Ventura Homelessness | The Present of More Presence

Ventura’s need for effective community embedded policing

By Lori Denman-Underhill

There is an ongoing discussion in many cities, including Ventura. Is an increased presence of police officers a present, when dealing with a subset of the homeless causing crime?

There are two sides of the discussion representing varying opinions from the community. One one side, many are concerned with the subset of homeless who are committing crimes, vagrancy and violent acts. They are also concerned that there was not a Ventura police officer on the scene when a concerned citizen called 911 and reported that Jamal Jackson, the man who then murdered Anthony Mele, was causing a disturbance. This side believes that if there was a police officer on the scene, he or she would have investigated Jackson and perhaps, Mele would be alive today.

On the other side, there are those who think that we do not need more officers. They think that housing is the solution, that if the subset were given shelters, they would clean up their act, join programs and stop committing crimes.

Facts and figures exist and should be considered. Violent crime has risen in Ventura by 25 percent in 2017, Police Chief Ken Corney told Citizens Journal.  He has also stated that, “We have definitely seen an increase in calls for criminal behavior or quality of life issues involving people who, when we arrive at the scene turn out to be homeless.” With an increase in vagrancy and crime in Ventura, Corney is seeking an additional two officers, in order to cover the entire city. He also estimates that most officers on staff are busy on calls regarding a mentally ill person disturbance, a domestic family disturbance, a shoplifter or a traffic accident.While the officers are busy on their assigned areas and also on their calls, what is happening with the arrests overall? According to Corney, “Our data indicates that 40 percent of our arrests citywide are suspects who are determined to be homeless.”

There are some speaking on the flip side, claiming that the police are “focusing too much of their time on the homeless,” that their method of enforcement isn’t “fixing the homeless problem,” and is “making the problem worse.” He believes that the police are “focusing 40 percent of their time on the homeless,” and that more officers is not a solution. This individual is Lucas Zucker, Policy and Communications Director for CAUSE— Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy.

Zucker added to these remarks, “Well, if a drug store clerk committed a crime, we aren’t going to crack down on all of the clerks, right? The reality is that homelessness is a really serious issue. But ultimately, if the goal is to make a safe community, that has less violence, I think that homelessness is not the first place to tackle because they do not commit the majority of crimes.”

When asked how Zucker would solve the issue of a subset of homeless people committing crimes and vagrancy he answered, I would say that the fundamental reason that a person is out on the street like that is that there is a lack of housing.”

The Current State of the Promenade

David Pu’u is a lifelong area resident with over 35 years of experience in business and various aspects of community service in both religious and First Response fields. He has worked as an Associate Pastor, has been at the beach of Ventura for five decades and has been working in business as self employed for 35 years. He has very particular views surrounding crime, vagrancy, homelessness, addiction and public safety.

In the past 10 years, Pu’u has witnessed an increase of various criminal activity, particularly on the promenade from the Ventura Pier to the river mouth and its surrounding areas of numerous parking lots. There is West Side gang activity, drug dealers and the subset of homeless committing crimes, who many consider vagrants. It’s not uncommon for California coastal communities.

“If you look at the way other communities including Santa Monica manage it, it didn’t really take a lot of officers,” Pu’u told Citizens Journal. “You just take the officers out of their patrol cars and onto bikes or on foot and embed them within that region. They begin to manage the crime.”

Pu’u said that by looking at the system that they are in charge of enforcing — the Criminal Justice System – they are there to enforce the law on those committing crime. Pu’u added, “With reference to an ongoing challenge to public safety that was recently punctuated by the slaughter of a man having dinner with his family at a restaurant on the promenade drawing City attention, it was no surprise that Council responded by sending a larger contingent of officers into the troubled area. I do not see a ramp up in police numbers as being the answer to the public safety challenges presented by thieves, drug users-vendors, gang operators, vagrants, homeless, whatever. It would merely drain resources and create a negative environment. A large police presence doesn’t really do anything to decrease the crime long term. It just deters it in the short term. And it also has the chance of intimidating the public.”

“We must look at what the goal of governance is,” said Pu’u. “Thomas Jefferson said it best: ‘The care of human life and happiness is the only legitimate object of good government.’ Law Enforcement is an arm of Governance which does much more than enforce laws, though at a Municipal level your local PD has that mandate reinforced by the City. The goal of the police department is to enforce the law and ensure public safety.”

Pu’u said that the best way for this to occur is to decrease the criminal presence. His idea is to put two police officers on bikes, place two on motor back up and also have one detective on the day shift, who would work with them in managing criminal detention. Identify and focus on the elements jeopardizing public safety and remove them. This would be eight officers.

