Breaking Down The Police Video Of Mario Gonzalez' Death
Last week, another person of color was killed in an interaction with police. This time it was in Alameda. His name was Mario Gonzalez and he was from Oakland. This is heavy and it keeps happening. In our newsroom, we talked a lot about what we wanted to say about it.
There are deep-rooted systemic issues that we, as journalists, want to think deeply and thoroughly about, including not repeatedly traumatizing people with stories of violence. But, it’s also important right now, at this moment, to discuss what we’re seeing.
After demands from Mario Gonzalez’ family and supporters, on Tuesday the City of Alameda released a set of video and audio recordings from its police department related to Gonzalez’ death. They released them in the public domain — on YouTube.
In the audio version of this story, we play clips from the recordings that are disturbing and difficult to hear. If you would like to read our analysis instead of listening, we've included a transcript of our conversation below.
Our intention is to understand what leads to these tragedies happening again and again so we can find solutions.
HANA BABA: So let’s listen to some of this audio recorded April 19.
CALLER: There's a man at Scout Park. He has two Walgreens baskets with some alcohol bottles and it looks like he's breaking the security tags off of.
BEN TREFNY: It starts with recordings of two 911 calls.
CALLER: There's a man in my front yard kind of talking to himself. And, no mask. And I went out there and the dogs are barking at him and he's talking to us but he's not making any sense. And I don't know what to do.
OPERATOR: Ok, what's the address?
BEN TREFNY: So these 911 callers are reporting somebody who they think is acting suspiciously in their neighborhood.
OPERATOR: Ok, what does he look like?
CALLER: He's about, I'd say, 5'6", 250 pounds.
BEN TREFNY: Both get good looks — this took place in full daylight, in the afternoon.
OPERATOR: Ok, we'll send an officer out. Do you see any weapons on him?
CALLER: No, he has a comb. It looks like he's been brushing his hair.
OPERATOR: Okay. Is he, um, does he appear to be under influence of drugs or alcohol, if you could you tell?
CALLER: He might be, he just kind of has been loitering around there for probably a half an hour now.
OPERATOR: Ok, we'll send someone out sir.
HANA BABA: So, Ben, they don’t say anything is dangerous. They don't feel like they're in danger.
BEN TREFNY: No, they just say they don’t understand what he’s doing.
HANA BABA: But they did call 911.
BEN TREFNY: That’s right, and 911 dispatches an officer. So the next part of the released video shows an officer’s body camera as the officer drives slowly down Oak Street in Alameda toward where it meets Powell. This is near a lagoon on the southwest side of the island.
The officer pulls over and he parks and slowly walks over to this little secluded area with trees, and there’s a man standing there.
HANA BABA: And that's Mario Gonzalez.
BEN TREFNY: That's right. And he’s standing kind of looking through the trees in the other direction at traffic passing by, and he’s got two of those wheeled baskets you find at Walgreens and other stores next to him, and in one of them there's a bottle and some other stuff that I couldn't make out. And the officer — he identifies himself later as Officer McKinley — he speaks to Mario Gonzalez.
OFFICER MCKINLEY: Hey, bud. How's it going? All right. He's coming to check on you. Make sure you're okay. Somebody called and said you were, uh, maybe not feeling so great.
MARIO GONZALEZ: Well, I'm feeling tired I guess.
OFFICER MCKINLEY: Alright.
MARIO GONZALEZ: It's just that I've been staying here for the longest.
OFFICER MCKINLEY: Really? I don't think we've met before.
BEN TREFNY: McKinley asks Gonzalez what he's doing in the park. Gonzalez is mellow but he's fidgety, and he’s mumbling a lot. It’s like he sees that the officer is talking to him, but he seems like he’s not fully processing what he’s saying. Gonzalez does not appear to be fully lucid. He looks distracted. He does, though, say he’s feeling alright.
McKinley keeps talking. Sounds like he’s trying to talk through and make sense of what Gonzalez is saying. At one point, McKinley talks to his radio to see if Walgreens has reported a robbery. And then another officer arrives. They try to get Gonzalez to tell them his name and they want his ID.
And then the officers turn from passive to assertive.
OFFICER MCKINLEY: Okay, here's the plan. Okay. I gotta identify you. So I know who I'm talking to. Make sure you don't have any warrants or anything like that. Okay. You come up with a plan, let me know that you're not going to be drinking in our parks over here. And then we can be on our merry way.
MARIO GONZALEZ: Merry way?
