Authorities in the Bay Area city of Alameda are facing growing outrage after a body-camera video released this week showed an officer appearing to put a knee on the back of a 25-year-old Latino man for more than four minutes, with the man pleading and gasping for air before dying.
Mario Gonzalez is heard in the video telling officers, “I didn’t do nothing, OK?” before losing consciousness.
The video immediately drew a comparison from Gonzalez’s family and friends to George Floyd’s killing last summer, when then-Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin pinned Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes.
Some law enforcement experts said the video raises serious questions about police tactics.
“There is going to be a very intensive inquiry on this,” said Ed Obayashi, a Northern California sheriff’s deputy, legal advisor and veteran police trainer. “It is rare that a non-threatening, non-belligerent person ends up dying like this.”
On April 19, Alameda police officers responded to two separate reports of a man “who appeared to be under the influence and a suspect in a possible theft,” the department said in a news release.
“Officers attempted to detain the man, and a physical altercation ensued. At that time, the man had a medical emergency,” the release said.
Another news release said that “there was a scuffle as officers attempted to place his hands behind his back.”
“The protection of human life is our primary duty as police officers,” Interim Police Chief Randy Fenn said last week, in announcing a series of investigations into the death. “The loss of Mr. Gonzalez is a terrible tragedy, and our thoughts and prayers go out to his loved ones.”
In the video, shortly before Gonzalez stops breathing, one officer asks the other: “Think we can roll him on his side?” but the other answers, “I don’t want to lose what I got, man.”
Another officer then asks, “We got no weight on his chest?” then repeats “No! No weight … no weight.”
“He’s going unresponsive,” one officer says.
The officers roll Gonzalez over and perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation, but he was later pronounced dead at a hospital.
His family insists it was a clear case of excessive force on a man who had no idea why officers were detaining him.
“The police killed my brother, in the same manner they killed George Floyd,” his brother Gerardo Gonzalez told reporters 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.”
The Alameda County coroner’s office is conducting an autopsy.
Gonzalez’s death is under investigation by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department and the county district attorney’s office.
Alameda city officials have hired Louise Renne, a former San Francisco city attorney and police commissioner, to do an independent investigation.
The three officers involved in the arrest have been placed on paid leave during the investigation.
Obayashi said the video raises many questions.
“What was the officers’ justification for detaining him? This individual was not a threat to the officers,” he said.
“This is another tragic incident of compression asphyxia,” he added. “Officers have to be able to recognize compression asphyxia. We have had too many deadly incidents like this one.”
The nearly hourlong video from two officers’ body cameras shows police talking to Gonzalez in a park after receiving 911 calls that he appeared to be disoriented or drunk. Gonzalez in the video acts dazed and struggles to answer officers’ questions.
Gonzalez won’t produce any identification, so the officers try to force his hands behind his back to handcuff him, but he does not let his arms go limp, The officers determine that he is resisting, then push him to the ground, according to the video.
The officers, as they seek to restrain him, repeatedly ask Gonzalez for his full name and birth date.
“We’re going to take care of you, OK, we’re going to take care of you,” one officer tells him.
“I think you just had too much to drink today, OK? That’s all,” the officer says. After learning his name, the officer adds, “Mario, just please stop fighting us.”
Gonzalez, who weighed about 250 pounds, by that point is lying face down on some wood chips in the park and can be heard shouting and grunting as the officers use body weight to control him. One officer seems to put an elbow on his neck and a knee on his shoulder.
“He’s lifting my whole body weight up,” an officer tells his colleague.
One officer puts his knee on Gonzalez’s back for four minutes or more. The officers then notice that he isn’t breathing.
His family said that officers unnecessarily escalated what should have been a minor, peaceful encounter with the unarmed man.
In releasing the video, the city said it was committed to full transparency and accountability in the aftermath of Gonzalez’s death.