Walking the Streets With Officer Joseph
The week has flown by! Tomorrow we will have mass with the students in the morning and then begin the journey home. There is still so much to reflect on and process and hopefully on the way home more blogs will be written.
Our days have been long and there has been so much that we’ve seen. The transparency of this community is really amazing. Of course, there is the desire that people’s lives would be easier so there isn’t a need for such transparency to tell the story of human suffering and perseverance. However, suffering is a real part of life and while here we have encountered suffering we have also encountered hope and joy!
Yesterday we visited the skid row community. We arrived to the Central LAPD station ready for what we thought was an hour long tour and were not sure what to expect. After waiting in the lobby for over an hour for Officer Joseph to arrive I could tell the students were wondering if this was really worth their time. I was a bit worried since he hadn’t arrived and it was pouring rain this part of the day might have to be cancelled. Finally, he arrived and we immediately saw this was not going to be an ordinary experience.
Officer Joseph told us a little about himself as we all stared at his biceps that instilled a sense of awe. He told us why he works the most dangerous streets of LA with what is categorized as, “the least desirable population.” As he spoke it was clear this work is a ministry for him. He talked openly about God and about his love for the people on the streets that he is entrusted to keep safe. He told us that he was a Christian and apologized to us that he might use some inappropriate words but he wanted to be “real” with us about what the streets are like. He told us about his family and his own need to always defend himself and the other police officers he works with. He spoke to us about how he knows he can’t change people of this community because they don’t want to be changed but he can protect them. They suffer from drug addiction and mental illness and have not experienced a lot of unconditional love in their lives. He also talked with us about the programs that have been started for them and about the people who have committed themselves to run shelters and work with the police to clean up the streets. The amazing part about this was even as there was so much he could have been doing out on the streets, Officer Joseph talked with us like we were the most important thing he had to do on this day. We looked at pictures and videos of crimes and of the reality of drugs on the streets.
When it was finally time to go out “on the streets” it was definitely more than a bit unsettling that as we walked we had officer Joseph leading us and Officer Richards following behind and constantly placing himself between us and the street. We walked not more than a four block radius (maybe even less) but in that four blocks we saw enough to leave us speechless for most of the rest of the night about our experience. Gang members selling drugs, mentally ill people who have no where to go, volunteers working to clean up the streets, piles of trash laying out by buildings that smelled horrible, empty bottles of alcohol, probably more than a few prostitutes, and lines of people waiting for meals at shelters.
As we walked, Officer Joseph would stop and give us the stories of the people. He pointed out a man who formerly was a very prominent member of the Crips, he pointed out people he had worked with to try and find housing or beat addiction, he showed us one of the many places Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are held, he introduced us to a woman who lived on the street but now works for Volunteers of America in helping others, and he pointed out people ready to exploit those on the street at any chance. As we walked he also talked to us about the difference between offering charity and supporting the services that already exist. He was passionate about people coming to help on Skid Row but only doing so if they are interested in being an advocate for people to change their lives and not simply just giving people a meal or some clothes to wear. His view was that simply giving things to the people makes his job more difficult because it enables people to continue to live in the destructive patterns of their lives and never seek help for change. What was amazing about this walk however was not all that we saw that shocked us but how Officer Joseph was treated on the streets. People came up to him to shake his hand, one man talked with him about his son, people yelled out hello to him from across the street, and as we walked people would follow and have conversations with Officer Richards about their lives.
This walk challenged my own image of what police officers do on the streets of large cities. These men were not out looking for the worst in people they were out serving a community, building trust and protecting very vulnerable people. Even today as we relaxed and had fun these images came up in conversation about this experience on the streets with Officer Joseph and Officer Richards. This encounter did not offer me any thoughts on what solutions might come up to change this situation but rather offered a picture of a man who chooses to lift up the dignity of others and does his job because he desires to lift up the best in people.
The deepest sense of humanity was visible on these streets and we were privileged to walk them with a man who sees something different than most who walk them sees. I woke up this morning thinking, if Jesus were walking down these streets how would he interact with the people?