Deadly Alameda Police Encounter Carries Echoes of George Floyd Case

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Friends, family and supporters of Mario Gonzalez gather outside of the Alameda Police Department on April 27, 2021, for a press conference to address the body cam footage that was first shown to Gonzalez's family and then made public. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Police in Alameda 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 confrontation with police on April 19 at a small 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.

Julia Sherwin, the family's attorney, added, “It would feel like drowning on dry land for him.”

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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 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., a law enforcement expert who spent nearly 30 years with the Los Angeles Police Department.

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.

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Gonzalez, who weighed about 250 pounds is seen 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 also appears to put a knee on his back and leaves it there for about four minutes as Gonzalez gasps for air, saying, “I didn't do nothing, OK?"

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.”

After Gonzalez seems to lose consciousness, the video shows officers rolling him 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.

“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.