Ventura Police Chief Ken Corney Speaks Out On Homelessness, Vagrancy and Crime

Discussing safety concerns of the community

By Lori Denman-Underhill

Police Chief Ken Corney

Ventura Police Chief Ken Corney outside Council Chambers at 5-7-18 meeting. Photo: George Miller/CitizensJournal.us

I am safe in Ventura. I feel an overwhelming sense of peace and safety for myself and my child, as we walk down the boardwalk by Surfer’s Point. As I hike by the riverbed, I enjoy the silence and feel unthreatened by violence and enjoy a view of nature. When I surf, the ocean water is clean and unpolluted by feces by the river mouth. I walk down the street and feel safe passing by open doors of illegally parked RVs. And then I awake up from a dream.

Editor’s note: This is the first of a series of articles on the Ventura homeless/vagrant.crime situation and related law enforcement, housing and social factors.

This dream of safety and peace of mind has reached an abrupt end for many in the City of Ventura, the place they call home. These citizens abide by the law, that they expect others to also follow. Law and order is fair and assures safety and peace of mind. The question now is… what is happening around town? Why do some people not follow the law and why are they not arrested for illegal activity in our neighborhoods? What is being done to assure our safety? Why are certain people allowed their own special court system and why are they allowed more misdemeanors and citations, prior to arrest?

The main concern for many Ventura residents is this. They want the police, county, City Council and other entities in charge to fully and fairly enforce law and order. By not enforcing law and order, it is resulting in the endangering of health and safety of Ventura residents. One other important concern by many community members is the way people treat the majority of the homeless, who have been peaceful and kind to citizens. These community members want others to not judge this overall group of people for the crimes being committed by vagrants, who may also be homeless. It is imperative that we, as a society, aim to work together with compassion and steer clear of discrimination.

To answer these burning questions and concerns, why not go straight to the source? Ventura Police Chief Ken Corney joined Citizens Journal for a conversation about the law and a large group of individuals who are not abiding by it. He also discussed the community’s concerns, including recent violence in our city and shared positive news of hope.

Citizens Journal: Thank you for joining us Police Chief Corney. As you may know, the community of Ventura is concerned with the recent rise of violence towards them. What are the statistics on crime now and who are committing the crimes?

Police Chief Corney: In 2017 Part 1 Violent Crime was up 25 percent in Ventura. Within that increase is a 42 percent increase in Felony or Aggravated Assaults. So far in 2018, we have continued to respond to an increase in violent crimes across the City. While the majority of violent crimes involve gang violence and domestic violence, we also deal with violent crime among homeless – both as victims and suspects.

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?

The police department doesn’t focus our enforcement on if someone has a roof over their head or not. We focus on behaviors.

Regarding the murder of Anthony Mele, The Los Angeles Times claims that Jamal Jackson has a lengthy criminal history. What happened on the call reported nearly three hours before the crime?

First of all, there was no identification of the suspect as Jamal Jackson at any point prior to his arrest. If I can paraphrase, the call; about three hours before the murder, a woman called reporting that there was a person on the promenade saying things to people passing by, that he seemed to be annoying people. The Dispatcher took the call and the description of the person disturbing. At the time the call came in, all the patrol officers that were in that area were tied up on other calls. There was no report of any knife, threats or violence. So the report would not necessitate an officer being sent from the other end of the city.  As a result the call was held until patrol units in that beat or the adjoining beat became available. It was about 20 minutes later the units became available that could have responded, but a decision outside our procedures had already been made to cancel the call.

Do you think at that moment there was the problem? That if there was an officer, he or she would have been able to go to the call?

We have a camera on the pier to view as a tool. The dispatch staff at the police center thought process was – since, we don’t have anybody available let’s see what the situation looks like. This was a proactive and acceptable thing to do. They watched the person for about 20 minutes, until the subject, walked out of camera view and they couldn’t see him anymore. It was about 20 minutes later the units became available that could have responded, but a decision outside our procedures had already been made to cancel the call because the dispatch personnel who watched the subject by camera didn’t perceive his behavior as concerning. I have seen the video and I can understand how they could reach that conclusion, but our procedure and practice is to have an officer respond. Clearly with the advantage of hindsight, It wasn’t the proper decision to make at that point.

In your opinion, the unit should have just gone, right? They should not have cancelled the call.

