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Family of Mario Gonzalez, killed by police, files federal civil rights lawsuit

The family of Mario Gonzalez, whose death was ruled a homicide by the Alameda coroner, says police used unnecessary force to restrain him, though he posed no threat.

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — The family of Mario Gonzalez, a 26-year-old who died while being pinned down by police, sued the city of Alameda, its former police chief, and three police officers on Friday in federal court.

The lawsuit, which alleges a slew of constitutional violations ranging from wrongful arrest to unreasonable search and seizure and excessive force, comes one week after the Alameda County coroner released autopsy results listing his death as a homicide attributable to the psychological distress of being restrained, but also citing obesity and the "toxic effects of methamphetamine” as contributors. An investigative report prepared by chief forensic pathologist Vivian Snyder also notes blunt force trauma injuries to Gonzalez’s head, torso, hands and legs.

On the morning of April 19, 2021, officer Eric McKinley approached Gonzalez in a small public park, responding to a local resident's call that a man was wandering around nearby Oak Street talking to himself and apparently pulling security tags off of liquor bottles. McKinley asked Gonzalez if he was “feeling alright,” to which he replied yes, but Gonzalez also said he did not know what was going on.

Officer James Fisher, who arrived on the scene later, confirmed with a nearby Walgreens that no one matching Gonzalez’s description had stolen any liquor that night.

While Gonzalez seemed disoriented and possibly intoxicated, he remained calm and non-threatening. The lawsuit says that about two minutes after Fisher’s arrival, both officers decided Gonzalez needed to be restrained.

The coroner’s report prepared by chief forensic pathologist Vivian Snyder notes that both officers grabbed Gonzalez’s arms. Struggling to get the handcuffs on him while standing, they took Gonzalez to the ground and pinned him face down on his stomach. McKinley restrained his legs while Fisher applied pressure to his back.

Another officer, Cameron Leahy, arrived during the scuffle and used his body weight to hold Gonzalez down.

After five minutes, the officers “rolled Mario Gonzalez over and found him limp and unresponsive.”

“The totality of the force used and tolerated by defendants McKinley, Fisher and Leahy was unnecessary, excessive, and deadly,” the complaint says. “None of these officers intervened to stop this illegal seizure or to stop other officers from using the excessive and illegal force that was evident in front of them.”

The whole incident was captured on McKinley’s body camera.

“McKinley did talk to him for about seven minutes, but during that time he found no reason to believe Mario was involved in any crime,” civil rights attorney Michael Haddad said in a phone interview Friday. “Mario may have been intoxicated or confused, but not the point of being a danger to himself or for others. So he should have just walked way.”

Following the release of the autopsy report on Dec. 10, Police Chief Nishant Joshi released a statement expressing his condolences and vowing an independent investigation and possible charges against the officers, who had been stripped of their badges and put on leave.

“It’s kind of a way of not responding,” said Haddad, whose Oakland firm Haddad & Sherwin represents Gonzalez’s five year-old son Mario Jr. and Mario Jr.’s mother Andrea Cortez in the case. “Mario was killed in April. Any investigation should have been concluded by now. It was captured on video. They should have known exactly what happened. It shouldn’t be a mystery to the chief.”

"Unfortunately, I cannot comment on questions related to the lawsuit filed," Joshi said in an email, adding that the investigation "began several months before the release of the autopsy report and has been ongoing."

Haddad said it’s “inconceivable” that the officers would use that level of force after the training they were supposed to have received following the 2018 death of Navy veteran Shelby Gattenby, who died after officers tased him multiple times and used their body weight to restrain him. The city of Alameda settled with Gattenby’s mother in 2020.

According to the complaint, Fisher is also a defendant in a civil rights lawsuit brought by Mali Watkins, who was pinned to the ground by officers in May 2020 without probable cause.

Mario’s loved ones seek compensatory and punitive damages, as well as an order prohibiting unconstitutional use of force and requiring the Alameda police department to properly train its officers.

"In addition our family a significant amount of money for the life they took, they have to fix the problem," Haddad said. "Obviously there’s a problem with officers being trained properly and understanding the training they are given. It has to be internalized and prioritized and it’s obviously not."

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