As Ventura seethes over fatal stabbing, police acknowledge mistake in handling of homeless man

Ventura residents march towards City Hall to voice their concerns over attacks on citizens from homeless people.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

On Wednesday evening, the Ventura Police Department received a call about a homeless man “yelling and being disruptive” in the city’s promenade area, a bustling boardwalk flush with restaurants.

Officers in the area were busy, so police decided to monitor the man on a surveillance camera, ultimately deciding he was not a threat.

Hours later, police said, the man entered a nearby steakhouse and plunged a knife into the neck of Anthony Mele Jr., fatally wounding the 35-year-old while his wife and daughter looked on in horror.

Mele’s killing has roiled the city: Some residents are highly critical of police for failing to send officers after the initial complaint. Advocates for the homeless fear the attack could reverse the city’s progress in reaching out to its most vulnerable residents.

VENTURA, CA-APRIL 23, 2018: Charnell Smith, center, co-owner of Aloha Steakhouse on the Promenade i
Charnell Smith, center, co-owner of Aloha Steakhouse in Ventura, wipes away tears during a moment of silence at Ventura City Hall for Anthony Mele Jr., 35, who was stabbed to death in the restaurant. Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times

The slaying also highlights the difficulty police face in interacting with people who are homeless or mentally ill. In some cities, including Los Angeles, law enforcement has been accused of over-policing the homeless community, leading to encounters that sometimes turn deadly. But in Ventura, many believe the lack of a police response may have led to Mele’s death.

Ventura Police Chief Ken Corney said Monday that officers should have responded to the initial call, adding that an administrative review is underway.

“Our practice is not to handle these calls by security cameras. It is to put boots on the ground,” he told The Times.

But outrage had already spread through the community. Rebecca Mele said she is furious with police in the wake of her son’s killing, and has demanded that city leaders do more to address Ventura’s homeless population.

“To the mayor, I say, 'What are you doing?’ ” she said. “This is your city, and so are the homeless people. We should have something to provide for them. It’s very hard. I understand there were complaints [about the suspect’s behavior], the police didn’t answer, and now my son is dead.”

VENTURA, CA-APRIL 23, 2018: Alicia Carman of Ventura looks at a memorial outside of Aloha Steakhous
Alicia Carman of Ventura looks at a memorial outside of Aloha Steakhouse on the promenade in Ventura where Anthony Mele Jr., 35, was stabbed to death. Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times

Dozens showed up at a City Council meeting Monday evening to vent frustrations over how the city is handling the homeless population.

“We have been devastated by the fires, and we are now being run out by vagrants,” said one speaker, adding that her kids have found men with spoons and needles in their yard. Her comments drew cheers and applause.

In a statement last week, police promised to increase patrols in the promenade area, a move that has drawn concern from social workers and homeless advocates.

Ventura County’s homeless population has decreased annually since 2012, and the number of homeless people in the city of Ventura dropped by more than 50% in the same time frame, according to a countywide study conducted last year. Some advocates fear that a strong police response to the stabbing might scare people away from services they desperately need.

This is photo of Anthony Mele Jr. and his 5-year-old daughter, Willow. Mele was stabbed to death as
Anthony Mele Jr. and his 5-year-old daughter, Willow. Courtesy of Mele Family

“We are hoping it doesn’t result in a setback for the movement that has been happening in the county and city,” said Susan Brinkmeyer, former director of Lift Your Voice, a program under the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ventura that provides services to the homeless. “We’re not going to solve anything by rousting people, but rather by dealing with it by creating a solution.”

Brinkmeyer hoped fallout from the stabbing would not lead to generalizations about the city’s homeless community.

“I know at the moment there is a good deal of anger and a sense that the individual who committed the assault is homeless, and that may lead to a backlash against all homeless people,” she said. “As a community, we need to help those that are homeless.”

Corney said the department received a call about a man yelling and being disruptive on the promenade near the Crowne Plaza Hotel at 6:23 p.m. on Wednesday. All patrol units in the area were “tied up on other calls,” according to Corney, who did not disclose the nature of those calls.

A decision was made at the department’s 911 operations center to observe the man on a security camera trained on the pier.

“They didn’t see any behavior that appeared to be concerning or significantly disruptive,” the chief said.

The man, 49-year-old Jamal Jackson, entered the nearby Aloha Steakhouse at 9:09 p.m. and slashed Mele in the neck with a 4- to 5-inch hunting knife while the victim sat at a table, according to Cmdr. Tom Higgins.

“It was so quick, my son turned and was stabbed while he’s holding his daughter,” Rebecca Mele, 57, said.

Jackson has been charged with murder and is being held without bail. He is due in court this week.

Ventura police officers Tim Davis, left, and Schuyler Heard patrol the Ventura boardwalk on Monday. Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times

Officers should have eventually been dispatched to the area to contact the man once they completed other calls, Corney said. The department is reviewing the way it uses surveillance cameras to monitor calls for service, Higgins said.

The officers in the dispatch center did not know the man they were observing was Jackson, a homeless man with a lengthy criminal record in Ventura and San Bernardino counties who had been arrested by city police a month earlier.

Jackson has prior convictions for burglary and statutory rape in Ventura County, Senior Dist. Atty. Richard Simon said. He has also been arrested several times in San Bernardino County, most recently in 2014, when he was charged with assault with a deadly weapon, making criminal threats and false imprisonment, according to court records.

Jackson pleaded guilty to the false imprisonment charge as part of a negotiated plea deal in 2016, records show. Calls and e-mails to the San Bernardino County district attorney’s office were not returned Monday. Corney said Jackson was not on parole or probation at the time of the killing.

I’m angry. My colleagues are angry, and yet, we understand that there is a limitation on what might be appropriate action.

Ventura Mayor Neal Andrews

Jackson was arrested by Ventura Police in a March domestic violence incident, according to Simon.

“It’s a horrible attack,” Simon said. “No one expects to go to a restaurant with their family and be stabbed as they hold their daughter.”

Ventura Mayor Neal Andrews said he was “concerned” by the decision not to approach Jackson.

“While he apparently did not exhibit any behavior warranting immediate intervention, my concern was still the response was canceled instead of followed up later as other calls were managed and handled,” he said.

VENTURA, CA-APRIL 23, 2018: A photograph of Anthony Mele Jr., 35, (man wearing glasses) is surroun
A memorial for Anthony Mele Jr. in front of Aloha Steakhouse on the promenade in Ventura. Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times

Violent crime is rare in the community — the stabbing marked the city’s first homicide of the year — and Andrews said anger over the attack has been palpable. He has received e-mails from residents demanding the city outlaw panhandling, or conduct aggressive arrests along the promenade and pier area where homeless people are known to congregate.

“People get angry about situations like this and it’s totally, totally, understandable,” Andrews said. “I’m angry. My colleagues are angry, and yet, we understand that there is a limitation on what might be appropriate action.”

Some policing experts said the situation is indicative of a larger problem in law enforcement. At a time when trust between police and the citizens they are sworn to protect is shaky, officers are less likely to interact with a homeless or mentally ill person because the situation could end in a deadly use of force or community backlash.

“The national tone at this point is he has an illness and enforcement is disfavored. Enforcement can be construed as harassment pretty quickly,” said Eugene O’Donnell, a former New York City police officer and professor at the John Jay School of Criminal Justice in Manhattan. “He’s on the street, he’s not committing a crime, and you’re gonna roust him with a heavy hand?”

Mele said police and city leaders should expect continued outrage over their handling of her son’s death.

“It’s a sick thing," she said. “My son was a wonderful, loving father. His daughter loved him to death…. He was an all-around good guy and a good son.”

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