about violence in the area?
Absolutely not. Skid Row is a violent area.

Have you visited Skid Row since?

How did the community greet you?
I went on a two-hour walk yesterday, like I usually do, and most of the people said, ‘Look, we understand. We don’t like what happened but we understand.’ It told me there’s a difference between the Skid Row community and the community activists who are showing up, who don’t live in the area and are trying to stir trouble. I’d rather work with them so we can prevent the next problem instead of having this vitriol that isn’t helping anyone.

I believe that law enforcement officers should be held to a higher standard. I just don’t believe we should be held to an unreasonable one, where I should let someone kill me because they have a mental illness. I get paid to put my life on the line for the people of Skid Row, but I will not give it away. I have a family to feed; I have people that I love, people that depend on me. The people of Skid Row depend on me. I pray to God that I never get into a situation like that, but could it happen? Yes. I’ve come dangerously close on Skid Row on four different occasions when I almost had to doing something that I pray to God I would never have to do. That’s the reality of the job. But it’s not something an officer at this division ever wants to do.

Has Sunday’s incident affected the morale of the police department?
Our hearts are broken on this one. No cop wants to shoot anybody. [The officers] are strong. They want to continue to do their jobs, but they also want people to be more understanding. Don’t Monday morning quarterback us. Come see it from the other side. We’re open. This department, our officers, me myself, I’m open. I’ll take you on a tour, I’ll do whatever it takes to get you to see the truth, not the perception.

What, if anything, do you hope comes out of this tragedy?
We don’t know if the person who was involved is mentally ill or not, but I hope it sheds light on the plight of these individuals and starts a conversation about decentralization. I don’t mean we should close down the facilities in Skid Row; we need them all. I just don’t want to see another one open. We need civil liberty lawyers and politicians to come together to revisit the issue of mental health and talk about housing these individuals, talk about involuntary care temporarily until these people get back on their feet and reintegrate in society instead of sprinkling pills on them and kicking them out on the streets, where they become victims, in the name of civil liberties. I hope those talks begin to happen, because that’s the answer. It’s for other cities to open their hearts to the mentally ill.