Alameda officers kneeling on Mario Gonzalez's back highlights dangers of restraint death
ALAMEDA, Calif. - The cases are strikingly similar. Law enforcement officers pressing down on a person’s back as they struggle to restrain them. Moments later, the person stops breathing.
Before police killed George Floyd last year in Minnesota while restraining him in a prone position, many people had died under similar circumstances in the Bay Area.
And last month, Mario Gonzalez died as police attempted to restrain him in Alameda – igniting tensions with the community and bringing attention to a restraint tactic that officers around the country are trained to avoid.
"It’s been well known in law enforcement for 30 years that if officers are restraining a person face down on the ground, the minute they have them in handcuffs, they need to roll them over on their side," said Julia Sherwin, an Oakland-based civil rights attorney who’s representing Gonzalez’s family.
Sherwin has had several cases in which people have died while being restrained and served as a consultant for the prosecution in the Floyd case.
As Gonzalez’s family awaits the autopsy, which will determine the cause and manner of his death, Sherwin and independent use-of-force experts say the body-worn camera footage tells a troubling story.
For five minutes officers attempted to restrain the 26-year-old Oakland man, pressing down on his back while he let out muffled cries before his breathing stopped.
"Given what happened to Mario we were very concerned the city of Alameda had horrible training because these tactics would not have happened if the officers had good training," Sherwin said.
People can asphyxiate if they are held on their stomachs for prolonged periods.
Floyd’s murder was particularly shocking because former officer Derek Chauvin had his knee on Floyd’s neck, but experts say people can asphyxiate with pressure on their bodies or back.
A person’s lungs cannot expand when they are on their stomach and have too much weight on their back. They may let out their last breaths, but cannot bring in more oxygen.
If someone is obese or intoxicated – they have a greater chance of dying, according to experts.
"We consistently advised officers that if you are in a position to be able to monitor the level of breathing of the individual you should and must take some type of corrective action if it’s feasible," said Ed Obayashi, a Plumas County Sheriff’s deputy and certified use-of-force trainer for law enforcement around California.
What’s more, it’s not clear that officers even had any probable cause to detain Gonzalez, who was acting erratically but wasn’t overtly breaking any laws.
Neighbors called the police non-emergency line to report his behavior but didn’t describe any violent or criminal behavior.
Alison Berry Wilkinson represents the Alameda officers. She said they "used the lowest degree of force possible."
"They didn’t have any intention on the events going the way they did," she told KTVU shortly after Alameda police released the body-worn camera footage.
But while Floyd and Gonzalez’s deaths have received widespread attention, they’re not unusual in the Bay Area. KTVU found several recent cases where people died while being restrained by law enforcement – often leading to large civil payouts by cities.
On July 8, 2013, Ana Biocini called 911 because she believes an intruder was in her home. Police found her brother, Hernan Jaramillo, 51, who lived with her inside and restrained him in front of the home.
As he lay handcuffed on his stomach in the street he cried out "You’re killing me…I can’t breathe" before dying.
On December 19, 2015, police in Hayward held Roy Nelson face down for several minutes before he fell unconscious and died. Body-worn camera footage captured his final words: "I can’t breathe."
The city paid Nelson’s family $1 million in a civil settlement.
On July 26, 2016, Pittsburg police chased Humberto Martinez into a home and placed him in a neck hold during a struggle. He stopped breathing and died, leading to a $7 million payout by the city.
And on Dec. 23, 2020, police in Antioch held Angelo Quinto face down for several minutes inside his family’s home. He fell unconscious and was pronounced dead three days later at a hospital. An autopsy is still pending and the Antioch police chief has defended the officers and their tactics.
The state Department of Justice tracks in-custody deaths but many from the past decade are still classified as "under investigation." While shooting deaths are unmistakable, restraint deaths are harder to track. Some are considered medical emergencies with people dying days later at a hospital after becoming brain dead from lack of oxygen.
Advocates like Sherwin want to see better training for officers to avoid more restraint deaths in the future.
"We get reform from a county to prevent compression asphyxia or restraint asphyxia and then the neighboring city or county does it," she said. "It’s a bit like whack-a-mole."
Evan Sernoffsky is an investigative reporter for KTVU. Email Evan at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @EvanSernoffsky