OFFICER MCKINLEY: Yeah, do you have an ID on you?
MARIO GONZALEZ: Like a Merry-Go-Round?
HANA BABA: What did he say there?
BEN TREFNY: Officer McKinley said once he cooperates, the police can go on their merry way. And Mario Gonzalez said, “Like a Merry Go Round?”
HANA BABA: So they're obviously not connecting.
BEN TREFNY: Yeah, it really doesn’t seem so from this video. And Gonzalez keeps putting his hands in his pockets, just the way that people do, and the police ask him to take them out a few times. About a minute later, each officer takes one of his arms.
Now, at this point, Hana, we decided not to play any more audio from the body camera recordings because of its graphic content, and out of consideration for the pain that we're feeling in our communities.
HANA BABA: Right, so Ben, can you describe what happens?
BEN TREFNY: Sure. The officers try to pull Gonzalez’ arms behind his back. Gonzalez bends forward and tries to free his arms. He's not really violently doing it, he's just pulling. It doesn’t look to me like he knows what’s going on, still. I don't hear him complaining. They tell him to “Please stop resisting.”
Eventually, they fall, or force him over onto the ground. The ground is covered with wood chips in this area. The officers pin him down on his stomach. They press their elbows and knees into him for leverage and they struggle to hold Mario Gonzalez' hands behind him. While they hold him down, Gonzalez is grunting and he's sometimes shouting, but his voice is now muffled in part by the ground. And you can hear him. He actually says “Sorry” a few times, and he even says, “Thank you.”
HANA BABA: It seems he doesn’t get what’s going on.
BEN TREFNY: That’s part of what makes this whole scenario really strange, Hana. In these bodycam videos, Mario Gonzalez doesn’t seem to understand what’s happening. Not really at any point in the entire interaction, in the entire video — even as two police officers, and eventually another joins them — even as they’re all holding him down.
I want to note, Hana, that at least one officer does talk in the video, while they're struggling on top of him, about not putting any weight on his chest. But about eight minutes after the officers first put their hands on him, Officer McKinley notices that Gonzalez has stopped breathing. They administer Narcan in his nose. They turn him over. They perform CPR.
HANA BABA: That happened so fast.
BEN TREFNY: Yeah it's very fast. And there are several police officers around by now. They take turns pushing on his chest, trying to get him to breathe. But it’s no use. Mario Gonzalez was later declared dead at a nearby hospital.
HANA BABA: So Ben, all this footage that was released to the public, that’s what Mario Gonzalez’ family wanted, right?
BEN TREFNY: Yes. They viewed the footage before it was released. And they were outraged. Of course. Mario’s brother, Gerardo, spoke at a press conference on the steps of the Alameda police department.
GERARDO GONZALEZ: The footage showed Mario sitting in the park and not bothering anyone. At no point was he violent or out of control. There was no scuffle, like they mentioned. They could have asked him to call his family, and we would have come picked him up. There was no reason to detain them, let alone kill him. The APD took a calm situation and made it fatal.
HANA BABA: Ben, how has the Alameda Police Department responded?
BEN TREFNY: Well, the three police officers that were involved in the death, they've been placed on administrative leave. The Sheriff’s Office and the District Attorney’s Office are both conducting independent investigations. And the City of Alameda has hired the former city attorney for San Francisco to conduct its own investigation. The family has hired a civil rights attorney and is calling for an independent autopsy and investigation into the Alameda Police Department policies, their training, and the supervision of these officers.
HANA BABA: What did watching this video make you think?
BEN TREFNY: Well, it's very sad. It's really sad to watch this unfold as it did. And it left me with questions about police policies, especially when dealing with people they can’t really effectively communicate with. That was definitely the case here. It could be the case with people who speak different languages, in a different situation. People who come from different cultures from the officers, even, who just don't see eye to eye. I just wonder, how that communication is practiced? Because these kinds of situations come up all the time.
HANA BABA: There’s a lot to unpack and we will be taking deeper looks at all these issues you mentioned that are tied to this, and so may cases like it. We'll do it the best we can. We're planning to look at policing and mental health issues. And we’ll look more closely at the Alameda Police Department and the systemic issues that exist in that community specifically. So, stay tuned, follow along, and ask us if you have questions. You can reach us at email@example.com.
You can listen to stories that provide more context on policing and mental health and hear about ways that activists and organizers are working to address these issues at kalw.org/policing.
Annelise Finney helped produce this story.