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WITH HIS TOUGH-LOVE APPROACH, LAPD OFFICER DEON JOSEPH OFFERS HOPE WHILE REACHING OUT TO THOSE ON SKID ROW.

Byline: Rick Coca

Staff Writer

LAPD Officer Deon Joseph strides the streets of downtown's Skid Row, alternating between his role as friend and enforcer -- offering temporary housing tips to those seeking help and pouring out the cheap booze of those who refuse it.

I "treat them like royalty, even if I'm putting them in handcuffs," the 34-year-old Joseph said. "What I do will affect other African-Americans in this department as well as other officers, so I really do try to walk on water."

Joseph's efforts to be an upstanding cop while reaching out to the downtrodden recently garnered him an honorable-mention award from Parade magazine and the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

The 12-year veteran and married father of three was one of only 14 officers honored nationwide at the annual ceremony.

He has spent about nine years in the Los Angeles Police Department's Central Division, with the past two as a senior lead officer serving as a community liaison.

'Just Like You'

One of the programs that garnered him recognition, "Just Like You," brings in African-American and Latino mentors to talk to young people living on Skid Row.

"I didn't care if you were a janitor, a lawyer, a doctor," Joseph said about his criteria for speakers in the program. "As long as you were successful."

He started the program because Skid Row offers little to admire for the predominantly black and Latino kids who wind up there.

"All they see here is pimps and prostitutes," he said. "All they see here is drug dealers. That's their role models."

Joseph has grown to love his assignment on Skid Row, but admits that when he first arrived he had doubts. He soon realized he was in familiar territory.

When Joseph's parents, Milton and Margie, came to Long Beach in the late 1950s from Louisiana, times were so hard they collected cans to sell at recycling centers to make ends meet.

Despite their own initial hardships, his parents were community-minded, Joseph said. His father started his own construction business and routinely hired people others thought didn't deserve a second chance, including ex-cons looking to improve their life.

Before she died last November, Joseph's mother fed the homeless at least once a week for about seven years.

Lessons in patience

Growing up, Joseph and his siblings -- including his twin brother, Cleon, also an LAPD officer -- learned lessons in patience, love and understanding that would serve them well later in life as their parents took in 41 foster kids during their 45-year marriage.

Kids from all backgrounds ended up in their home, including one "neo-Nazi kid" who was taught to hate black people, Joseph said.

"He would literally starve himself because he didn't want to eat our food," Joseph said.

The fast ended after the family caught him eating collard greens in the middle of the night.

"It taught me about race relations," Joseph said. "You're forced to be exposed to other cultures."

Many of the children his parents took care of suffered from emotional and physical abuse, as well as mental disorders. Working Skid Row, Joseph sees much of the same.

"I don't look down on them. I can't," he said. "They're my brothers and sisters. ... I fell in love with them."

That love was reciprocated one afternoon when locals congratulated him on being honored in Parade.

"This man helped me out a lot," said Howard Skuce, 52, sitting in a wheelchair. "And a lot of other people in the streets don't like him, but I do. He helped a lot of the homeless people."

Among the 3,800 parolees, 400 sex offenders and more than 3,000 people on probation on Skid Row, there are some decent ones just trying to do their best, Joseph said.

People like a guy he simply calls "O.G.," who took it upon himself to strategically place colorfully painted trash cans in the area.

It was his attempt to alleviate the area's trash burden, made worse by well-meaning religious groups that come from outside Skid Row to hand out food. If it's not traded or bartered for drugs, the food often ends up thrown on the streets, Joseph said.

The drug dealers -- including one Joseph just busted, called "Lucky" -- are another story, he said.

A crackdown on crime through the department's Safer Cities Initiative, an effort begun in September 2006 that brought 50 more officers into Skid Row, has reduced violent crime by 31percent, with robberies down 53percent and burglaries down 33percent.

Sidewalk-sleeping deal

But critics contend some homeless people have been unfairly targeted and harassed, a charge the department denies.

A lawsuit was settled in October when an agreement was reached between the city and the American Civil Liberties Union to allow people to sleep on sidewalks from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. as long as they're at least 10 feet from business or residential entrances.

The agreement will remain in effect until the city builds 1,250 new affordable-housing units, half of them on Skid Row.

Yvette Nelson, a rehabilitation worker on Skid Row, said as far as she's concerned, things have improved considerably.

"You know how people say bad things about the police? Downtown police are the best police," said the South Los Angeles resident. "There's not as many drug dealers down here on the street like it was.

"I see more people are getting into programs instead of laying out on the streets."

And Joseph enjoys a solid reputation in the area, even among the dealers he tries to put away.

"He's got a lot of respect down here," Nelson said. "They give him respect because he respects people."

With his tough-love approach, Joseph is always holding out hope that even those he has arrested will want to turn their lives around.

"I don't judge them," he said. "I don't care if they're Crip, Blood -- if you want to change your life, I'm here to help you."

rick.coca(at)dailynews.com

818-713-3329

CAPTION(S):

4 photos

Photo:

(1 -- color) LAPD Officer Deon Joseph tries to be both a friend and enforcer while patrolling the Skid Row area. I "treat them like royalty, even if I'm putting them in handcuffs," says the 12-year veteran of the force.

(2 -- color) Officer Deon Joseph reaches out to Howard Skuce, a homeless man in a wheelchair. Joseph was recently given an honorable-mention award by Parade magazine for his work with the homeless.

(3) Officer Deon Joseph empties a liquor bottle belonging to one of the Skid Row residents. He has spent about nine years in the LAPD's Central Division, with the past two as a senior lead officer serving as a community liaison.

(4) Officer Deon Joseph meets a suspected drug dealer on Skid Row, offering encouragement to the man to leave his life on the streets.

David Crane/Staff Photographer
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Nov 10, 2007
Words:1140
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