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Police sued over April custody death of Oakland man

December 18, 2021 GMT

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — The family of an Oakland man who died after police held him down filed a wrongful death lawsuit Friday, contending officers asphyxiated him during a confrontation that drew protests and comparisons to the death of George Floyd.

The lawsuit cites a report released last week by the Alameda County Coroner’s Bureau that said the April 19 death of Mario Gonzalez was a homicide. The report said Gonzalez died from the “toxic effects of methamphetamine” but that the “physiologic stress” from his struggling and being restrained by police contributed to his death, along with alcoholism and obesity.

Officers had responded to a park to check reports that Gonzalez, 26, was acting strangely and appeared to be breaking security tags off alcohol bottles that he had in two drugstore baskets.

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His brother, Jerry Gonzalez, told The Associated Press in April that Gonzalez liked to get away from their neighborhood in east Oakland — where gang shootings, robberies and murders are common — and go to nearby Alameda, a city on an island with beautiful homes, tree-lined streets and many parks.

Gonzalez died after three officers and a civilian parking enforcement employee pinned him face-down on the ground for more than five minutes, according to body camera video released by police that showed one officer with a knee on his back. Gonzalez stopped breathing and later died.

His death came a day before a jury in Minneapolis found former police officer Derrick Chauvin guilty of murder in Floyd’s custody death.

In a statement released after the coroner’s report was issued, Alameda Police Chief Nishant Joshi said the officers involved remain on administrative leave and their peace officer powers have been suspended.

Joshi said he was committed to “full transparency and accountability into the tragic death of Mr. Gonzalez.”

The lawsuit was filed in federal court on behalf of Gonzalez’s 5-year-old son, Mario Jr., and names the city of Alameda, the former interim police chief and the three officers. It alleges wrongful use of deadly force, negligence and civil rights violations.

The suit alleges police improperly escalated the confrontation with Gonzalez, who appeared “disoriented and confused” but not threatening, ignored signs that he was dying and used improper restraint that asphyxiated him.

Gonzalez “squirmed around in a desperate attempt to breathe, but never attacked, threatened, or violently resisted any officer,” the suit said.

“Mario was a peaceful, calm person,” Mario Jr.’s mother, Andrea Cortez, said in a statement released by the attorneys who filed the suit.

“He adored our son and was a good father,” she said, adding officers should have known to use better tactics.

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“He wasn’t hurting anyone, and he was clearly confused,” Cortez said. “If they had rolled him on his side when the first officer said to, my son’s father might still be here.”

The Alameda County district attorney’s office, which is investigating Gonzalez’s death, didn’t immediately return an email seeking comment.

Alison Berry Wilkinson, the attorney for the officers, said that they “look forward to the opportunity to prove in federal court that their actions during this encounter were reasonable, necessary, and lawful.”

“This was an unintended, unexpected and tragic death” and the officers used “only trained and accepted law enforcement techniques,” she said in an email.

“As the coroner noted, the cause of death was drug toxicity, and many of the injuries listed in the complaint were the result of the officers’ aggressive efforts to save Mr. Gonzalez’s life rather than their efforts to handcuff him,” Wilkinson said.