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After previously being cleared, 3 Calif. officers now face manslaughter charges

The charges were filed in relation to a 2021 incident where a man died after being restrained by Alameda Police officers; the previous DA stated that her office’s investigation found the evidence did “not justify criminal charges”

By Madilynne Medina
SFGate, San Francisco

ALAMEDA COUNTY, Calif. — The Alameda County District Attorney’s Office has charged three East Bay police officers with involuntary manslaughter in the 2021 death of 26-year-old Mario Gonzalez, according to a Thursday news release.

Pamela Price, Alameda County District Attorney, made the decision to revisit Gonzalez’s case days after community members gathered enough signatures to prompt a recall election. The Gonzales case was one of eight in-custody death investigations reopened under Price’s leadership. According to the news release, the decision to charge the officers was made by prosecutors in the office’s independent Public Accountability Unit, not Price herself.

Gonzalez died on April 19, 2021, while being restrained on the ground by Alameda police officers Eric McKinley, James Fisher and Cameron Leahy. Charging the officers involved marks a reversal of the decision made by former Alameda County DA Nancy O’Malley, who announced in 2022 that her office’s investigation found the evidence did “not justify criminal charges.”

An initial autopsy conducted by the county coroner ruled Gonzalez’s death a homicide, but stated that “toxic effects of methamphetamine” were the main cause of death. The report cited “physiologic stress of altercation and restraint” as a secondary factor.

However, a second, independent autopsy was requested by Gonzalez’s family after they filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city, the East Bay Times reported. That autopsy, conducted in 2022, found that Gonzalez had been killed by asphyxiation as a result of being restrained. While the second autopsy acknowledged that Gonzalez had drugs in his system, it concluded that the effects had not been lethal.

“Methamphetamine was not the underlying cause of death of Mr. Gonzalez-Arenales. The presence of a drug in the blood of a deceased person does not equate to causation of death,” the coroner found.

On the day of Gonzalez’ death, officers responded to multiple 911 calls about a man behaving strangely in a park on the island of Alameda, the Los Angeles Times reported.

“He seems like he’s tweaking. But he’s not doing anything wrong, he’s just scaring my wife,” one caller said, according to the LA Times. Another caller said Gonzalez appeared to be stealing alcohol and was loitering.

In an hour-long video recorded by one of the officers’ body cameras, the police asked for identification from Gonzalez, who appeared to respond incoherently. The officers then grabbed Gonzalez and pinned him, holding him on the ground until he appeared to lose consciousness. Officers attempted to render CPR, but Gonzalez was declared dead at the scene.

After the conclusion of the initial investigation in 2022, all the officers were allowed to return to full duty, after spending time on paid administrative leave. In a statement issued Friday, Alameda Police Chief Nishant Joshi said he stands by the initial determination that " Alameda police officers did not engage in any misconduct.”

However, two officers involved in the arrest, Leahy and Mckinley, had been placed on leave again as a result of the recent criminal charges, Joshi said. The third officer, Fisher, has since taken a job at the Contra Costa Sheriff’s Office. His status was not immediately available.

Millie Clevand , a chair for Coalition Police Accountability in Oakland, told SFGATE she is content with the DA’s decision. She believes that when cops appear to “violate the law” it has “severe consequences to the community.”

“I think this whole issue of how people are detained and the use of killing people through asphyxiation is a problem,” she said. “It seems to me that people that are in law enforcement should have enough skill to know how to detain somebody without killing them.”

In a news conference Thursday, Price declined to say whether the charges were based on new evidence, according to ABC7, but did confirm that she had not been personally involved in the decision to charge the officers.

“I will not be participating and will not participate in the ultimate decision about the case,” Price said at the press conference. “And, I’m very proud that my public accountability unit has been able to independently assess the evidence and come to a decision about this case.”


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