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A Machete-Wielding Man in Crisis Charged Police. Thanks to His Neighbor, He Wasn’t Killed

Written by Jonah Owen LambPublished Oct. 27, 2022 • 5:00am
Anthony Clewis poses for a portrait while holding a Certificate of Appreciation in an apartment building on Fifth Street in San Francisco on Oct. 21, 2022. | Benjamin Fanjoy/The Standard

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When someone runs at a group of San Francisco police officers with a blade, hollering that he wants to die, it doesn’t usually end well. 

In fact, it often turns fatal.

It turned fatal for Ajmal Amani, 41, who was suffering from a mental health crisis when he ran toward police with a kitchen knife in a residential hotel last November. It turned fatal in a separate incident earlier this year when two men fighting over a knife were shot and killed by police. It turned fatal in 11 of the 22 times SFPD officers fired their service weapons over the past five years. 

Nearly 200 police encounters each year in California end in a fatality. But on July 25, a bystander helped prevent that terrible outcome by coming to the aid of a neighbor in need.

When a 23-year-old man experiencing a mental health crisis rushed officers inside a residential hotel in SoMa, his neighbor Anthony Clewis stopped what could have turned into yet another fatal encounter. 

“I just didn’t want to see nobody get hurt,” Clewis said.

SFPD commended Clewis for his intervention at a Police Commission meeting this past week.

The department’s  leaders—who said their officers acted with restraint—said Clewis “kept the situation from likely escalating to a use of deadly force by the officers.” 

But the man’s attorney said that it shouldn’t take a brave bystander such as Clewis to prevent someone in a mental health crisis from being killed by police. Especially, he added, since 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 police officers approached,” said Anthony Gedeon, the deputy public defender in the case. “It is a good thing that a friend was there to calmly intervene.”

Anthony Clewis demonstrates during a portrait session how he de-escalated a situation in an apartment building on Fifth Street in San Francisco on Oct. 21, 2022. | Benjamin Fanjoy/The Standard

Gedeon pointed to Amani’s case as an example of SFPD quickly resorting to lethal force in very similar circumstances where crisis intervention specialists should have been used instead. 

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

In the police account of the July 25 incident, which was reflected in some of the body-camera footage, police said they tried to de-escalate the situation by creating time and distance, and readied less-lethal ammunition at the scene as they attempted to communicate to the man that he wasn’t in trouble. 

But before police arrived, the man was not threatening or violent, Gedeon said.

Clewis’ public recognition by SFPD comes at a time when the department is reviewing its use-of-force rules after years of stalled reform following a spate of deadly shootings. Just last week, efforts to renew an agreement between SFPD and the District Attorney’s Office over investigations into officers’ use-of-force was scuttled when the Police Commission called for the department to return to the drawing board.

Though touted as a critical reform, de-escalation training isn’t guaranteed to prevent fatal encounters. Last November, after Amani’s killing, SFPD Chief Bill Scott said many of his officers were trained to resolve mental health incidents peacefully.

“It’s our responsibility and goal and intention to have better outcomes, and not have these types of outcomes,” he said. “We will continue to do everything in our power to do just that.”

The Incident 

Twenty-one-year-old Clewis, an Oakland native, said he moved into the Fifth Street hotel—which caters to youth and young adults on the brink of homelessness—a week before the incident with police. He met his neighbor, whom The Standard is not naming to protect his privacy, and knew some of the issues he was going through, like losing his job and going through a breakup. 

In the early morning of July 22, Clewis came upon his neighbor on the hallway floor. The man appeared to be having a seizure, Clewis recounted. Meanwhile, someone in the building called 911 and reported someone yelling 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 from one of the officers.

Officers Tariq Shaheed—who failed to spot a gun on an inmate booked into jail earlier this year—and John Vidulich arrived at the scene first and made their way up to the stairwell, where they found Clewis standing over his neighbor. Downstairs was an ambulance crew, which had also responded to a report of someone screaming and banging on a wall. 

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

“As soon as the officers got right next to him, he hopped up like nothing happened,” Clewis recalled in an account corroborated by bodycam footage.

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The man then got verbally aggressive, yelling at police as Clewis held him back. 

“I’ll kill you,” he said, according to the police. “You want to die? You want a machete shoved up 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 Officer Richard Mathiesen, who had arrived with another unnamed colleague. Mathiesen has since left SFPD and works for the Folsom Police Department.

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

When the officers failed to calm the man, they say he went into his room and returned with a machete. Then, he walked toward the group of officers, who all moved back toward the stairwell. 

Meanwhile, Clewis again stood in his way 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 outside an apartment building on Fifth Street in San Francisco on Oct. 21, 2022. | Benjamin Fanjoy/The Standard

The four officers—two with less lethal weapons drawn and two with handguns—waited by the stairs. One officer held a shield. 

The man then stood by himself outside his room, unarmed, yelling at police, who eventually arrested him. He was booked for allegedly threatening officers and exhibiting a deadly weapon. 

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

Though SFPD commended Clewis for his help, department officials said they don’t encourage citizens to place themselves in such dangerous situations. 

After the Oct. 19 Police Commission meeting during which Clewis was honored, however, Chief Scott noted that the department was hiring, hinting that Clewis should apply.

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Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at [email protected]


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