Family of Mario Gonzalez files wrongful death claim against city of Alameda

Family of Mario Gonzalez files wrongful death claim against city of Alameda


The family of Mario Arenales Gonzalez, the Oakland father who died after Alameda police officers pinned him to the ground for five minutes during an attempted arrest in April, has filed a wrongful death claim against the city.

It’s the first step ahead of a looming wrongful death lawsuit, said Julia Sherwin, one of the lawyers representing Gonzalez’s family, including his 4-year-old son, also named Mario. The claim is a written notice alerting the city that Gonzalez’s family attorneys are planning to file a wrongful death lawsuit against the city, Sherwin, told The Chronicle.

The claim, filed on May 20, alleges that the involved officers — identified as James Fisher, Eric McKinley and Cameron Leahy — put “significant weight on his back, shoulders, neck and legs” for more than five minutes “in violation of generally accepted law enforcement standards, while Mr. Gonzalez struggled to breathe.”

Gonzalez was “wrongfully and unconstitutionally killed,” the complaint reads, and the involved officers used “unreasonable and excessive tactics” and “created the situation where excessive and deadly force was used.”

The claim also alleges that the city is responsible by failing to “adequately hire,” investigate, train, supervise and discipline its police officers, including the ones involved in restraining Gonzalez. It also demands that “all evidence” related to this incident be preserved, including dispatch tapes, video recordings, photographs, physical evidence and all investigation records. The claim is seeking “all damages and money” allowed by law.

“Public agencies always reject these claims,” Sherwin said. “It’s just a proforma requirement, like a hoop we have to jump through before we can file the case.”

If the city rejects it or if 45 days expire, Sherwin said, they are allowed to file a lawsuit.

Sarah Henry, a spokesperson for the city of Alameda said Thursday that in order to “protect the integrity” of the three investigations underway into Gonzalez’s death, “and consistent with our general policy of not commenting on pending litigations/claims, we do not have any additional details to share at this time.”

In body-worn camera videos released by Alameda police, Gonzalez, 26, was seen standing in a park on April 19. Police were responding to two calls: One from a resident who said that a man was talking to himself outside the front gate of his home. The caller told a dispatcher that “He’s not doing anything wrong. He’s just scaring my wife.” A second caller said he saw a man lingering in the nearby park with bottles of alcohol that appeared to be stolen.

While he appeared to be mumbling incoherently, he was not aggressive or combative while police officers asked him questions on the 800 block of Oak Street in Alameda. After several minutes of questioning, police tried to handcuff Gonzalez. Alameda police either pushed him face-down on the ground, or he fell onto the grass.

Gonzalez could be heard on body-worn camera videos grunting in apparent distress while officers used their legs and arms to restrain him. When one officer asked if they should roll Gonzalez on his side, the other officer declined and said, “I don’t want to lose what I’ve got.” Gonzalez soon went limp.

Alameda city officials launched an independent investigation into Gonzalez’s death, and the Alameda County sheriff’s office and the Alameda County district attorney’s office are leading their own probes.

Police said Gonzalez suffered a “medical emergency” while police officers tried arresting him and putting his hands behind his back during a “physical altercation” and “scuffle.”

Family members said the body camera footage contradicts early police statements and have called Gonzalez’s death a murder that leaves his young son without a father, and Gonzalez’s younger brother, Efrain, without a primary caretaker.

Gonzalez’s brother, Gerardo Gonzalez, said at a vigil in April that his brother was a healthy man who had no known health conditions.

Lauren Hernández is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @ByLHernandez

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