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On skid row, what's just?

As a cop tries to clean up its streets and an ex-con tries to make his life there, maybe justice takes the form of a second chance

March 22, 2011|Sandy Banks
  • LAPD Officer Deon Joseph, the man responsible for community policing on skid row, wanted the tent contraptions removed.
LAPD Officer Deon Joseph, the man responsible for community policing on… (Mel Melcon, Los Angeles…)

It ought to be easy to decide whom to root for in a feud between these two guys: the crusading cop, champion of clean streets and quiet nights, and the drug-dealing ex-con, hell-bent on living outside the law.

But when skid row is your vantage point, it's not as simple as it sounds.

Last week I went on a ride along with Deon Joseph, the LAPD's lead officer in skid row, which harbors more homeless people than any other neighborhood in the nation. In my column I mentioned Joseph's effort to get rid of a collection of tents parked on a block of San Julian Street, across from the Union Rescue Mission.

The tents, called EDARS and valued at $500 apiece by their inventor, have mattresses, storage space and wheels. They were donated by a philanthropist to shelter people stuck on the streets. Joseph said they have become a shield for drinking and drug use.

The day the column was published, Joseph convinced the tent residents to move the portable shelters a few blocks away, to a quiet stretch along Winston Street.

"He said 'You can move it, or I'll take you to jail,' " said Shamal Ballantine, who just finished a stint behind bars and is trying not to go back. So they rolled off.

Two days later, while the EDAR owners were out and about, a city street services truck, accompanied by an LAPD patrol car, rolled up and carted off their shelters.

"I was coming back from court when I saw them," one of the EDAR dwellers told me. "I told the officers that Joseph said we could put them here. They said Joseph gave the order to destroy them. Then the bulldozer lifted them right up and crushed them."

The former EDAR denizens believe they were set up. "Officer Joseph deceived us," said Reginald Wilson, who called The Times to complain about it. "He said our things would be safe on Winston. Now everything we owned is gone."

Ballantine said he had a laptop computer in his tent, along with clothes and medical records. Wilson tallied his loss at $300. "My clothing, my cellphone, sleeping bag, toiletries, my jewelry.... I lost basically everything I had."

He also lost face among his skid row buddies and whatever faith he had in the Police Department. "We had a long argument, me and Joseph. But then I rounded up the guys and told them 'Let's move.' I feel like I led them into a trap."

I relayed their complaints to Joseph, who dismissed them as prevaricators. "They lie; they'll tell you anything," he said. He hadn't promised them anything, and it wasn't a trap.

"I asked them to move to a spot where the streets are wider, so they wouldn't block the sidewalk." And he wanted them off San Julian, where the drug addicts from nearby shelters gather.

"That block has been quieter since the tents left," he said, offering no apology for his tactics. "I try to be fair, but in the end, the safety of the people of skid row is my primary concern. Since their removal, the streets are much safer, and in the end that's really what it's all about."

*

Joseph isn't trying to win a popularity contest. But he is the face of community policing on skid row, forced to balance the perpetual tension between tough love and tyranny.

He can tick off a list of people he's helped; he buys toys for children, mentors young men, counsels parolees, looks out for the women.

Joseph has plenty of fans on San Julian; he was greeted with hugs as we walked the block. "He's a decent officer," said Deborah Lynn Bunch, who spent 10 years on skid row and three in prison. "I was homeless and he got me into housing. There's a lot of people he could be rough on and he doesn't."

But others, like Wilson, consider Joseph a vigilante. "He's making it like we're some organized society of crime running things here," he said. "We're just homeless people. Homeless people live in tents. Homeless people use drugs."

Complaining, Wilson knows, is like spitting in the wind. "I get it. I'm the bad guy. My manner of living is not all that legal," he said. "But what happened to us wasn't no way right. We complied because we trusted him."

And in Wilson's world, at least, a deal is a deal.

*

Did Ballantine, fresh out of jail and homeless, really lose a laptop computer when the city truck destroyed his EDAR? That seems about as likely to me as the notion that the street cleaning crew just happened upon those unattended EDARs that they flattened and hauled off like so much trash.

I think both sides are bending the rules and the truth, taking opportunity where they find it. The problem with that is trust gets trashed in the process.

Skid row activist Pete White, with the Los Angeles Community Action Network, or LA CAN, was not surprised to hear about the flap. As part of the city's strategy to clean up skid row, "there's an all-out full-court press," he said, "to take away the things that make it easy for people to live on the streets: EDARs, umbrellas, milk crates, blankets, pillows."

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