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Attorney for Family of Mario Gonzalez Calls $11 Million Settlement 'Historic Amount'

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A Latina woman and a Latino man touch heads as they mourn with masks on.
The mother of Mario Gonzales, Edith Arenales, puts her head together with her son Geraldo Gonzalez before speaking at a news conference outside the Alameda Police Department on April 27, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

An attorney representing the family of Mario Gonzalez, who died in April 2021 after Alameda police officers restrained him on the ground, called the $11 million settlement the city has agreed to pay his young son “a historic amount.”

“Our research shows that there’s been no other case in California in the last 10 years where there’s been a death in a civil rights situation that awarded more money to a child,” said Michael Haddad, a civil rights attorney with the Oakland firm Haddad & Sherwin LLP. “Nobody pays [$11 million] if they’re not liable.”

Haddad spoke to KQED on Friday, a day after the city of Alameda announced it would pay that amount to Gonzalez’s now 7-year-old son, as well as $350,000 to Gonzalez’s mother, Edith Arenales, to settle two federal civil rights lawsuits filed separately against the city.

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“$11 million is a lot of money for a 7-year-old,” Haddad said. “And we felt that that was sufficient to send the message we wanted to send — that law enforcement around the state and around the country has to do better.”

Payments for both settlements will come from the California Joint Powers Risk Management Authority, a public entity that insures a handful of California cities against major financial liability, Alameda officials said in a statement on Thursday.

The payments “shall fully and forever discharge and release all claims and causes of action … and shall not be construed as an admission by any party of liability,” the statement said. “The City of Alameda remains committed to full transparency and accountability in the tragic death of Mario Gonzalez and extends our heartfelt condolences to his family and loved ones.”

Gonzalez, a 26-year-old man from Oakland, was confronted by three police officers in a small Alameda park on the morning of April 19, 2021, after several neighbors called 911 reporting a man behaving erratically.

As captured in the nearly hour-long police body camera video, the interaction began calmly, but quickly escalated after the officers made repeated, unsuccessful attempts to obtain Gonzalez’s full name and ID. They then grabbed him, without ever accusing him of a crime or placing him under arrest. When Gonzalez resisted, the officers took him to the ground, pinning him on his stomach, with at least one of them pressing an elbow and knee into his back and shoulder as he struggled.

The officers continued to hold Gonzalez in a prone position, his hands restrained behind his back, for roughly five minutes, at which point he went limp and appeared to stop breathing.

After officers performed CPR and administered at least two doses of Narcan, used to counteract opiate overdoses, Gonzalez was rushed by paramedics to Alameda Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

more on Mario Gonzalez

An autopsy performed by the Alameda County coroner (PDF), and released nearly eight months after the incident, classified Gonzalez’s death as a homicide, but identified the “toxic effects of methamphetamine” as the leading cause of his fatal cardiac arrest. A subsequent independent autopsy, requested by Haddad’s firm, also classified Gonzalez’s death as a homicide, but concluded he died from “restraint asphyxiation.”

“This didn’t need to happen. And this is the result,” Haddad said of Gonzalez’s death, an incident that sparked fierce local protests and drew comparisons to the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis the previous year.

“This was a really egregious case of police misconduct, a violation of the officers’ own training and well-known law enforcement standards to avoid asphyxiating people after they’re handcuffed,” he added. “I wish this would be the last asphyxial death we ever hear of.”

Nearly a year after Gonzalez’s death, former Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley declined to prosecute the three officers, concluding they had acted reasonably in detaining and arresting him and were not “criminally liable.”

Shortly after taking office earlier this year, Pamela Price, O’Malley’s more progressive successor, listed the case as one of the many officer-involved incidents she intended to reopen and investigate, although her office has yet to announce any new criminal charges.

“I think that this does put the onus on [Price] now to say what she’s going to do,” Haddad said, “given the extremely large settlement which reflects on the egregiousness of what the officers did.”

KQED’s Tara Siler contributed to this story.

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