Absolutley, but not just in my opinion, but also by our practice and our procedures, officers should have been sent. When we receive a call, we put boots on the ground.

Regarding the camera issue, what happened with the looking at a tape and declaring that Jamal was not a threat? Why was an officer not on scene after the call? With there be a change in policy?

There was no identification of the suspect as Jamal Jackson at any point prior to his arrest.  It was not our policy to judge the need to respond to a call only by camera. What we have done is to certainly reinforce our practices and procedures to make sure our dispatch staff knows that we do not have a policy to handle calls merely by camera. Cameras enhance our response; they do not substitute for our response. Our practice is that patrol officers go to the calls for service. It was a decision that I am confident was made with good intentions… dispatch is complicated process. They are constantly receiving 911 calls, coordinating and prioritizing  responses to calls and patrol officer activity across the city. Since officers were not available to respond so they made the decision to look at the camera, and the decision to look at the camera to see if the situation was more severe than reported,  but it should have been followed by sending a patrol officer to the call when they were available. 

Well, it’s good to hear that using the camera solely won’t happen again. That you guys will just go to the scene.

Yes.  It is not the way we did business and that is not the way we will do business in the future.

Has the police department seen an increase in 911 calls regarding what some would call a “vagrant, not homeless” person acting violent towards citizens or committing a crime in public? What are the statistics? 

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, or are perceived to be homeless by the person reporting the call. It is a challenge, but I believe that most coastal communities are having the same challenges. Our focus is not if a suspect is homeless, our focus is intervening into criminal behavior. Among the many things police do, our primary role is to investigate crime and arrest people – whether they be homeless and housed, for crimes like domestic violence, gang shootings, shoplifting, thefts, drunk driving, possession of use of drugs, and more. Our data indicates that 40 percent of our arrests citywide are suspects who are determined to be homeless.

Earlier in the week, you put out a press release regarding a Safe and Clean enforcement operation in cooperation with other county agencies. Do you plan to continue these actions? 

Yes.  We do use other agencies to assist us in this problem. It’s not something we can do as often as would like, because we are using other law enforcement agencies’ resources.

Do you think that you need more officers during shifts?

We have officers assigned to beats and we provide them them focus areas based on calls for service and reported crimes that have recently occurred. The beat officers respond to calls, whether it is a mentally ill person disturbing, a domestic family disturbance, a shoplifter or a traffic accident. Officers are busy with those types of calls. During the times when they are not responding to calls, we expect them to self-initiate activity using the focus areas and other information we provide. Officers go to those areas, but only when they are not assigned to other calls for service. So yes, patrol  is a finite resource, and calls typically get backed up until we have officers available to respond. How long depends on the number of calls for service, which can vary from day to day and how long those calls for service may take the officer to complete. 

As an example – It takes about an hour to drive someone to jail and back and book them. Since January 1st, 2018 we have made over 1,750 arrests citywide. If a person needs a medical clearance prior to going to jail, it could take two hours or more. If the arrest includes a mental health hold, a medical clearance is always required. Then in most instances, we have to wait for space at the mental health facility  to become available. That could take from three hours to days. We have actually had to have an officer sit with a mentally ill person for days, at the hospital because they were not safe to leave there alone.

What we are doing in our current budget process, from a patrol resource perspective?

I am asking to hire two more officers to augment focus area patrols, and the following year we plan to ask for four more officers for focus areas assignment. The more we can do to be surgical and focus our efforts on the people, places and things that generate crime, the more effective we can be in preventing crime.

Are people allowed to park on the street with their RVs? I thought that was illegal during certain hours?

We have an oversized vehicle ordinance which is a parking violation for keeping oversized vehicle on the street during certain hours. We also have a sleeping in a vehicle ordinance, which requires a warning. We are working with our City Attorney now to update these ordinances to be more effective, when dealing with people living out of RVs and cars in public spaces. It is a symptom of homelessness that is going on in many communities.

Does a homeless person have different rights than a resident of Ventura? A different court system? 

No. Everyone has the same rights. I am not the expert on the current process, you will have to talk to the court system, but there are different types of courts that people charged with crimes can potentially be sent to. As I understand it, there is a drug court, a homeless court, a veteran’s court and more. I believe you go into the process and the courts and the judge, prosecutor, a private attorney or a public defender, who suggest if there is a more appropriate path than the normal criminal court process. Just because you are homeless, doesn’t mean you go into homeless court.

