A man with machete accused cops. Thanks to a spectator, he survived

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When someone runs towards a group of San Francisco police officers with a blade, screaming that they want to die, it usually doesn’t end well.

In fact, it often becomes fatal.

It proved fatal for Ajmal Amani, 41, who was suffering from a mental health crisis when he ran to the police with a kitchen knife in a hotel residence last November. He became fatal in another incident earlier this year when two men fighting more than one knife were pulled down by the police. It proved fatal in 11 of the 22 times SFPD officers have fired their service weapons for the past five years.

Nearly 200 police encounters each year in California end in death. But on July 25, a passerby helped prevent this terrible outcome by helping a neighbor in need.

When a 23-year-old man struggling with a mental health crisis rushed officers into a SoMa aparthotel, his neighbor Anthony Clewis stopped what could have turned into another fatal encounter.

“I just didn’t want to see anyone get hurt,” Clewis said.

SFPD praised Clewis for his intervention during a police board meeting last week.

Department leaders – who said their officers acted with restraint – said Clewis “prevented the situation from possibly escalating into a use of deadly force by the officers”.

But the man’s lawyer said it shouldn’t take a brave bystander like Clewis to prevent a person with a mental health crisis from being killed by police. Especially, he added, that the police are trained to deal with such situations and were the ones who escalated the incident in the first place.

“This was a situation where someone was having a mental health crisis and a possible medical emergency, but the person’s distress only escalated once the officers approached. It’s a good thing that a friend is there to calmly intervene,” said Anthony Gedeon, the deputy public defender in the case.

Anthony Clewis demonstrates during a portrait session how he defused a situation at a Fifth Street apartment building in San Francisco on October 21, 2022. Clewis received a certificate of appreciation from the San Francisco Police Department for having intervened and defused a confrontation between a resident of the building and the police. | Benjamin Fanjoy / The Standard

Gedeon cited Amani’s case as an example of the SFPD’s rapid use of lethal force in very similar circumstances where crisis intervention specialists should have been used instead.

Although the SFPD has never said outright that it agrees with this assessment, it has intensified its efforts over the years to train officers in de-escalation techniques as well as crisis intervention, all of which aim to change the way the police deal with people in difficulty. of a mental health emergency.

And in the police account of the July 25 incident, which was reflected in some of the body camera footage, police said they tried to defuse the situation by creating time and distance, and that she had prepared less lethal ammunition at the scene where she had tried to tell the man he was out of trouble.

But before police arrived, the man was neither threatening nor violent, Gedeon said.

The public recognition of Clewis by the SFPD comes at a time when the department is reviewing its use of force rules after years of reform stalled following a series of deadly shootings. Just last week, efforts to renew an agreement between the SFPD and the district attorney’s office on officer use of force investigations were scuttled when the The police commission called on the department to go back to the drawing board.

Although touted as essential reform, de-escalation training is not guaranteed to prevent fatal encounters. Last November, after Amani’s murder, SFPD leader Bill Scott said many of his officers had been trained to peacefully resolve mental health incidents.

“It is our responsibility, our goal and our intention to have better results, and not to have these type of results,” he said. “We will continue to do everything in our power to achieve this.”

The Incident

Clewis, 21, from Oakland, said he only moved into the Fifth Street hotel – which caters to youth and young adults on the verge of homelessness – a week before the incident with the police. He met his neighbor, who The Standard does not name to protect his privacy, and knew about some of the issues he was going through, such as losing his job and going through a breakup.

In the early morning of July 22, Clewis bumped into his neighbor on the hallway floor. The man appeared to be having a seizure, Clewis said. Meanwhile, someone in the building called 911 reporting that someone was shouting and banging on a wall.

Once police arrived, a tense standoff ensued, with Clewis standing between the officers and his neighbor, according to The Standard’s review of police reports and body camera footage of one of the officers.

Officers Tariq Shaheed—who failed to spot a weapon about an inmate jailed earlier this year – and John Vidulich was first on the scene and headed for the stairwell and found Clewis standing over his neighbour. Downstairs was an ambulance crew, who had also responded to a report of someone shouting and banging against a wall.

When the two officers showed up, one of them managed to pull a pocket knife from the pants of the man in mental health crisis.

“As soon as the officers got right next to him, he jumped off like nothing had happened,” Clewis recalled in an account corroborated by body camera footage.

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The man then became verbally aggressive, yelling at the police as Clewis restrained him.

“I will kill you,” he said, according to police. “Do you want to die? Do you want a machete shoved down your fucking throat? I’m a man with nothing left to lose. […] Shoot me! Shoot me! Kill me! Kill me!”

Clewis stood between his neighbor – holding him back – and the police, including Constable Richard Mathiesen, who had arrived with another unnamed colleague. Mathiesen has since left SFPD and works for the Folsom Police Department.

“I got in front of him so he could calm down,” Clewis said.

When officers failed to calm the man down, they say he entered his bedroom and returned with a machete. Then, he walked towards the group of officers, who all backed up towards the stairwell.

Meanwhile, Clewis stood in his way again as his neighbor waved the machete. Eventually, the man returned to his room, and Clewis retrieved the machete, a bat, and a knife from the man’s room.

Anthony Clewis poses for a portrait in front of a building on Fifth Street in San Francisco on October 21, 2022. | Benjamin Fanjoy / The Standard

The four officers – two with less lethal weapons drawn and two with handguns – were waiting near the stairs. An officer held a shield.

The man then found himself alone outside his room, unarmed, shouting at the police, who eventually arrested him. He was arrested for allegedly threatening officers and presenting a deadly weapon.

“They could have honestly told me to go back to my room. […] Instead, they let me defuse the situation,” Clewis said of the police.

Although the SFPD praised Clewis for his help, department officials said they do not encourage citizens to place themselves in such dangerous situations.

However, after the October 19 Police Commission meeting at which Clewis was honored, Chief Scott noted that the department was hiring, hinting that Clewis should apply.

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