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Alameda City Leaders Approve Police Reforms Spurred by Death of Mario Gonzalez

In a rare weekend session, the Alameda City Council approved several police reform measures aimed at diverting some mental health crisis and minor quality-of-life calls away from law enforcement, increasing police accountability and revising the department’s use-of-force policies.

The move comes nearly three weeks after the death of Mario Gonzalez, an unarmed 26-year-old man who stopped breathing as he was pinned face down to the ground by Alameda police officers in a city park on April 19.

The city released police body camera footage of the incident the following week, sparking fierce outcry and demands for major policing reforms.

The council, in separate votes, approved all three proposals on the agenda, including one that directs city staff to immediately begin considering changes to the city’s 911 dispatch protocol by exploring a pilot program that would reroute certain mental health and other non-violent calls to the Fire Department or to community health teams.

Additionally, the council directed the city to begin reviewing the Police Department’s body camera footage and its use-of-force policies, and to develop a more comprehensive list of mental health resources available. The council also approved the creation of a new civilian police auditor role, and moved to begin the process of drafting a local ballot initiative to establish a civilian police oversight board.

Many of the reforms the council approved Saturday were policy changes the city has long considered, including several detailed in a report it released just over a month before Gonzalez’s death.

During the nearly four-hour meeting, Alameda Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft said it was imperative the city act swiftly on the reforms.

“This is a very important topic. I think it is a topic that defines our community,” she said. “And I think we all have that sense of urgency and commitment and dedication. And so it’s now time to translate our words into action.”

Councilmember John Knox White joined his colleagues in offering condolences to Gonzalez’s family, but also pressed the council to take swift action.

“I want to acknowledge the loss of Mario Gonzalez to his family,” Knox White said. “Even though I know we’re speaking broader than that tonight, I’m very aware, and holding close, the call for true justice. Condolences, etc., are not enough.”

But Assistant City Manager Gerry Beaudin asked the community to remain patient, stressing that some of the proposals will take time to implement “to make sure that we do it in a way that we’re setting ourselves up for success.”

The only consistent dissent on all three proposals came from Councilmember Trish Herrera Spencer, who argued that the city was already considering many of the reforms on the table.

“I do think that under the purview of the city manager’s current job description that he is able to do some of this stuff without additional direction from us,” she said.

During the meeting, Alameda residents and other supporters of police reform contributed a bevy of public comment and emails, mostly lambasting the actions of the officers involved in Gonzalez’s death and underscoring the need for policy changes.

In one email, Alameda residents Brett Webb and Amanda Cooper said the city failed to reform its Police Department after a notorious incident last year, caught on camera, in which officers violently pinned down Mali Watkins, a Black resident, after they found him dancing on the street near his house.

After that incident, “people spoke at City Council, urging decisive action to make sure something worse didn’t happen. And yet here we are,” they wrote. “Our community failed to act and now we have failed to protect Mario Gonzalez. I hope we all feel some personal responsibility for this situation. As Alameda voters and residents, we all could and should have done more.”

In another email, Alameda resident Kim Ondreck Carim said the current system of policing is contrary to “equity and goodness” in the community.

“The policing system in our community needs to be replaced with systems that center nonviolent non-law enforcement response in situations like Mario Gonzalez’s and that do not discriminate between white and non-white citizens,” Ondreck Carim wrote. “Mario Gonzalez should be alive.”

Copyright 2021 KQED