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Death of California man who was pinned facedown by police draws comparisons to that of George Floyd

"It's heartbreaking to see my mother have to go through this," Gerardo Gonzalez said of his brother's death. "She raised her firstborn and now she has to bury her firstborn."
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Gerardo Gonzalez traveled home this month from North Carolina, where he attends college, to Oakland, California, to spend time with his two brothers and their mother for her 45th birthday.

But instead of cutting a birthday cake last week, he and his family were mourning the loss of his eldest brother, Mario, 26, who died in police custody April 19 after officers in Alameda County pinned him facedown on the ground for five minutes.

"From my point of view, it's heartbreaking to see my mother have to go through this," Gerardo Gonzalez said Wednesday. "She raised her firstborn, and now she has to bury her firstborn."

Newly released body camera video shows police talking to Mario Gonzalez in a park after receiving 911 calls that he appeared to be disoriented or drunk. He struggled to answer questions.

"He seems like he's tweaking, but he's not doing anything wrong," a man told a 911 dispatcher, according to an audio recording released Tuesday. "He's just scaring my wife."

The Gonzalez family and its attorney, Julia Sherwin, said his death is eerily similar to that of George Floyd, who died in Minneapolis police custody May 25.

"These Alameda police officers killed Mario literally while the jury was debating Derek Chauvin's murder charges," Sherwin said Wednesday.

The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the death and awaiting results of an autopsy and toxicology tests.

Mario Gonzalez died one day before Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer, was convicted of murdering Floyd by holding him to the pavement with his knee for 9 minutes, 29 seconds.

Chauvin's actions were widely rebuked by Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo and several other veteran law enforcement officials who testified that police officers are trained to roll people on their sides as quickly as possible after they have been restrained in the prone position so as to not impair breathing.

Sherwin, a civil rights attorney experienced in cases in which people die in police custody, said she was sought out by Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose office prosecuted Chauvin's case, and that she advised Ellison and special prosecutor Steve Schleicher for the trial.

She said there is an epidemic in America of police putting people prone on the ground and applying weight on their necks or backs until they are unresponsive. Dying under such circumstances "feels torturous," she said. She equated it to drowning on dry land.

"What we're focused on is accountability for these officers and reform," she said, adding that Mario Gonzalez would be alive had the officers been trained properly and not used excessive force.

"Horrible tactics grow out of horrible training," she said.

The officers' attorney, Alison Berry Wilkinson, said: "There are a number of distinguishing factors between this and George Floyd. Not the least of which was that the officers were very attentive to the issue of positional asphyxiation."

During Chauvin's trial, the prosecution effectively demonstrated that he and three other Minneapolis police officers entirely disregarded changes in Floyd and continued to put pressure on him even when he went limp, she said.

"This is exactly the opposite: They were highly aware of what was going on and taking specific efforts to avoid positional asphyxiation," Wilkinson said in an interview Thursday.

"They did several things that didn't happen in the George Floyd matter, which includes everything from the de-escalation tactics of using reassuring, calm and polite conversation," she said. "They were very professional all the way throughout."

The officers didn't yell or give "any overlapping or confusing commands," she added.

"It was absolutely not ever any pressure on his neck at any time," Wilkinson also said. Alameda police have undergone "extensive ground fighting, grappling, positional asphyxiation training," she said.

An officer had his knee on Mario Gonzalez's shoulder blade or momentarily on his lower back, Wilkinson said, but the officers kept their weight on the balls of their feet — not on him — in accordance with their training.

Video shows that after about 4½ minutes of him being pinned to the ground, an officer asks if they can roll him on his side. Another officer replies, "I don't want to lose what I got."

Wilkinson declined to identify which officers made those remarks.

Once Mario Gonzalez became unresponsive, video shows the officer roll him onto his side, then lay him on his back and check for a pulse before beginning chest compressions. Wilkinson said the officers "were monitoring closely what he was doing" and once they realized he was unresponsive, "immediately started life-saving efforts," including administering Narcan, which can reverse overdoses.

The initial police statement did not identify Mario Gonzalez by name. It said "a physical altercation ensued" when officers tried to detain him at the park in Alameda and that "the man had a medical emergency." The report said Gonzalez later died at a hospital. The language was similar to the Minneapolis Police Department's initial misleading and inaccurate description of what happened to Floyd, Sherwin said.

Without naming Floyd, a Minneapolis police news release posted on the police department's website and titled "Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction" had said he "physically resisted officers" on the scene who had ordered him out of his vehicle.

"Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress," the release said. It also said Floyd died "a short time later" at a hospital, which was refuted by the testimony of a world-renowned pulmonologist and other prosecution witnesses during the trial.

At a news conference Tuesday outside the Alameda Police Department, Gerardo Gonzalez said: "The police killed my brother in the same manner that they killed George Floyd."

"When we were first notified, we were told one story," he told NBC News on Wednesday. "Once we saw the actual footage, we reaffirmed that what they told us was not at all accurate."

What was shown in the video, he said, was that the officers' actions "could have been avoided if there was proper training or supervision."

Sherwin agreed, saying: "Mario was handcuffed for a long time and they're still pressing him to the ground as he's squirming lightly. That's totally inappropriate."

The city of Alameda said in a statement Wednesday that it was "committed to full transparency and accountability in the aftermath of Mr. Gonzalez's death," which is being investigated by the Alameda County Sheriff's Department and the county district attorney's office. Louise Renne, a former city attorney for San Francisco and a former president of the San Francisco Police Commission, was hired by the city to lead an independent probe.

The three officers involved in the arrest — James Fisher, Cameron Leahy and Eric McKinley — have been placed on paid leave, the city said. Fisher has been with the Alameda Police Department since 2010. Leahy and McKinley joined in 2018.

Gerardo Gonzalez said his brother had a 4-year-old son, whom he liked to play Fortnite with, and was the main caretaker of their brother, Efraim, who has autism and turned 23 this week.

"Mario was a humorous guy," he said. "He loved to crack jokes and have a good time."

Their mother, Edith Arenales, had already lost another son, Frank, who died at age 20 from undisclosed causes, Gerardo Gonzalez said.

"The fact that it's her second child, it makes the weight 10 times harder," he said.