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Patrols With a Personal Touch : Police: Officer Joe Writer knows Echo Park, and Echo Park knows him. He was born there, and spends countless hours getting to know the area's residents.

August 13, 1992|SHARON BERNSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NORTHEAST LOS ANGELES — Officer Joe Writer isn't kidding when he says that everybody knows who he is in the neighborhoods he patrols.

His name even turns up in angry gang graffiti scribbled on the walls.

Long a fixture at community meetings and a tireless organizer of Neighborhood Watch and other citizen groups, Writer is a cop who pays so much attention to Echo Park that he was elected honorary mayor last year.

"If we were going to create a mold to stamp them out of, he would be the template," said Lt. Steve Twohy, who has worked with Writer in the Northeast Division of the Los Angeles Police Department and until recently was his commanding officer. "He knows how to talk to people."

Writer was born 41 years ago in Echo Park, at St. Vincent's Hospital at 3rd and Alvarado streets, and lived on Parkman Street in Silver Lake until he was 4. He returned to the area years later to work the streets, first for the Rampart Division and now as senior lead officer for the Northeast Division.

"He's like an old-fashioned Western sheriff," said Valerie Tuna, a longtime resident active in the Echo Park Improvement Assn. "He's very accessible. He remembers people's names. He remembers your cause."

Armando Barragan, whose family has operated Barragan's Mexican restaurant on Sunset Boulevard since 1961, said Writer makes a point of getting to know the people in the neighborhood, from merchants to gang members.

"He goes into stores and asks how everybody is, and he gets to know you on a first-name basis," said Barragan, a past president of the Echo Park Chamber of Commerce.

During last year's L.A. Marathon, Barragan said, Writer was able to quietly dispel a crowd of street toughs who were drinking in a nearby parking lot, simply by talking to them.

"He knows how to deal with people on any level, whether it's a street person or a businessman," Barragan said. "And the fact that he is Anglo (and does not speak Spanish) makes it all the more rare, because most of the Anglo police officers don't communicate as well in a Latino community."

With gang members, Writer is "very, very strict," said Officer Steve Geon, one of his partners. "He actually scares them. He's very strict and very stern and very authoritarian when he talks to them, until they stop messing up. Then he'll talk to them more like a regular citizen. He can get very fatherly and concerned."

Writer said he learned how to deal with different kinds of people during his years as a detective in the Rampart Division. "I spent a lot of time dealing with young adolescents and a lot of time interviewing ex-cons," he said. "I was just very interested in talking with them. And it gave me great skills of communication."

Writer's day starts at 10 a.m. and can last well into the night, when he and his partners may take their black-and-white squad car to break up a gang party or go undercover on Chinatown rooftops to tail bribery suspects.

In the morning, he's got a pile of phone messages, mostly from residents whom he has told: "Call anytime. You're my eyes and ears in the community."

"Joe Writer," yells the officer taking phone calls at the Northeast Division. "One of your citizens on the line."

By noon, he is out making his rounds and answering calls. "Every gang member of Echo Park knows Joe Writer," he said, referring to himself in the third person. "They know Writer will hold them accountable for any illegal acts that they do. But they know on a daily basis that Writer has no problem saying hello to them. Writer has no problems standing there and talking with them, shooting the breeze."

According to Twohy, Writer is "fairly serious, not the type to be constantly joking." Writer, a father of three, is head of security for the Greek Theater when he is not working his police beat.

"I know I could call on him if I ever had a major problem that wasn't being taken care of by anyone else," said Maxine Reagh, principal of Elysian Heights Elementary School on Echo Park Boulevard. "He's very supportive."

Writer has worked the Echo Park-Silver Lake area--which has been shunted between the two police divisions and divided in various ways--for 12 years.

His ability to work the area, he says, has greatly improved since the Police Department began community policing earlier this year. Before then, he said, he was tied to a patrol car, responding to calls all day. Now, as the department begins what in the jargon is known as problem-oriented policing, the senior lead officers in charge of each neighborhood can take time to work with residents and act as a trouble-shooter.

With the arrival of new Chief Willie L. Williams, Writer said, he expects the interactions with neighborhood people to improve even more.

Writer's latest project is a community police outpost in Echo Park. He's been offered a building lease for $1 a month and is awaiting department approval.

Writer tries to let the community decide its own policing priorities. "They have to make the decision on what they want," he said. "I will help them facilitate it." For example, he said, if the neighborhood is concerned about public drinking but not street vendors, he is inclined to leave the vendors alone.

He speaks with affection of the community he patrols, which includes Echo Park north of Sunset and parts of Chinatown and Silver Lake. The best part of his stint as honorary mayor, he says, was getting to throw out the opening pitch at Dodger Stadium.

"I consider it my community, because I've been there so long," Writer said. "It's a part of my life."

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