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

California officers charged in killing of man held face-down for five minutes

a woman with dark curly hair and a green shirt stands at a podium in front of a purple flag
Pamela Price, Alameda county district attorney, announces the charges against three officers on Wednesday in Oakland, California. Photograph: Scott Strazzante/AP

Three California police officers have been charged with involuntary manslaughter in the 2021 killing of a man they restrained in a prone position for five minutes until he lost consciousness.

Pamela Price, Alameda county district attorney, announced the charges on Thursday, three years after the asphyxia death of Mario Gonzalez, 26. The officers, Eric McKinley, James Fisher and Cameron Leahy, face up to four years in prison.

On 21 April 2021, the three officers with the city of Alameda, east of San Francisco, encountered Gonzalez in a public park after two residents called police to report Gonzalez behaving oddly. One caller said Gonzalez had alcohol bottles, and another said: “He’s not doing anything wrong. He’s just scaring my wife.”

Body-camera footage showed that Gonzalez seemed disoriented, but spoke calmly to the first officer on the scene for several minutes. Two more officers arrived, and as they attempted to detain him, they ended up forcing him to the ground and holding him face-down with their body weight on top of him. The videos revealed he was pinned down for five minutes.

An initial police statement claimed Gonzalez died of a “medical emergency”, echoing the explanation Minneapolis police first gave following the murder of George Floyd a year prior. A subsequent autopsy said Gonzalez’s cause of death was “toxic effects of methamphetamine”, and that significant contributing factors included “physiological stress of altercation and restraint”, “morbid obesity” and “alcoholism”. A second autopsy determined the cause was “restraint asphyxiation”, the district attorney’s office said on Thursday.

The former Alameda county district attorney declined to file charges, but Price, elected in 2022 after pledging to prioritize police accountability, reopened the case.

The city agreed in December to pay $11m to Gonzalez’s family to settle their civil lawsuit.

“The family finally feels like there’s some real accountability,” said Adanté Pointer, a lawyer for Gonzalez’s mother. “There was overwhelming evidence the officers violated their training. They knew death could result from how they aggressively detained Mario … This family has been denied justice for far too long, and there is still a gaping hole in their family unit, but this does give them some manner of solace.”

Nishant Joshi, the Alameda police chief, noted in a statement Friday that previous investigations by the former district attorney, the sheriff’s office and the city had determined that “no criminal or policy misconduct occurred” and that his own review of the investigations concluded “Alameda police officers did not engage in any misconduct”.

“I stand by that decision today,” Joshi said.

Leahy and McKinley were placed on leave this week, and Fisher now works for the neighboring Contra Costa county sheriff’s office, Joshi added.

Yibin Shen, Alameda’s city attorney, who represented the three officers in the civil case, said in an email that his office agreed with the prior investigations, “all of which concluded that the evidence in this matter does not support criminal liability”.

The charges come amid growing scrutiny across the country of officers’ deadly restraint tactics and the lack of accountability after these killings. A recent analysis by the California Reporting Project, the California Newsroom and the Guardian found that between 2016 and 2022, at least 22 people died after police restrained them stomach-down.

• This story was amended on 20 April 2024 to correct the location of Alameda, California, as east of San Francisco, rather than east of Oakland as an earlier version said.

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