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Lawyer Says Police Didn't Need To Arrest Man Who Died After Being Pinned To Ground

Julia Sherwin, lawyer for the family of Mario Gonzalez, speaks about his death in Oakland, Calif., on Wednesday. Members of the Gonzalez family believe police used excessive force when they attempted to arrest him.
Julia Sherwin, lawyer for the family of Mario Gonzalez, speaks about his death in Oakland, Calif., on Wednesday. Members of the Gonzalez family believe police used excessive force when they attempted to arrest him.

Alameda Police "mishandled" the arrest of 26-year-old Mario Gonzalez last week and caused his death, according to the attorney representing the man's family.

Gonzalez died April 19 after police pinned him to the ground for at least five minutes. The Alameda Police Department said Gonzalez suffered a "medical emergency" after a scuffle with officers.

Julia Sherwin, the attorney representing Gonzalez's family, said Gonzalez's actions that day didn't warrant law enforcement response from the start.

"He's unarmed. He's just got a comb. He's been combing his hair and he's been loitering there for half an hour," she told NPR's Eric Westervelt. "Why this required a law enforcement response right at that moment is beyond me."

Sherwin said officers never told Gonzalez why he was under arrest before they attempted to handcuff him.

Interim Alameda Police Chief Randy Fenn said that in the body camera footage, Gonzalez "does not appear to be violent or abusive" before officers move to arrest him.

Fenn said it's unclear whether officers used justifiable action or excessive force. Three ongoing investigations will determine whether the officers acted appropriately.

Body camera footage released Tuesday by Alameda Police shed more light on the events before, during and after Gonzalez's interaction with officers. During the struggle with Gonzalez, officers can be seen placing arms and knees on his back to keep him restrained.

The names of the four involved Alameda Police Department employees were released Wednesday. Officer James Fisher, was hired by the city in 2010, and officers Cameron Leahy and Eric McKinley, were hired in 2018. All three remain on paid administrative leave. Civilian Parking Enforcement employee Charlie Clemmens was also involved in the incident and is on leave.

Gonzalez's family accused the officers of excessive force and said the police murdered Mario Gonzalez.

On the day of Gonzalez's death, callers complained to 911 dispatchers that he was standing alone in a small park in a residential area and talking to himself. He had what appears to be two bottles of alcohol, Sherwin said.

When officers arrived, "they just completely mishandled the situation," she said. Gonzalez appears impaired in the body camera video.

But "he was very calm and his family reports that that's just how he was," Sherwin said. "He was a mellow, calm guy who didn't ever become aggressive with people."

Fenn said ongoing investigations into the events that day, the results of which he hopes will be released within a few weeks, should reveal "What was the state of mind of the officers? What were they intending to do?"

The Alameda County Sheriff's Department and Alameda County District Attorney's Office opened separate criminal investigations. An independent investigation by Louise Renne, the former city attorney for San Francisco who was hired by Alameda City Manager Eric Levitt, is also underway.

Sherwin said the family wants to see the autopsy and toxicology reports to understand any contributing factors to Gonzalez's death.

"But having to handle these cases for two decades and looking at the body cam video," she said, "I know that Mario died because he was proned out on the ground and had officers on top of him for five minutes."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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