Deadly California arrest carries echoes of George Floyd case
OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Police in Alameda, California, are under fire over the death of a Latino man who was pinned to the ground face down for more than five minutes on the same day a jury in Minneapolis began deliberating in the George Floyd case.
Autopsy findings have not been released, but the family of 26-year-old Mario Gonzalez accused police Wednesday of using excessive force and escalating what should have been a minor encounter with the unarmed man.
Gonzalez stopped breathing following a video-recorded scuffle with police April 19 at a park, where officers had confronted him after receiving 911 calls that said he appeared disoriented or drunk. The initial police statement said Gonzalez had a medical emergency after officers tried to handcuff him.
“The video showed that he died on the ground with his face on the floor with officers on top of him,” said his brother, Jerry Gonzalez.
Added the family’s attorney, Julia Sherwin: “It would feel like drowning on dry land for him.”
An attorney for the officers said they did nothing wrong.
“These officers used the lowest degree of force possible given the intensity of Mr. Gonzalez’s efforts to evade their grasp,” Alison Berry Wilkinson told KTVU-TV.
Officers had to act to ensure the safety of Gonzalez because he appeared intoxicated and disoriented and they were concerned he would fall if left there, she said.
One officer put a knee on his back, but only as a “balance point,” Wilkinson said.
“There was never a point in time where any officer’s knee was on Mr. Gonzalez’s neck. Nor was there a time when they were pressing down hard enough on his body to cause him not to breathe,” she said.
Interim Police Chief Randy Fenn told KTVU-TV said the video was troubling to watch and extended his condolences to Gonzalez’s family. But he said there wasn’t enough evidence to support the family’s accusation of murder and urged people to wait for the results of a full investigation.
“We don’t even know the cause of death right now,” he said. “”Video only tells part of the story, so we need the entire investigation to understand whether or not the actions were legal, consistent with training and within policy.”
Multiple use-of-force training experts who viewed the video at the request of The Associated Press agreed that the officers shouldn’t have escalated the confrontation, but they said their fatal mistake was not immediately taking action once Gonzalez had trouble breathing.
“He wasn’t resisting; he was just trying to breathe,” said Timothy T. Williams Jr., an expert who spent nearly 30 years with the Los Angeles Police Department.
In a statement, the San Francisco Bay Area city said it is “committed to full transparency and accountability.” The death is under investigation by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department, the district attorney’s office and a former San Francisco city attorney hired by Alameda to lead an independent probe.
The three officers involved in the arrest have been placed on paid leave. Officer James Fisher has been with the Alameda Police Department since 2010, while the others, Cameron Leahy and Eric McKinley, joined in 2018, the city said.
The arrest took place just hours before the case against former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin went to the jury. The next day, Chauvin was convicted of murder and manslaughter for pinning Floyd to the pavement with his knee on the Black man’s neck in a case that touched off a national reckoning over racism and police brutality.
In Alameda, the nearly hourlong video from two officers’ body cameras released late Tuesday shows police talking to a seemingly dazed Gonzalez, who struggles to answer questions. The third officer arrives later.
When Gonzalez doesn’t produce any identification, the officers are seen trying to force his hands behind his back to handcuff him, but he resists and they take him to the ground. They repeatedly ask him for his full name and birthdate.
“I think you just had too much to drink today, OK? That’s all,” the officer says. Later, he adds, “Mario, just please stop fighting us.”
Gonzalez, who weighed about 250 pounds (113 kilograms), is seen grunting and shouting as he lies face down on wood chips while the three officers restrain him. At one point, a city employee helps the officers hold down Gonzalez’s legs.
One officer puts an elbow on his neck and a knee on his shoulder. An officer also puts a knee on his back and leaves it there as Gonzalez gasps for air, saying, “I didn’t do nothing, OK?”
Gonzalez’s protests appear to weaken, and after about five minutes he seems to lose consciousness.
Shortly before he stops breathing, one officer asks the other: “Think we can roll him on his side?”
The other answers, “I don’t want to lose what I got, man.”
The video shows officers rolling Gonzalez over and performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation. They are also seen administering at least two doses of Narcan, which is given to counteract opiate overdoses. Gonzalez was pronounced dead at a hospital.
Police also made public two calls dispatchers received about Gonzalez that prompted them to send officers to the park, which sits at the end of a cul-de-sac of well-kept homes with manicured gardens. One caller said Gonzalez was “kind of talking to himself” and “not making any sense”
The caller added: “I mean, he’s not doing anything wrong, he’s just scaring my wife.”
A second man told a dispatcher that Gonzalez had two drugstore baskets with alcohol bottles and that it appeared he was breaking the security tags off them.
“Anyone with common sense will ask like how does someone with no preexisting chronic medical conditions suddenly have a medical emergency at the age of 26 and die, just out of the blue,” Jerry Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez had a 4-year-old son, also named Mario, and was the main caretaker of his brother, who has autism and turned 23 on Tuesday, his family said.
Eugene O’Donnell, a former New York City police officer and professor of police studies at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said that as in the incident that led to Floyd’s death, “what’s at stake is so small.”
Officials nationwide are reassessing whether counselors rather than police should deal with people who are intoxicated or suffering a mental health crisis. O’Donnell said the Alameda case was an instance in which police “have to take care of these issues that should not be their issues.”
Geoffrey Alpert, a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina and an expert on police use of force, said officers should have rolled Gonzalez over as soon as they could.
“Once they’re controlling him, as we learned from the Floyd trial with all those medical experts, this position or compression is deadly,” he said.
Thompson reported from Sacramento. Associated Press writers Juliet Williams in San Francisco and Robert Jablon in Los Angeles contributed to this report.