What were initially reported as two separate 911 calls about an apparently intoxicated but non-threatening man in an Alameda Park last month were actually calls to the city's non-emergency line. Police responded anyway, tried to handcuff Mario Arenales Gonzalez for unclear reasons, and killed him in the process.
Gonzalez is being buried Tuesday, and outrage over the 26-year-old's April 19 death at the hands of Alameda police continues.
As KTVU reports, the neighbors who reported Gonzalez's presence made clear that he was not armed — "He has a comb on him. He’s been brushing his hair," said one caller — and that he was just standing around speaking gibberish. As we learned from Gonzalez's mother last week, he had been out of work and depressed for the past year, and he liked to go to Alameda for some quiet time by himself. She did not allow drinking in her Oakland house, and perhaps this was not the first time that Gonzalez had come to this spot to be alone and drink.
Officers decided to detain Gonzalez, struggled to get his hands behind his back to detain him, and instead took him to the ground, with one officer kneeling on a shoulder and possibly his back in an effort to restrain him until backup arrived. Gonzalez struggled, and died within minutes of apparent asphyxia — a cause of death has not yet been determined.
The video released by the Alameda Police Department the week after Gonzalez's death contains audio from the two callers — each of which is just labeled as a "service call." But this is exactly the type of unnecessary escalation by police — and one disturbingly similar to the one that ended in the death of George Floyd — that could be avoided by simply sending a mental health counseling or crisis-response team out instead of the cops when a non-emergency call comes in.
The City of Alameda told KTVU through a spokesperson that "police are often dispatched from the non-emergency line as well as from the 911 line."
This is how many cities across the country continue to operate, despite widespread calls for changes to policy around when police should respond to a call — and for the creation of other kinds of response teams. As of November 2020, San Francisco now has Street Crisis Response Teams (SCRTs), each made up of a community paramedic, a behavioral health clinician, and a behavioral health peer specialist, that is specifically designed for addressing people having a severe mental health crisis. And just this week, Mayor London Breed has proposed "wellness teams" to work in parallel with the SCRTs, who can respond to calls that are less urgent or severe — like the one involving Mario Gonzalez.
Now, as KTVU reports, civil rights attorney Julia Sherwin, who has been hired by Gonzalez's family, is calling on U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland to get involved in the case. Sherwin is questioning what information the dispatcher gave to police before they arrived at the scene, and is pointing out how the case is a prime example of a call where police never needed to be involved and furthermore had no reason for an arrest.
"We are extremely concerned about the training and supervision the police department provided to the officers who killed Mario, and to the dispatcher who sent the police to the scene in the first place," Sherwin wrote in a letter to Garland.
Sherwin points to the fact that Alameda Police have dealt with a similar case before, and officers should have been trained not to use body weight on a suspect on the ground. Iraq War vet Shelby Gattenby, 40, died a week after being violently detained by Alameda police in December 2018. An investigation found that he had been Taser'd multiple times and officers had pressed weight on his back while he lay prone on the ground, causing him to lose consciousness and go into cardiac arrest.
"After Gattenby's death, the Alameda Police Department should have overhauled its policies and training to bring them in line with the Constitution, and to prohibit prone, weighted restraint," Sherwin writes in her letter. "If they had done that, Mario would still be alive."
She also points to the fact that the officers had no probable cause to arrest Gonzalez, despite the presence — seen on the body-work camera video — of liquor bottles with security caps still on them sitting in a plastic shopping basket. During the incident, an officer was sent to a nearby Walgreens to inquire whether they'd had any recent thefts or had complained about Gonzalez as a "walk-off" with merchandise — they had not.
An attorney for Alameda Police, Alison Berry Wilkinson, has said they were arresting Gonzalez for his own safety, to prevent him from "tripping over a tree stump." Sherwin calls that assertion "completely without any legal basis... frankly ridiculous," and an unconstitutional justification for an arrest.
Sherwin is hoping that a federal investigation into the incident can occur simultaneously with Alameda County's homicide investigation.
The Alameda case, in part because it occurred the same week that the verdict came down in the case of Floyd's death, against former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin, received near immediate national attention in the New York Times and television news.