There is a concern about a policy that requires homeless people being allowed up to 25 misdemeanors or more before getting a citation or being arrested.

No. That is simply false. 

If a police officer approaches a homeless person and they are doing five illegal things – let’s say they are urinating on a business front step, being emotionally violent to citizens on the sidewalk, has a crack pipe in his hand and is drinking in public – that can be only one misdemeanor? 

Yes.  The number of crimes does not increase a charge to a felony.  

Right. But if they are committing five illegal activities, they only get one misdemeanor for that?

You can only be arrested once. You can be charged for multiple crimes, but you can only be arrested once for one situation.

Are they arrested or are they just given a citation on paper? 

In some circumstances, we do issue a citation is in lieu of a physical arrest and booking in jail. It would depend upon the situation. As I recall our data January 1 through May 1 2018, we issued about 40 misdemeanor citations in lieu arrest of the slightly more than 700 suspects we arrested and who identified themselves as homeless. The same applies for arrestees who are not homeless, but I don’t have those numbers off hand.

How many misdemeanors are allowed before they are ordered for a court appearance?

It really depends upon the situation. We have a program that we work with our City Attorney’s office. It’s called the Chronic Offender Program. We identify a person as a chronic offender when they have five or more City Ordinance Violations or penal code type offenses in the last year, with at least one in the last six months. It provides an opportunity to bring together five municipal ordinance to make a prosecution and sanctions more effective with the goal of influencing the suspect away from their behaviors. The City Attorney only prosecutes city ordinance violations. So if someone is in possession of a crack pipe, that’s a Health and Safety Code violation that the District Attorney prosecutes to hold the person accountable. If it’s a City Ordinance Violation our City Attorney must prosecute, but we use prior penal code type charges to argue for increased sanctions. The Chronic Offender Program is a tool to make the effort more effective;  the City Attorney to bring together past municipal code or penal code type violations; to bring forward the five offenses that the person has committed, either City Ordinance or penal code type violations; or to ask the court for increased sanctions. Under the Chronic Offender program, it is possible that a person who has not been contacted for anything, but City Ordinance Violations, could have five city ordinance citations before the City Attorney brings the case to court.  In those incidents, we work with the courts. Let’s say with those five violations of drinking in public. The City Attorney will ask the judge for the person who needs to be ordered into an alcohol program. It makes our work more effective, because every time you appear in court it may be in front of a different judge. If the City Attorney can only present single arrest incidences, we are not taking the opportunity to get the sanctions we need to make the impact to turn the person’s life around. Additionally, our City Attorney’s resources are limited. Remember that everybody that we arrest have a right to a jury trial. We have tried people for City Ordinance violations, and spent several days in court, including the jury selection process. So if we are going to have to invest those types of resources, we want the best case possible in order to get the sanctions we need.

Are sanctions for misdemeanors difficult? 

Increasingly difficult, yes. Effective sanctions are not what they have been in the past. Proposition 47 has played a big role in this challenge. Especially for drug and continuous petty theft offenses. A significant number of our 701 arrests of people who identify as homeless are related to drugs and petty theft crimes.

If a homeless person is arrested for committing a crime and then deemed mentally ill, are they then taken to a mental health facility? 

All situations may be different, but in general, people who commit crimes go to jail. The jail can provide mental health treatment for people in custody for suspected criminal activity. People who don’t necessarily commit a crime but are demonstrating a mental health crisis, and under current case law, can be determined to be a danger to one self or danger to others, or gravely disabled can taken into custody under 5150 hold and brought to the County’s mental health facility for evaluation. The County is funded to provide drug and alcohol mental health services. Cities most often do not receive direct funding for these programs. 

Can we work together to help steer those persons with addictions who commit crimes towards mandatory treatment programs?

The State runs the courts. If you go to a judge and you are ordered to go to a drug rehab program, the treatment program runs through the County. The City worked with the courts to establish an innovative process called the Community Intervention Court. If functions as a specialized court, where we can direct our Chronic Offenders into programs as an alternative to jail or other sanctions. It is voluntarily to participate in the program and we work with Social Services to get them placed into alternative programs  Sometimes the programs may be in LA, like Veterans programs because programs are not always available in Ventura. The police department and City Attorney are very involved, along with the Public Defender’s office, Social Services and the Community Intervention Court Judge.

The river area seems to be a popular place where the homeless set up camps and might be engaging in illegal activity. Do you guys go through there often? Is there a way to close it down?

