Alameda neighbors did not call 911 on Mario Gonzalez before fatal struggle with police
ALAMEDA, Calif. - Neither of the Alameda residents who wanted help with Mario Gonzalez when he appeared drunk in front of their homes last month called 911, KTVU has learned.
In fact, both sets of callers used the non-emergency line to request assistance on Oak Street on April 19. Dispatchers ultimately sent police officers out to answer the call, and that led to the arrest and death of a man neither caller said was dangerous or threatening, the city has confirmed.
One caller said that Gonzalez wasn't wearing a mask and seemed intoxicated because he was speaking gibberish.
"I mean, he seems like he’s tweaking, but he’s not doing anything wrong. He’s just scaring my wife," the first caller said.
The second caller said he thought Gonzalez might be breaking security tags of alcohol bottles in the park.
But when the dispatcher asked: Do you see any weapons on him?
The second caller answered: "No, he has a comb on him. He’s been brushing his hair."
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A city spokeswoman told KTVU that police are dispatched for calls on both lines.
But she did not clarify whether other types of agency officials, such as code enforcement or paramedics, could also dispatched from the non-emergency number as well.
When police arrived to inquire what the 26-year-old was up to and he didn't clearly answer them or willingly go into handcuffs, three officers ended up on top of Gonzalez; at least one of the officers pressed his knee into Gonzalez's back, and he died. Gonzalez's family will bury him on Tuesday.
The attorney representing the officers, who are on administrative leave, said the police felt they had to arrest Gonzalez for his own safety; he might have tripped on a tree stump.
But Julia Sherwin, a civil rights attorney representing Gonzalez's family, called that basis of an arrest "ridiculous."
And in a letter to the U.S. Attorney General, Sherwin laid out what she thought a reasonable response would have been: Police could have offered Gonzalez a ride home or called a relative to come to get him. Another response would have been to tell the neighbors that Gonzalez hadn't committed any crimes and was minding his own business.
The question of what residents should do when they spot suspicious activity, quality-of-life issues, or anything else that is non-violent, non-urgent and non-criminal has vexed the nation, especially since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year.
Over the last year or so, hundreds of cities, including San Francisco, Oakland, Antioch, Redwood City and even Alameda, have looked into adopting a system that’s been running in Eugene, Ore., for the last three decades called CAHOOTS. The program is run out of a health clinic where mental health teams -- not police -- are dispatched to the majority of residents’ calls.
CAHOOTS has teams made up of one crisis worker and one paramedic who are dispatched 24/7 through the 911 system to respond to crisis calls. They handle about 30,000 calls a year and require police backup in fewer than 1% of cases. No one has been seriously injured in three decades, according to a spokesman for the program.
But despite some pilot programs that are trying to model themselves after CAHOOTS, none of these cities in the Bay Area has yet to run a full-time, comprehensive system with wraparound social and emotional services to date.
Alameda has a homeless hotline and a Day Center van that will come out to help the unsheltered and those with substance abuse issues. But these agencies are only open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the workweek and residents have to call them directly, which means knowing their phone numbers and the fact that they exist.
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Alameda Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft acknowledged that the services offered are not enough.
Ezzy Ashcraft and the other mayors in the county are also trying to compile a list of social service centers so that dispatchers can be aware of programs across city lines and send the right people to the right call.
"You want to make it as user-friendly as possible," Ezzy Ashcraft said. "So I would want the dispatcher to be the one to reach out and say, ‘You know, ‘I can send so-and-so out.’"
Ezzy Ashcraft and Vice Mayor Malia Vella hosted a special city council meeting on Saturday where their colleagues approved considering seven police reform actions.
One of the motions is to figure out how to create a mental health-oriented response program that would shift many of the police calls for service to existing resources.
Another motion called for the immediate training for all Alameda Police dispatchers on assessing and responding to 911 calls. That would include alternatives to dispatching police officers and establishing protocols for requesting non-police response, backup, and interventions.
It would also launch a public education campaign to provide easily accessible alternatives to calling 911.
A GoFundMe has been set up for the Gonzalez family.
Lisa Fernandez is a reporter for KTVU. Email Lisa at email@example.com or call her at 510-874-0139. Or follow her on Twitter @ljfernandez
HERE IS A SLIGHTLY EDITED TRANSCRIPT OF THE CALLS TO THE NON-EMERGENCY ALAMEDA LINE ON APRIL 19.
FIRST CALLER: Hi my name is XXX. There’s a man in my front yard kind of talking to himself, and, no mask. And I went out there and the dogs were barking at him. And he’s talking to us. But he’s not making any sense.
I think he’s Hispanic. (Gives physical description)
He’s just sitting on the other side of the fence. And the dogs didn’t like him.
He’s just hanging out.
I mean, he seems like he’s tweaking, but he’s not doing anything wrong. He’s just scaring my wife.
SECOND 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 them.
(Gives description and location. Believes Gonzalez is Hispanic or Indian)
Yeah, there are two shopping baskets. I can see at least two alcohol bottles. And one of them I heard a glass smash on the stumps that he’s standing next to.
DISPATCHER: Do you see any weapons on him?
No, he has a comb on him. He’s been brushing his hair.
DISPATCHER: Does he appear to be on drugs or alcohol that you can tell?
He might be. He’s kind of been loitering around there for probably half an hour now.
DISPATCHER: OK, we’ll send someone out sir.