ALAMEDA, Calif. - Body camera video released on Tuesday by Alameda police shows several officers kneeling on top of a man prone on the ground struggling to breathe before he died -- a contradiction of the original narrative of a "medical emergency" first put forth by the department.
"What I saw was different from what I was told," said Gerardo Gonzalez, the brother of Mario Gonzalez, 26, of Oakland, who died April 19 by Pocket Park in Alameda police custody. "The medical emergency [that police described] 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."
In addition, Mario Gonzalez was a heavy man and the family's civil rights attorney, Julia Sherwin, said that police are trained to know that a protruding stomach impairs someone's ability to breathe.
"This would have felt like torture," said Sherwin, who is an expert in restraint asphyxiation. She said she was called in as a consultant to help prosecute former police officer Derek Chauvin in the George Floyd case.
The roughly hourlong video shows an officer's elbow on Gonzalez's neck, and his knee placed on his right shoulder. Occasionally, the knee shifted to the base of Gonzalez's neck. There was no mention of this type of officer involvement or behavior when police first reported that Mario Gonzalez died after a "scuffle" and suffered a "medical emergency," despite his family saying he had no other health conditions.
A spokeswoman for the city of Alameda identified the officers as James Fisher, Cameron Leahy and Eric McKinley.
WARNING GRAPHIC VIDEO: Alameda officers kneel on man before his death
Officers tried to handcuff Gonzalez after he didn't hand them any ID. People do not have to provide identification to police in California unless they are driving and need to show a license, although most attorneys advise clients that it is wise to comply. California does not have what is known as a "stop and identify" or "papers please" law.
As he lay prone on the ground, Gonzalez, who weighs about 250 pounds, was heard grunting and yelling out "Ahhhh."
Minutes into the struggle, Gonzalez gasps for air, saying "I didn’t do nothing, OK?"
There was heavy breathing from the three officers at the scene, who were trying to restrain Gonzalez in handcuffs. Meanwhile, the officers also can be heard talking soothingly to Gonzalez, asking him his name and his birthday.
"We’re going to take care of you, OK, we’re going to take care of you," one officer says.
"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."
One officer comments he thinks he’s had too much to drink. Before he warns Gonzalez to stop kicking, an officer asks another if he thinks they can roll Gonzalez on his side. The officer responds "I don’t wanna lose what I got, man."
Then, Gonzalez appears to lose consciousness.
"We have no weight on his chest," one officer says.
He then stops another officer who looks like he’s about to put weight on his chest and says: "No! No weight, weight, no weight."
But it’s too late. They turn Gonzalez over and start chest compressions. Gonzalez died later at the hospital.
Gerardo Gonzalez said it was "heartbreaking" to watch the video on Monday at Alameda City Hall with his mother, who watched the life get snuffed out of her firstborn son, a chef and construction worker, who has a 4-year-old son and was the primary caregiver to his brother, Efrain, who has autism.
"He’s a lovely guy. He’s respectful, all the time," said Gonzalez’s mother, Edith Arenales. "They broke my family for no reason."
Gonzalez never tried to kick or threaten the officers, said Sherwin, who reviewed the body camera video of an "Officer McKinley" with the family.
The visual evidence shows Gonzalez is very disoriented and is not necessarily complying with the officers but he is also not actively fighting them, despite officers insisting that he is resisting them.
Mario Gonzalez had open alcohol containers in Pocket Park in Alameda. April 19, 2021 via body cam
In its initial statement, police stated only that the Oakland man suffered a "medical emergency" during a "scuffle" when officers tried arresting him and putting his hands behind his back. Police insisted that no weapons were used while detaining Gonzalez. There was no mention of the officers putting their weight on top of Gonzalez.
Alameda police said officers detained Gonzalez on the 800 block of Oak Street around 10:45 a.m. after responding to two separate reports of an intoxicated person suspected of theft.
In a statement last week, the Alameda Police Department said that the three officers involved are on paid administrative leave.
Meanwhile, in addition to the Alameda County Sheriff and District Attorney, who will be investigating Gonzalez's death, the city of Alameda hired Louise Renne, of Renne Public Law Group in San Francisco, to lead an independent investigation.
Interim Chief Randy Fenn said that the protection of human life is the "primary duty of police officers," and in a statement, he extended his condolences to Gonzalez's family.
Sherwin, the Gonzalez family attorney, said she sees many parallels to the George Floyd case: Not only in how it appears as though Gonzalez died but in the narrative, or lack thereof, portrayed by the Alameda police.
Moments after Chauvin was convicted of murdering Floyd last May, the original press release about Floyd's death titled "Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction" re-circulated on the internet, showing how police never told the full story of Chauvin sitting on his neck for nine minutes.
Absent from the nearly 200-word post is any mention of officers restraining Floyd on the ground, a knee on his neck, or any sense of how long this "interaction" lasted. It's written passively with blatant omissions of what actually transpired.
And that's how Gonzalez's supporters are reading the Alameda police department press release, too.
"There was no relation to reality," Sherwin said of the initial police press release regarding Gonzalez's death in which police described he died of a "medical emergency" following a "scuffle." "Police often give a false narrative."
An Alameda police press release on the death of Mario Gonzalez.
Gonzalez's family and civil rights activists from the Anti-Police Terror Project and Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice held a news conference in front of Alameda City Hall on Tuesday in Alameda, many of them calling police "murderers."
They listed off the names of many Bay Area people, mostly Black and brown men, who were killed at the hands of law enforcement: Steven Taylor killed by San Leandro police, Angelo Quinto killed by Antioch police and Miles Hall killed by Walnut Creek police.
Alameda police kneel on Mario Gonzalez. April 19, 2021, via body cam
The video reveals how quickly the situation escalated in a matter of 20 minutes.
And that the saga began when a caller phoned 911 to complain of Gonzalez loitering in the park and appeared drunk, without a mask.
At first, the interaction between Officer McKinley and Gonzalez appeared cordial and friendly enough. But it is also clear that Gonzalez is disoriented and his sentences aren't making any sense. His family and attorney acknowledge that he likely was drunk at the time.
McKinley tells Gonzalez he is concerned about the open container in the park and he wants to make sure he's not going to hurt anyone or himself. Things turn south when Gonzalez doesn't really answer the officer's questions and doesn't easily put his hands out to be arrested.
Sherwin said that there is actually no proof yet provided that Gonzalez stole a bottle or two of alcohol from a nearby Walgreens at this point.
In addition, Sherwin said Gonazalez is "not a hardened criminal" and this excessive use of force is "heartbreaking" for such a "minuscule" alleged offense.
"Having his life pressed out of him, as he was asking the officers not to do that," Sherwin said. "For that, Mario's paying for his life. It's outrageous."
A GoFundMe has been set up by the Gonzalez family.