ALAMEDA, Calif. (KRON) — Police in Alameda are under fire over the death of a Hispanic 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 Arenales Gonzalez accused police Wednesday of using excessive force and escalating what should have been a minor encounter with the unarmed man.
Warning: Video contains graphic images/language; viewer discretion advised
Gonzalez stopped breathing following a video-recorded scuffle with police April 19 at a park, where officers had confronted him after receiving 911 calls that said he appeared disoriented or drunk.
A press release from the Alameda Police Department last week said he suffered a “medical emergency” during a “scuffle as officers attempted to place his hands behind his back.”
The interim chief identified the officers as Eric McKinley, who has been on the force for three years, Cameron Leahy, who has been on the force for three years, and James Fisher, who has been on the force for 10 years.
The officers are on paid administrative leave, according to police.
Three separate investigations are ongoing into the death of Gonzalez. The death is under investigation by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department, the district attorney’s office, and a former San Francisco city attorney hired by Alameda to lead an independent probe.
- The video we received shows angles from 3-body cameras from officers that day.
- The video starts with a call to 911 from a homeowner.
- The homeowner tells dispatchers that a man was in his yard, and talking to himself.
- nearly 6-minutes into the video, the first officer arrives on the scene and begins talking to Mario.
- He then begins asking a series of questions.
- 14-minutes later, a second officer arrives on the scene, also asking questions, including if Mario has an ID.
- 15-minutes into the video, both officers walk over to Mario.
- They tell him, they don’t want to fall off of a tree stump he was standing on. Moments after grabbing him, they put his arms behind his back, and try to put handcuffs on him.
- After a brief struggle, 17-minutes into the video, Mario falls to the ground, face-first into the grass.
- Just 2-minutes later, he lets out a loud scream as handcuffs are put onto him.
- It appears the officer, at one point, has his knee in the back of Mario’s back with his weight behind it.
- Seconds later, the same officer can be seen with his near Mario’s neck and shoulder blade.
- At the same time, Mario is still struggling to breathe.
- Paramedics took Mario to the hospital where he later died.
What the family says
The Oakland man’s family privately watched the footage of the arrest and said it conflicts with what the police department said.
“The footage shows officers on top of Mario” while he was on the ground, his brother Gerardo Gonzalez said during a Tuesday press conference. “At no point was he violent or out of control.” He added that they want all the footage to be made public, not just the bodycam footage.
“The video showed that he died on the ground with his face on the floor with officers on top of him,” Gonzalez added.
The family’s attorney Julia Sherwin said, “It would feel like drowning on dry land for him.”
“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,”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.
What the Alameda Police Department says
Alameda’s interim police chief spoke with KRON4’s Terisa Estacio.
“First of all, our condolences go to the Gonzalez family. Nobody wants this. Nobody wants to have a young man lose their life, regardless, especially under these kinds of circumstances. Our appeal is to the community that we are doing our best to be open, transparent, and we want a good investigation. We want to know what happened. We want to be able to prevent this, if possible, from happening in the future. And we want to build that trust with our community.”
The City of Alameda has hired an outside investigator, while a criminal investigation is conducted by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office and a third investigation is conducted by the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office.
In a statement, the City of Alameda said said it is “committed to full transparency and accountability.”
What do experts say?
South Bay criminal defense attorney Cody Salfen of the Salfen Law Firm says the Alameda Police Department’s description of 26-year-old Mario Gonzalez’s in-custody death as a medical emergency may be true but Salfen says that the emergency was caused by the officers involved, who he says used excessive, unreasonable and unnecessary force.
“We have two or more calls for service. We have citizens calling in more as a matter of concern for the individual, than a matter of public safety risk,” Cody Salfen said.
Salfen says Eric McKinley, the first officer to arrive at the park on Oak Street the morning of April 19th, initially showed restraint but eventually lost patience with Gonzalez, who 911 callers reported was likely unarmed, though he appeared intoxicated and may have just committed a theft.
“These officers — the most powerful tool that they have in their possession or at their will is their ability to talk someone down — to verbally de-escalate a situation, and these officers, very quickly escalated to the physical use of force, which was absolutely unnecessary. They had time, they had distance, they had the benefit of not being in a crowded area where there would be a public safety risk perhaps, if people were close. They could see Mr. Gonzalez. They could see that he didn’t have a weapon, and all they needed to do was give it time, and to talk Mr. Gonzalez down or try to figure out what was going on,” Salfen said.
Salfen has successfully settled federal civil rights cases of police misconduct.
Most recently with the city of Palo Alto and the police department. At least one officer, in that case, has been criminally charged.
Salfen believes the officers in Mario Gonzalez’s case should be prosecuted as well.
“But for the police actually coming to the scene, Mr. Gonzalez probably would have just gone on his way. And, he absolutely would have been alive still today, and that’s a pretty good indication that the police used excessive, and unreasonable and unnecessary force, when but for their actions someone would still be living and no one from the general public would be injured,” Salfen said.
For now, the three officers involved are on paid administrative leave while multiple investigations into Gonzalez’s death are conducted.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.