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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Sam Levin in Los Angeles

California city to pay $11m to family of man killed by police in asphyxia case

The city of Alameda agreed to pay Gonzalez’s son $11m.
The city of Alameda agreed to pay Mario Gonzalez’s son $11m. Photograph: Family of Mario Gonzalez

A California city has agreed to pay $11m to the family of a man who was killed by police in 2021 when officers restrained him in a prone position for five minutes as he struggled to breathe.

The city of Alameda, just outside of San Francisco, announced on Thursday that it had settled the wrongful death lawsuit filed by the estate of Mario Gonzalez, a 26-year-old who was killed in a similar manner to George Floyd in a case that led to protests and national outrage. The city said it was paying $11m to Gonzalez’s seven-year-old son and $350,000 to Gonzalez’s mother.

The police encounter, which was captured on body-camera footage, raised concerns about deadly restraint tactics and led to scrutiny of local officials who initially said Gonzalez had a “medical emergency” without disclosing the use of force and then blamed the death on drug use.

On 19 April 2021, Alameda police encountered Gonzalez in a park after two residents called police to report a man talking to himself. One 911 caller said, “He’s not doing anything wrong. He’s just scaring my wife.” A second caller said he had alcohol bottles.

The first officer who arrived spoke for several minutes with Gonzalez, who appeared dazed and disoriented, but was speaking calmly. The officer called for backup and when a second officer arrived, they grabbed him to handcuff him behind his back and forced him to the ground. A third officer showed up and three of them held him face-down with their bodyweight on top of him, including for three minutes and 45 seconds after he was already handcuffed, the family’s lawyers said.

Footage captured Gonzalez gasping for air and saying, “I didn’t do nothing.”

At one point, an officer said, “Think we can roll him on his side?” and another responded, “I don’t want to lose what I got.” Once Gonzalez appeared to lose consciousness, the officers then rolled him over. He was taken to a hospital where he was pronounced dead.

The Alameda county coroner’s office, which is part of the sheriff’s department, ruled the case a homicide, but said the cause of death was “toxic effects of methamphetamine”. The coroner also said “physiologic stress of altercation and restraint”, obesity and alcoholism contributed to his death.

Lawyers for his family, however, reported that the amount of meth in his system was low and well within the range of what the US government says is a “normal recreational level”. An independent autopsy conducted for the family concluded that he died from restraint asphyxia, with a pathologist finding swelling and congestion in his lungs, bruising from blunt force trauma on his back and brain swelling from lack of oxygen.

“This is a life-changing settlement for this seven-year-old boy,” Michael Haddad, a family attorney, said on Friday. “This sends a message that when law enforcement uses unnecessarily aggressive tactics known to cause asphyxia, they are going to be held accountable and face consequences … This case was so senseless. Had they turned Mario on his side at that moment [the officer suggested it], he’d still be alive.”

“Meth didn’t kill Mario, the officers did,” added another family attorney, Julia Sherwin, in a statement. “I hope when little Mario grows up, he is proud of himself for holding the officers accountable for his father’s death.”

The city of Alameda said in a statement that the settlement “shall not be construed as an admission by any party of liability”, adding, “Alameda remains committed to full transparency and accountability in the tragic death of Mario Gonzalez and extends our heartfelt condolences to his family and loved ones.”

The Alameda county district attorney’s office announced last year it was not filing criminal charges against the officers, but the newly elected DA, Pamela Price, reopened the case earlier this year and the review is ongoing.

Andrea Cortez, the mother of Gonzalez’s son, said Gonzalez “wasn’t hurting anyone and he was clearly confused”, in a Thursday statement adding, “Mario was a peaceful, calm person. He was a very mellow guy. He adored our son and was a good father.”

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