“Build a symbiotic, cohesive, loosely aligned partnership between the public (users of the beach) and a select focused group of officers under a commander that knows the community intimately,” he added. “That would likely be financially productive and sustainable. A concept that seems to have been lost with regard to managing community and public based assets by City Council over the years, which as things have evolved, have become increasingly more challenging to administrate.

“One by one, you will eliminate the troublemakers,” Pu’u added.  “Just go in there and undo the crime architecture and drug dealing. I’ve heard on the promenade that as soon as there were more police cars, the drug dealers scattered. How is an officer in a car going to see a drug deal happening on the rocks below the promenade? They are like a warning shot. Santa Barbara did this and it worked great.”

Pu’u suggested that more effective community embedded policing would help. And that giving free housing to the subset of homeless who are repeatedly causing crimes, refusing services and dealing illegal drugs (including meth on the promenade and Main Street) will not. He gave an example of a man who was doing meth and luring girls. He kidnapped a girl and went to jail. When he got out of jail, he went to the promenade, committing the same crimes again. An officer was there to arrest him for good. Pu’u said that more police in cars did not help that situation. He said, “It’s the method in which you determine you will enforce the law and ensure public safety that works.”

Are the police focusing too much on the homeless? Pu’u answered no and said, “I love homeless cops. It’s not what they do. The only time they are focused on the homeless is when City Council tells them to do that. Since the police department members are employees of the City of Ventura, they have to do what City Council says. When the council did not recognize and address the problem down there, it got worse.”

There’s one police officer who gets the support and vote of Pu’u to be assigned on the promenade. He is Ventura Police Commander Tom Higgins. “He knows Ventura like the back of his hand,” Pu’u said. “He grew up in Pierpont. Hire him and you’ll see crime disappear.”

Tackling the Issues

Let’s look at the comment about the police, “focusing too much of their time on the homeless.” We asked Corney about this in a past article. “It was stated at the last City Council meeting by a public speaker that, ‘homelessness is different than criminality.’ And they need to be treated different. Do you agree?” Corney answered, “The police department doesn’t focus our enforcement on if someone has a roof over their head or not. We focus on behaviors.”

So, according to the police, they focus on behaviors. They do not focus all of their time on any particular group. If they did, they may have been on the promenade on the day of Mele’s murder. Homeless or not, you do a crime, you do the time.

Another top concern of homeless advocates at the City Council meeting on May 7 is that all people with opinions on the homeless should work with the homeless, prior to jumping to conclusions of what works and what does not work, in solving the issue.

Are the police “focusing too much on the homeless” or “spending a lot of resources on the homeless”? Are the police’s working? There is a coalition that actually does work with the homeless, and it is a resource that includes the police.

Last week, a story was published by Citizens Journal about a coalition including social service groups, the Salvation Army, Project Understanding, a local fire department member and members of the Ventura police department. Yes, they meet weeklyand discuss every single homeless person in Ventura. They also meet weekly the day before a homeless person’s court date, with Ventura County Behavioral Health (if there are mental issues).

What does this group do, that includes the police? They know of each homeless person in Ventura and work together to discuss the best game plan to help this person succeed. This could be mental health or medical assistance, placing them in their Safe Sleep program, or connecting them with Downtown Ventura Partners, who pay their way home to reconnect with family. There is also the Chronic Offenders Program, designed specifically for those repeat offenders. So that tickets are not just repeatedly given. It’s a program to offer services and aim to help individuals get back on their feet.

The Patrol Task Force (PTF), a group that works with the homeless, aims to steer repeat offenders clear of jail and offers services and programs. However, what happens when an individual refuses services and programs?

“When we first started with a staff about six years ago, we were helping people who really wanted to help themselves,” explained PTF leader, Jerry Foreman. “This occurred for about two years. They wanted the programs, they wanted to not be homeless anymore and find a place to live. It was pretty easy to deal with them. Now what is left is the people that we have been dealing with forever. They are service resistant.”

So now we see that there is a subset of “service resistant” homeless, who may also refuse housing, because of sobriety issues. What if the person is hooked on hard drugs and wants a shelter? Do we let them drink and do drugs in the shelter and live for free in our community? These questions will be answered in our next story focusing on the homeless, as we interview a leading representative of Salvation Army and others in Ventura.

Photo: Dreamstime

Lori Denman-Underhill has been a professional journalist since 1996. She has worked as associate editor for the Los Angeles Daily News TODAY Magazines and has freelanced for LA Weekly, and more. She is now the Ventura reporter for Citizens Journal.

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Repeal Prop 47 and 57 …