On April 19, 26-year-old Mario Gonzalez, a father living in Oakland, California, died after what Alameda police originally called a “medical emergency.” Gonzalez, according to police, had suffered this emergency after a “scuffle” with police, who were attempting to arrest Gonzalez for not being able to produce identification. On April 27, the City of Alameda posted an hour-long video of the events from one of the police officers’ body cameras. As with most of these tragic stories, what the police initially told Gonzalez’s family does not line up with what is on the video.
Within eight minutes of speaking with Gonzalez, two police officers are attempting to put his hands behind his back in order to arrest him, ostensibly for not producing identification. Gonzalez is soft spoken, not combative at all, and at times possibly disoriented. But he is never even remotely a threat to run away, let alone physically hurt or overpower the officers on the scene. Over the next eight minutes as police push Gonzalez down and get on top of him, trying to hold his hands behind his back while he lies in a prone position in wood chips and dirt, Gonzalez will go from pleading and heavy breathing to unresponsive. Less than 20 minutes after first coming into contact with police, the father of a 4-year-old is lying unresponsive on the ground while Alameda police perform CPR on him.
There are so many issues here. First, California does not have any law requiring people who are not driving and in a vehicle when stopped by police to produce a picture or paper identification. Police can detain you if they suspect you have committed a crime but not arrest you, and even if you are under suspicion of having committed a crime, you are not required by law to produce identification if you decide not to.
When the police first begin talking with Gonzalez, he is sitting on wooden telephone poll stump in a wooded median between a parking lot and a street. There are two Walgreens baskets on the ground next to him, with what looks like bottles of alcohol—unopened. The officer through whose body camera we are watching this all unfold radios in early on, asking his dispatcher to look into whether or not a local Walgreens had reported someone leaving without paying for items like this. It is clear from the interaction with Gonzalez that Alameda police believe he is inebriated.
California’s law on public intoxication requires the subject to:
- Be unable to exercise care for themselves or others, or
- Obstruct the free use of public streets/walkways
Gonzalez is not obstructing anything, and whether or not he can care for himself or others is a question that needs to be better clarified. At one point during the “scuffle,” where the approximately 250-pound Gonzalez is grunting and screaming in clear distress while police have their knees on his shoulders and occasionally on his neck, Gonzalez says he has not done any drugs. One of the officers says, "I think you just had too much to drink today, okay? That’s all.” The officers are not screaming at Gonzalez, but they are also not helping him, though they say they are trying to take care of him. Finally Gonzalez becomes limp, and the two officers notice:
"We have no weight on his chest," one officer says.
He then stops another officer who looks like he’s about to put weight on his chest and says: "No! No weight, weight, no weight."
Edith Arenales reportedly spoke in Spanish to the press, saying: “Mario was a kind man and level headed. There was a way to deal with this situation without killing my son. They never took his knee off his head.” Andrea Cortez, the mother of Mario’s 4-year-old son, released a statement saying: “His son Little Mario keeps asking where his father is. He thinks he’s in the sky in a spaceship. How do I explain that he’s not coming back?” According to Mario’s family, he was also the caretaker for his 22-year-old brother, who has autism.
The police released a statement saying: “On Monday, April 19, patrol officers responded to two separate reports of a male who appeared to be under the influence and a suspect in a possible theft.” Of course, in the video you can see that they are asking dispatch once on the scene to fish and see if a theft has been reported. The video makes it clear that these officers could have easily done without restraints while they tried to find out if he actually was a suspect in what would have amounted to a misdemeanor shoplifting incident.
The New York Times reports that the 911 calls didn’t seem to warrant an arrest of someone not doing much of anything except bothering a person behind closed doors.
In audio recordings of the 911 calls that prompted the police to approach him, one caller said Mr. Gonzalez had been loitering for about a half-hour and appeared to be breaking store security tags off alcohol bottles. Another said Mr. Gonzalez was talking to himself at a fence near the caller’s backyard.
“He seems like he’s tweaking, but he’s not doing anything wrong,” the caller told the dispatcher, suggesting that he appeared to be on drugs. “He’s just scaring my wife.”
Mario Gonzalez’s family wants more answers, and they deserve to know why he was treated this way.
The video is one hour long and it can be seen on the City of Alameda’s YouTube page. Warning: It is graphic.