In a case drawing comparisons to the murder of George Floyd, authorities in the Bay Area town of Alameda face mounting outrage after body camera video showed a police officer appearing to put one knee on the back of a 26 year old Latino man for over four minutes as he gasped for breath and eventually died.
The incident drew close scrutiny in part because the deceased man, Mario Gonzalez, did not appear to pose an imminent threat to officers when they arrived at a local park on April 19 after calls about a drunk man and possible theft.
One of the 911 callers told a dispatcher, “It looks like he’s tweaking. But he doesn’t do anything wrong, he just scares my wife.
A second caller spoke to a dispatcher about a man with a Walgreens basket with alcohol and “looks like he’s breaking the security tags.” This caller added that the man had been hanging around for half an hour.
Some law enforcement experts said the video raises serious questions about police tactics.
“There’s going to be a very intensive investigation into this,” said Ed Obayashi, Northern California Sheriff’s Deputy, Legal Counsel and Veteran Police Trainer. “It’s rare that a non-threatening, non-belligerent person ends up dying like this. … What was the justification of the police for having detained him? This individual did not represent a threat to the officers.
The nearly hour-long body-cam video of two officers shows officers talking to Gonzalez in a park. In the video, Gonzalez appears dizzy and struggles to answer the officers’ questions.
Gonzalez didn’t produce any ID, so officers try to force his hands behind his back to handcuff him, but he doesn’t let his arms go limp. Officers determine he’s resisting, then push him to the ground, the video shows.
Agents, as they seek to detain him, repeatedly ask Gonzalez for his full name and date of birth.
“I think you just drank too much today, okay?” That’s all, ”said an officer. After learning his name, the officer adds: “Mario, stop fighting us.”
Gonzalez, who weighed around 250 pounds, is then lying face down on wood chips and can be heard screaming and growling as officers use their body weight to control him. A policeman appears to put an elbow on his neck and a knee on his shoulder.
“He lifts all of my body weight,” an officer told his colleague.
An officer rests his knee on Gonzalez’s back for four minutes or more.
Gonzalez is heard in the video telling officers, “I didn’t do anything, okay?”
Shortly before Gonzalez stops breathing, one officer asks the other, “Do you think we can roll him to the side?” but the others say, “I don’t want to lose what I got, man.”
Another policeman then asks: “We have no weight on his chest?” then repeats: “No! No weight … no weight.
“He’s not responding,” said an officer.
Officers roll Gonzalez and perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation, but he was later pronounced dead in a hospital.
The Alameda County Coroner’s Office is performing an autopsy to determine a cause of death. Gonzalez’s death is under investigation by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office and the County Attorney’s Office.
The city of Alameda on Wednesday identified the three officers on leave during the investigation into Gonzalez’s death as James Fisher, Cameron Leahy and Eric McKinley.
Fisher has been with the department since 2010. Leahy joined the force in 2017 and McKinley in 2018.
The city did not describe each agent’s role in the videotaped incident.
Charlie Clemmens, a civilian parking force employee, was also involved in the incident, the city said.
Julia Sherwin, an attorney for Gonzalez’s family, said the young man’s death was “completely preventable.”
She said officers should never have laid a hand on him, let alone knock him down and push him down – which law enforcement officers should know creates “a very high risk of death by. asphyxia by compression ”.
“It was a complete violation of all generally accepted law enforcement policies and training,” said Sherwin, who has 20 years of experience dealing with wrongful death cases. “And these horrible tactics being employed by the officers on the scene are not coming out of nowhere. They arise from poor training and poor supervision. “
The family wanted all body camera footage to be released, as well as all surveillance footage that captured the incident, she said. They were in favor of “full transparency” and wanted Mario’s face to be shown, but authorities still obscured his face in the video, she said.
Based on the footage, she said it looked like Mario Gonzalez may have been intoxicated – but, she said, the price he paid was completely out of proportion to the offense. minor.
“We don’t kill people for getting drunk in a park in the United States,” she said. “We don’t kill people for being suspected of stealing two bottles of alcohol, and we don’t kill people for passively resisting law enforcement when they are unarmed and without any threat. And yet Mario is dead.
Gonzalez’s family say it was clearly a case of excessive force on a man who had no idea why officers were holding him.
“The police killed my brother, the same way they killed George Floyd,” his brother Gerardo Gonzalez told reporters on Tuesday.
“He’s a lovely guy. He’s respectful all the time, ”said Mario’s mother Edith Arenales. “They broke my family for no reason.”
Although a cause of death has not been established, law enforcement training experts said Gonzalez could have been suffocated by the officer’s knee.
“This is another tragic incident of compression suffocation,” Obayashi said. “Officers need to be able to recognize compression asphyxiation. We’ve had too many deadly incidents like this. ”
Seth Stoughton, University of South Carolina law professor and former Florida police officer, said “the dangers of positional asphyxiation” have been well known in law enforcement and built into training since the early years. 1990.
The technique should especially be avoided when there are risk factors like obesity and drug or alcohol use, as was the case in this case, he said.
He compared the situation to a boa constrictor killing its prey by depriving it of oxygen.
Stoughton, who has written extensively on police training and strength, said it was okay for officers to place someone on the ground for a short time to handcuff him.
You didn’t have to stack Gonzalez to stop him, Stoughton said.
But Charles “Sid” Heal, a former Los Angeles County Sheriff’s commanding officer and use of force expert, said he saw no problem with the officers’ actions.
“The suspect is in a continuing state of resistance and challenge,” Heal said. “The officers are actually begging him not to resist. I suspect he is under the influence of a drug and is going to die of either drugs or of excited delirium.
Last summer, then Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pinned Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes as Floyd gasped, “I can’t breathe. Chauvin was convicted of murder last week – a day after Gonzalez died.
After watching the video, George Galvis, executive director of Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice, said he wanted the police to face criminal charges.
Gonzalez’s younger brother Jerry is receiving mentorship from the organization, which serves as a family advocate, Galvis said.
Gonzalez had a four-year-old son, also named Mario, and was the primary caretaker for his mother and an autistic brother, Efrain, according to a GoFundMe.
The United Communities for Restorative Justice for Youth has been part of the successful effort to raise the state standard of police use of lethal force from reasonable to necessary, Galvin said.
On Saturday, the organization will hold a rally to demand that the Alameda Dist. Atty. Nancy O’Malley lays murder charges against the officers.
“The fact that he was not combative, the fact that he was not violent, the fact that he had not committed a crime, proves that it was not necessary,” said Galvis.
Here is the video posted by the police. Warning: it’s graphic.