Deon Joseph admires LeBron James, his many accomplishments as a community activist and philanthropist and his magic on the basketball court with the Lakers, a team Joseph has cheered his entire life.
But when the Los Angeles Police Department officer who patrols skid row saw a Twitter post from James commenting on the fatal police shooting of a 16-year-old girl in Columbus, Ohio, last week, he felt compelled to write his own response.
Joseph’s post — which called James’ comments “off base and extreme” — went viral, especially in conservative media outlets that played up the officer’s criticism.
Joseph said he was surprised by all the attention and didn’t like the right-wing spin that he was going to war with James. Rather, he said, he wanted to start a dialogue.
“I’m not trying to shame him,” Joseph said. “I want to have a conversation. And even if he doesn’t want to have a conversation with me, at least sit down someday and talk to a police officer and find out who they are instead of summing up who we are.”
At issue was a tweet James made about the police shooting of Ma’Khia Bryant, a 16-year-old girl shown on police body camera charging at two people with a knife. It showed a photo of the officer believed to have shot and killed the girl, and called for accountability.
James wrote, “YOU’RE NEXT #ACCOUNTABILITY,” in an apparent reference to the conviction of former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd.
Before James deleted the tweet, it was widely shared. He said he took it down “because [it’s] being used to create more hate.”
Joseph said he was bothered by the tweet and took to Facebook with an open letter.
Joseph starts by saying, “I am not going to come at you from a place of hatred. There will be no name-calling. I was raised to see the whole of a human being. Not to hyper-focus on their flaws or make said flaws the whole of who they are. I’m an honest man.”
The law enforcement veteran said he took issue with James’ comments about policing — particularly in reference to the Ohio shooting.
“Your current stance on policing is so off base and extreme. Your tweet that targeted a police officer in Ohio who saved a young woman’s life was irresponsible and disturbing. It showed a complete lack of understanding of the challenge of our job in the heat of a moment,” Joseph said. “You basically put a target on the back of a human being who had to make a split-second decision to save a life from a deadly attack ... a decision I know he and many others wish they never had to make. Especially when it involves someone so young.”
A 25-year officer, Joseph has gained a measure of fame for his work on skid row, being featured in documentaries and giving TED talks about the issues of homelessness and mental illness. He’s spent all but two of those years working with the unhoused in downtown Los Angeles. He has been called the “angel of skid row” and created a program to distribute hygiene kits to homeless people. When U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter wanted to learn about skid row, it was Joseph who showed him daily life there. Joseph, a married father of three boys, was featured on HGTV’s “Home Makeover” as a reward for his good works.
Joseph said in an interview he knows policing needs reforms and that he was not trying to defend abusive behavior.
“But you can’t always stop humanity. With humanity comes imperfections. As long as human beings are a part of any profession, things can happen,” he said. “It’s not an excuse, it’s a reality. Apathy, brutality, insensitivity, racism, bias ... these things are not police traits. They are human traits, and they exist in all professions. But I also believe that is the exception, not the rule.”
He said he wrote the letter in part because he feels the public needs to distinguish between unjustified and justified use of force by officers.
There has been debate about the officer’s actions in Columbus.
A 10-second body-camera clip shows an officer taking a few steps toward a group when a Black girl starts swinging a knife at another person, who falls backward. The girl, identified as Ma’Khia Bryant, then charges at another person, who is pinned against a car.
From a few feet away, with people on both sides of him, the officer fires four shots, and the teen slumps to the ground. A black-handled knife falls next to her on the sidewalk.
After taking down his tweet about the shooting, James posted: “I’m so damn tired of seeing Black people killed by police. ... This isn’t about one officer. It’s about the entire system.”
In his letter, Joseph asks James not to paint all officers with that same brush. “You are tired of Black folks dying? So am I. You hate racism and police brutality? So do I. But you cannot paint 800,000 men and women who are of all races, faiths, sexual orientations and are also mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, preachers, coaches, community members and just humans with such a broad and destructive brush.”
Some of Joseph’s concerns about the generalization that “police are inherently evil” is a common critique by those in policing circles. James’ tweet did not actually take a swipe at all officers but was responding to the Columbus case.
Najee Ali, a longtime Los Angeles activist who has led demonstrations against police, said he believes James’ voice on matters of policing is important and powerful.
“LeBron James is speaking out and shouldn’t stop speaking out for justice,” Ali said.
At the same time, he said he “understands the spirit of the words Deon Joseph used in the letter and knows the officer is talking from the heart, but part of that conversation has to be about the unjustified murders of Black people by police.”
James, an Ohio native, has increasingly become the NBA’s leading voice for social justice. On the way to the NBA title last year, James launched into a 13-minute speech to reporters, not about the game but seeking justice for Breonna Taylor, calling for the arrest of the Louisville police officers who fatally shot the 26-year-old after rousing her from sleep while serving a warrant. Last summer, he launched the nonprofit More Than One Vote to fight against voter suppression.
Joseph said he’s yet to hear from James, but said, “It’s OK. At least I tried.”
As for his letter going public, he added: “It’s really overwhelming in the best ways.”