California Man Dies After Officers Pin Him to Ground for 5 Minutes

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A screenshot from police body camera footage provided by the Alameda Police Department, shows Mario Arenales Gonzalez, who died in police custody in Alameda, Calif., April 19, 2021. Body camera footage was released on Tuesday, April 27, 2021, of Mario Arenales Gonzalez who died in police custody after officers in Alameda County, Calif., pinned him facedown on the ground for five minutes. (Alameda Police Department via The New York Times)

Body camera footage was released Tuesday of a 26-year-old man who died in police custody after officers in Alameda County, California, pinned him facedown on the ground for five minutes.

The footage from the Alameda Police Department shows the man, Mario Arenales Gonzalez, becoming unresponsive while in handcuffs and police officers quickly beginning chest compressions.

Gonzalez died April 19, one day before Derek Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer, was convicted of murdering George Floyd by restraining him for nine minutes and 29 seconds, holding him to the pavement with his knee long after Floyd had become unresponsive.

An initial police report from Alameda, south of Oakland, said that “a physical altercation ensued” when officers tried to detain Gonzalez and that “at that time, the man had a medical emergency.” The report said Gonzalez had died in a hospital later that day.

Julia Sherwin, a lawyer representing Gonzalez’s family, called the explanation “misinformation,” comparing it to the initial police report after Floyd’s death. Gonzalez’s family was also concerned with why the police used force in the first place, Sherwin said.

“His death was completely avoidable and unnecessary,” she said, adding, “Drunk guy in a park doesn’t equal a capital sentence.”

At a news conference Tuesday, Gerardo Gonzalez said his brother had not been posing any threat when he died.

“Alameda police officers murdered my brother,” he said.

Three police officers have been placed on administrative leave, and the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office and the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office are both conducting independent investigations. The city of Alameda has also hired Louise Renne, the former city attorney for San Francisco and a former president of the San Francisco Police Commission, to conduct its own investigation.

In addition to the body camera footage, the city released two audio recordings from people who had called 911 to report a Hispanic man later identified as Mario Gonzalez.

One man says Gonzalez has been loitering for about a half-hour and appears to be breaking store security tags off alcohol bottles. Another man says Gonzalez is talking to himself at a fence near the caller’s backyard. “He seems like he’s tweaking, but he’s not doing anything wrong,” he says. “He’s just scaring my wife.”

In the body camera footage, the first officer at the scene asks on his radio whether a nearby store has reported any recent thefts, describing Gonzalez, who has two Walgreens shopping baskets.

The officer, who identifies himself as Officer McKinley, then continues to speak with Gonzalez, asking whether he knows Alameda and whether he is thinking of hurting himself or others. Gonzalez struggles to maintain the conversation or provide his name.

Another officer arrives about seven minutes after the first officer.

“Here’s the plan,” the first officer says. “I’ve got to identify you, so I know who I’m talking to — make sure you don’t have any warrants or anything like that. You come up with a plan, let me know you’re not going to be drinking in our parks over here. And then we can be on our merry way.”

“Merry-go-round?” Gonzalez replies.

The two officers then ask Gonzalez for identification and tell him to keep his hands out of his pockets before they begin trying to detain him.

“Can you please put your hand behind your back and stop resisting us?” the second officer says after several minutes.

The officers eventually push Gonzalez to the ground facedown and handcuff him. “What are we going to do?” the first officer asks. “Just keep him pinned down?”

“It’s OK, Mario,” the officer later says. “We’re going to take care of you.”

The first officer asks for Gonzalez’s last name and his birthday and tells him to keep talking. He answers in whimpered bursts and later begins grunting. At one point, he seems to say, “Please don’t do it.”

After about 4 1/2 minutes of body camera footage showing Gonzalez pinned to the ground, a third officer is seen on his legs. When one officer asks if they should roll him on his side, another replies, “I don’t want to lose what I got.”

“We have no weight on his chest, nothing,” the second officer observes, pointing to Gonzalez’s back. As the first officer tries to adjust his position, the second says: “No, no, no. No weight, no weight, no weight.”

Seconds later, the officers notice that Gonzalez has become unresponsive. They roll him onto his side and then push him onto his back and begin chest compressions after checking for a pulse.

After emergency medical workers respond, the first officer explains that they administered Narcan, which can reverse overdoses. “He went from combative to nonresponsive almost immediately,” he says.

Several experts testified during Chauvin’s trial that the prone position was dangerous because it could impair breathing and that officers should put people they are detaining onto their sides as quickly as possible.

The three officers put on leave were Eric McKinley, Cameron Leahy and James Fisher, a city spokesperson confirmed Tuesday. When asked Tuesday about the death of Gonzalez, the Police Department pointed to its previous news releases about the encounter.

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