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3 California police officers who restrained a man who died in their custody will not face criminal charges

<i>Alameda Police Department</i><br/>Mario Gonzalez Arenales
Alameda Police Department
Mario Gonzalez Arenales

By Alisha Ebrahimji, CNN

The Alameda County district attorney will not file criminal charges against three police officers who restrained a Northern California man who died in their custody last year.

The county coroner’s office had classified the death of Mario Gonzalez Arenales as a homicide and pointed to the toxic effects of methamphetamine as the leading cause.​

Gonzalez, 26, died on April 19, 2021, following an encounter with three Alameda police officers who responded to a call that a person was “acting strangely and talking to himself,” according to a March 30 report from the Alameda County District Attorney’s office. Alameda is 15 miles outside San Francisco.

Two wrongful death suits, nearly mirroring one another, have been filed against the City of Alameda alleging the officers detained Gonzalez without reasonable suspicion and caused him to die of asphyxia.

Attorney Julia Sherwin, on behalf of Gonzalez’s 5-year-old son, filed a suit in December 2021 and Gonzalez’s mother, Edith Arenales, also filed suit in February 2022. Though both claims are related, they will remain separate but move forward side-by-side, Sherwin told CNN.

Sherwin said she also had sent requests for a federal investigation, not only to US Attorney General Merrick Garland and his chief deputy, Pamela Karlan, but also to the US attorney and the FBI in the Bay Area. She has not received a response, she said, “But since Nancy O’Malley refused to bring criminal charges, I will be renewing my request for a federal investigation.”

Both suits claim Gonzalez “appeared to be confused and possibly intoxicated at the time,” but “was not a threat to himself or anyone else” and that he wasn’t involved in any crime.

The decision to detain and arrest Gonzalez was “supported by reasonable suspicion and probable cause, but it was also supported by officer safety reasons,” District Attorney Nancy O’Malley’s report says.

The civil litigation filed by Gonzalez’s family is ongoing and the “the City’s legal team is committed to defending the City in the pending litigation,” Sarah Henry, public information officer for the City of Alameda told CNN in a statement.

“Once the officers had lawfully attempted to detain Mr. Gonzalez, he physically resisted their efforts the entire time until he ultimately became unresponsive,” the district attorney’s report says.

Officers Eric McKinley, James Fisher, and Cameron Leahy controlled Gonzalez’s arms, back, and legs as his arms were cuffed behind his back, the report says. Gonzalez “was still resisting with his entire body, including his legs,” even after being handcuffed, according to the report.

Arenales’ suit says officers put “significant weight on his back, shoulders, neck, and legs for over five minutes in violation of generally accepted law enforcement standards, while Mr. Gonzalez struggled to breathe.”

Nearly four minutes after he was cuffed, Gonzalez became unresponsive, the report says. They began CPR and called for medical assistance. Gonzalez was taken to a hospital and pronounced dead.

“The officers’ approach to Mr Gonzalez detention and arrest and their use of force appeared reasonable under the circumstances,” the report says.

The report notes that, according to the autopsy, Gonzalez had “no lethal injuries.”

Alison Berry Wilkinson, an attorney who represents the three officers, told CNN they “are grateful the district attorney recognized that this tragic death was an unintended consequence of their legitimate and lawful actions.”

Adante Pointer, lawyer for Edith Arenales, Gonzalez’s mother, told CNN the family is disappointed the officers won’t be criminally prosecuted but the decision doesn’t come as a surprise.

“It is a sad day when political expediency and obvious conflicts of interest seemingly outweigh the principles of equal justice under the law as it has in the death (of) Mario … and far too many other men, women and children killed by police,” Pointer said.

In the report the district attorney’s office ​cited the National Association of Medical Examiners in saying that homicide “is a neutral term and does not in any way affect the District Attorney’s Office’s determination in the criminal context.”

The district attorney added in the report that, “A homicide can be lawful or unlawful.”

The officers remain on paid administrative leave until all investigations are complete, according to the City of Alameda, which is handling its own independent investigation of the death.

The encounter happened a day before former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder in George Floyd’s death and it came against the backdrop of the police killing of Adam Toledo, a 13-year-old boy in Chicago.

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CNN’s Stella Chan contributed to this report.

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