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Regional Interests

Alameda Leaders Weigh Police Reforms After Death of Mario Gonzalez

The Alameda City Council plans to meet for a special session on Saturday to consider immediate policing reforms following the death of Mario Gonzalez last month. Gonzalez, a 26-year-old Oakland man, stopped breathing after several Alameda police officers held him face-down on the ground for roughly five minutes.

The proposed reforms include creating a civilian police oversight board, revising the department’s use-of-force policies and requiring a “non-police response” to certain types of 911 calls.

“An immediate step that can be taken is a process for civilian oversight of police actions that involve physical contact, and random checks of body camera video, just to make sure we have some eyes, a second set of review,” said Councilmember John Knox White, who is also pushing for the city to pilot a mental health response unit.

Alameda police have been under intense national scrutiny since body camera footage was released last week showing two officers confronting Gonzalez in a small city park on April 19. They were responding to 911 calls from neighbors who said he was acting disoriented and appeared to be breaking security tags off alcohol bottles.

“He seems like he’s tweaking. But he’s not doing anything wrong, he’s just scaring my wife,” one of the callers said.

The incident begins calmly, but after the officers’ make repeated, unsuccessful attempts to obtain Gonzalez’s full name or ID, they grab him, never telling him he’s under arrest. When Gonzalez resists being handcuffed, two officers take him to the ground, pinning him on his stomach, with at least one pressing an elbow and knee into his back and shoulder. They handcuff Gonzalez, holding him down for roughly five minutes, as he continues to struggle, at which point he appears to lose consciousness and stops breathing.

Many social justice activists and policing experts alike have lambasted the officers, accusing them of unnecessarily escalating a situation that did not necessitate the use of force.

Gonzalez’s family and their supporters are now pushing for the officers to be charged with murder, drawing comparisons to the death of George Floyd, who was murdered last May by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who knelt on his neck for more than 9 minutes.

In the weeks since Gonzalez’s death, multiple separate investigations into the incident have been initiated, including criminal investigations by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department and Alameda County District Attorney’s Office, and an outside investigation by a private law firm hired by the city.

“I don’t understand why they felt compelled to engage [Gonzalez] to the point where they had to handcuff him and control. Because it makes no sense,” said David Thomas, a professor of forensic studies at Florida Gulf Coast University and former police tactical trainer.

“I think they were determined that they were going to detain him in order to get to that point, to find out who he was,” he said. “I don’t see that as being a requirement if the person’s not a threat to anybody. And if you just need him to move along, why don’t you have that conversation and ask?”

Thomas also noted that the officers erred in failing to tell Gonzalez why they were detaining him.

“You need to clarify,” he said. “What is your purpose? And that was never stated.”

Regardless, Thomas said, after the officers forced Gonzalez to the ground, they should have immediately tried to move him into a sitting position to ensure he was able to properly breathe.

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 last week.

The 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, 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.

The Alameda Police Department has been no stranger to controversy. It came under fire last May for use of heavy-handed tactics following the release of a video showing officers pinning a 44-year-old Black man to the ground and handcuffing him, after he had been seen dancing in the street near his house. The police chief announced his retirement the following month.

And in 2018, a 40-year-old navy veteran died eight days after Alameda police arrested him, pinning him to the ground on his stomach and tasing him multiple times.

Gonzalez’s death has drawn renewed attention to a California bill that would bar police from applying pressure or body weight to a restrained person’s neck, torso or back, or laying them face up or face down without proper monitoring.

Mario Gonzalez’s mother, 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)

Assembly Bill 490, authored by Democratic Assemblyman Mike Gipson, D-Carson, a former police officer, would outlaw techniques that create a substantial risk of what’s known as “positional asphyxia” — detaining someone in a way that compresses their airways and reduces the ability to breathe normally. The legislation follows California’s recent ban on police use of carotid restraints or choke holds, a measure also introduced by Gipson.

“This does not mean that a police officer can no longer restrain anyone when they need to for public safety, but it would mean that they cannot keep anyone from breathing/losing oxygen when restraining them,” Gipson said in a statement.

The California State Sheriffs’ Association has called the language in the new bill overly broad, arguing that violations would be too difficult to judge and that an all-out ban would leave officers fewer options for handling violent suspects, making them more likely to use batons or stun guns.

Timothy T. Williams Jr., a police tactics expert who spent nearly 30 years with the Los Angeles Police Department, said that while most departments already have policies on this, those guidelines need to be much clearer.

Case in point: the Alameda Police Department’s policy manual states that a suspect “shall not be placed on his/her stomach for an extended period, as this could reduce the person’s ability to breathe.”

“The policy needs to be more specific and directed,” Williams said. “Once he or she is handcuffed, they are to be immediately removed from the prone position, put on their side and if possible sat up.” Otherwise, he said, “You leave everything to subjective interpretation: What may be short to you may be long to me.”

From a medical standpoint, any restriction of oxygen or blood flow is too long, said UCSF neurologist Nicole Rosendale.

“There are no kind of safe, defined ways to have someone in a position like this and reduce oxygen,” she said. “There’s no way to predict who might be at higher risk or lower risk of complications from this positioning.”

Gonzalez’s death also rekindles the longstanding national debate – amplified in the wake of George Floyd’s murder — over which kinds of responders are best suited to handle various types of non-emergency situations, and when police officers should not be involved. These are among the heated questions the Alameda City Council intends to take up this weekend.

“This was a tragic and avoidable incident that once again demonstrates the danger of involving law enforcement and interactions with people experiencing mental health crises and substance-use issues,” said Jennifer Stark, an attorney with Disability Rights California, one of the many groups that support reallocating resources to community service agencies and enlisting them to respond to certain non-violent calls.

“This is not a violent person. There were no safety issues raised. There were some concerns potentially about mental health issues. And this is one of those cases where it would have been perfectly appropriate to involve mental health professionals to come in to speak with Mario and to de-escalate the situation.”

“There was no crisis,” she added, “until the law enforcement got involved.”

Randy Fenn, Alameda’s interim police chief, said he agrees on the need to reexamine this dynamic.

“I think that’s going to be a really important question going forward,” Fenn said. “Who are the appropriate responders?”

But that can get complicated fast, he added, noting that in this case, Gonzalez seemed to be acting erratically and could have become potentially dangerous.

“Now, would properly trained, non-sworn people be the best to respond to this? Possibly,” he said. “Would they be in some level of danger? Again, possibly. So do you have a mix of a social worker with a police officer?”

He added, “And I think each community is trying right now to figure out what that looks like and what’s the best model for Alameda.”

This article includes reporting from KQED’s Alex Emslie and Holly McDede, and The Associated Press.

Copyright 2021 KQED