Police in California on Tuesday released body-cam footage showing officers pinning a man to the ground for more than five minutes during a fatal arrest that his family said should result in murder charges.
Mario Gonzalez, a 26-year-old father and east Oakland resident, stopped breathing after an 19 April encounter with police at a park in the city of Alameda, in the San Francisco Bay Area.
An initial police statement said Gonzalez had a “medical emergency” during an altercation with police after officers tried to arrest him, but his family says he was killed by police who used excessive force.
“What I saw was different from what I was told,” Gerardo Gonzalez, Mario Gonzalez’s brother, told local station KTVU after watching the body-camera footage. “The medical emergency was because they were on his back while he was lying on the ground. It was brought by the officers on top of his head.”
Officers had approached Gonzalez in the park after receiving 911 calls that he appeared to be disoriented or drunk. One 911 caller said there was a man in his front yard who appeared to be talking to himself, but also added, “He’s not doing anything wrong. He’s just scaring my wife.” A second caller spotted him in a park and said he had alcohol bottles that appeared possibly stolen.
The nearly hour-long video from two officers’ body cameras shows the officers first talking to Gonzalez, who seems dazed and struggles to answer questions.
When Gonzalez does not produce any identification, the officers are seen trying to force his hands behind his back to handcuff him and taking him to the ground when he resists.
The officers repeatedly ask him for his full name and birthdate. “We’re going to take care of you, OK, we’re going to take care of you,” one officer can be heard saying. “I think you just had too much to drink today, OK? That’s all,” the same officer says. Later, he adds, “Mario, just please stop fighting us.”
Gonzalez, who weighed about 250lb (113kg), is seen on the video grunting and shouting as he lies face down on wood chips while the officers restrain him. One officer puts an elbow on his neck and a knee on his shoulder.
One officer appears to put a knee on Gonzalez’s back and leaves it there for about four minutes as Gonzalez gasps for air. “I didn’t do nothing, OK,” Gonzalez can be heard saying.
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 first officer asks, “We got no weight on his chest?” then repeats “No! No weight … no weight.”
“He’s going unresponsive,” one officer says.
The video shows officers rolling Gonzalez over and performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation. He was later pronounced dead at a hospital.
Gonzalez had a four-year-old son and also was the main caretaker of his 22-year-old brother Efrain, who has autism, his family said.
Andrea Cortez, the mother of Mario’s four-year-old son, said she didn’t know how to explain to their child what had happened. “His son Little Mario keeps asking where his father is. He thinks he’s in the sky in a spaceship. How do I explain that he’s not coming back?” she said in a statement shared by activists.
An autopsy is pending to determine the cause of Gonzalez’s death but family members on Tuesday told reporters that police escalated what should have been a minor, peaceful encounter with the unarmed man.
“The police killed my brother in the same manner they killed George Floyd,” Gerardo Gonzalez said, adding that the officers should be fired and prosecuted. “These killer cops are still getting paid … APD spent so much time spreading rumors about my brother, but where are the officers’ records?”
“Mario was a kind man and level headed. There was a way to deal with this situation without killing my son,” Mario’s mother, Edith Arenales, said in Spanish. “They never took his knee off his head.”
Alameda “is committed to full transparency and accountability in the aftermath of Mr Gonzalez’s death”, the city said in a statement on its website.
Gonzalez’s death is under investigation by the Alameda county sheriff’s department, the county district attorney’s office and a former San Francisco city attorney hired by the city to lead an independent inquiry, the statement said.
In their initial statement last week, the department had said that Gonzalez suffered a medical emergency during his arrest, but did not mention the officers putting their weight on Gonzalez’s back.
“On Monday, April 19, patrol officers responded to two separate reports of a male who appeared to be under the influence and a suspect in a possible theft,” the statement started.
“Officers attempted to detain the man, and a physical altercation ensued. At that time, the man had a medical emergency. Officers immediately began lifesaving measures and requested the Alameda fire department to the scene. The Alameda fire department transported the male to a local area hospital, where he later died.”
An Alameda spokesperson on Wednesday declined to answer questions on what evidence police had suggesting Gonzalez was a theft suspect or why they decided to make an arrest.
The three officers involved in the arrest have been placed on paid leave during the investigation.
In addition to drawing comparisons to George Floyd’s murder, the case has parallels with another fatal Alameda police encounter. In 2018, Shelby Gattenby, a 40-year-old navy veteran, went into cardiac arrest after police deployed their stun guns on him and restrained him with the weight of their bodies while he lay on his stomach. The city paid the family a settlement last year, but prosecutors cleared the officers of wrongdoing.
Anne Gattenby, Shelby’s sister, told the Guardian on Tuesday she was saddened to learn of Gonzalez’s case and that another family was suffering from a “senseless” and “completely avoidable” death.
“The settlement wasn’t about the money for my mom – she wanted to make sure that police had more training,” she said. “Did they actually get more training on how to restrain people? Because it doesn’t appear that way … I’m very angry that again they have learned nothing. They’re playing the same cards they played before and saying they didn’t do anything wrong.”