We go through the city on a regular basis and deal with illegal camps. Once you close one camp down, another one opens. Dealing with illegal camps is a game of whack-a-mole, but we continue to deal with the challenge and find ways to make our work more effective.

Yet I heard that the homeless camped by the river bed may have illegal weapons, drugs and such.

True in some cases, but there are also people camping under the freeway, in bushes, around parks… we find the similar stuff everywhere. There are times when it is illegal and times where there is no illegal activity other than the camping. It is a complicated issue. If the people who are homeless engage in ongoing criminal activity, we can make arrests and work to get sanctions that take them out of homelessness, but this is an increasing challenge within the criminal justice system, especially in California. 

Is there a way to get them back to their city of origin? 

We have helped reconnected over 140 homeless back with their families and support systems all over the country.  The Downtown Ventura Partners and the Salvation Army oversee this voluntary program. It is a successful and effective program. 

If you give an illegal camper a choice and say, ‘Hey, well, clean up and stop doing illegal activity or go to jail. We will give you a chance’?

That is really the operational practice of our Patrol Task Force’s assisted enforcement approach. As far as illegal camping, they usually pack up and leave the area. When they are arrested only for illegal camping, they spend a day in jail and then they get out and go camp somewhere else. Jail and the court system by itself is not an effective response to illegal camping. However, we are doing something out by the Santa Clara River at River Haven, we are working with Social Services. When we find the camp, we bring Social Service providers and they give them the opportunity to engage in social services.

The jail near Victoria and Telephone releases at least 1,000 convicted felons per month. Do you think that’s safe? 

It is not the best situation for Ventura. By law once they have served their sentence or otherwise met the requirements for release, they are released and Ventura is the location of the jail where everyone is released. 

It sounds like steps are now being taken to help these situations. What other good news can you offer Ventura residents now?

We understand the community’s fear of crime is a real concern. We are working on expanding our security camera systems to monitor activity in public spaces like parks and the promenade and we are also working to hire staff to specifically monitor the cameras. With more resources, we can have a more focused approach. We are also about to start a new program with County Public Health called the Mental Health Triage Grant. This allows a mental health professional to team up with a police officer and respond to calls involving a person experiencing a mental health crisis in a public place. The County was awarded the grant and invited us to participate. I think it will be an effective tool for us and further our partnership with mental health specialists.

What other positive action is being taken?

We have added 20 hours a day of focused patrol to the Promenade and nearby areas where we experience on-going problems with vagrancy. I have also worked with the city manager to propose funding in the upcoming budget for two more officers assigned to the patrol task force. Then two officers will be able be to be specially assigned to focus patrol duties. 

What are your other concerns?

Since the implementation of Proposition 47, I have no doubt that there has been an increase in criminal behavior in community. I know a few people may look at data and say that is not true, but it takes time for the consistent increase in crime to reveal itself in a verifiable way. The fact of Proposition 47 is that a criminals can steal continuously, as long as it is $950 or less, and never be held accountable, other than a low level misdemeanor crime. The fact that you can possess drugs, as long as you do not possess them for sales, and that it is never a felony is also an issue.

The fact is that this has significantly eroded the sanctions that we had to intervene into continuous criminal activity. We aren’t getting people in drug and rehab because there is no sanctions coming upon them that will force them to make that decision. I think that people, with very few exceptions, cannot access drugs when they are incarcerated. So if you are going to get people off of drugs and they are not willing to go into a program, you need leverage on the person. If people are stealing on a regular basis, more than often it is because they do it to support a substance abuse problem. It may be difficult for the average law abiding citizen to understand this. Unless they have experienced addiction, it is difficult to put yourself in the shoes of a drug addict. We need to re-establish effective sanctions as an effective tool to change criminal behaviors and protect our community.  It is paramount to an effective justice system.

 

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, Surfline.com and more. She is now the Ventura reporter for Citizens Journal.


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2 Responses to Ventura Police Chief Ken Corney Speaks Out On Homelessness, Vagrancy and Crime

  1. Kathy May 15, 2018 at 10:54 am

    Maybe the 2 new officers they will hire can be on bikes and could regularly be patrolling the areas in need closer to the action.

    Reply
  2. rustin stewart May 14, 2018 at 9:02 pm

    It’s a real problem that doesn’t begin at home.learn the law not enforcement.

    Reply

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