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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Police in Alameda, California, 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 scuffle with police April 19 at a 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.
Added the family’s attorney, Julia Sherwin: “It would feel like drowning on dry land for him.”
An attorney for the officers said they did nothing wrong.
“These officers used the lowest degree of force possible given the intensity of Mr. Gonzalez’s efforts to evade their grasp,” Alison Berry Wilkinson told KTVU-TV.
Officers had to act to ensure the safety of Gonzalez because he appeared intoxicated and disoriented and they were concerned he would fall if left there, she said.
One officer put a knee on his back, but only as a “balance point,” Wilkinson said.
“There was never a point in time where any officer’s knee was on Mr. Gonzalez’s neck. Nor was there a time when they were pressing down hard enough on his body to cause him not to breathe,” she said.
Interim Police Chief Randy Fenn told KTVU-TV said the video was troubling to watch and extended his condolences to Gonzalez’s family. But he said there wasn’t enough evidence to support the family’s accusation of murder and urged people to wait for the results of a full investigation.
“We don’t even know the cause of death right now,” he said. “”Video only tells part of the story, so we need the entire investigation to understand whether or not the actions were legal, consistent with training and within policy.”
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 they 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., an expert who spent nearly 30 years with the Los Angeles Police Department.
In a statement, the San Francisco Bay Area city said it is “committed to full transparency and accountability.” 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 three officers involved in the arrest have been placed on paid leave. Officer James Fisher has been with the Alameda Police Department since 2010, while the others, Cameron Leahy and Eric McKinley, joined in 2018, the city said.