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Death draws attention to police putting suspects face down

In this image taken from Alameda Police Department body camera video, Alameda Police Department officers attempt to take 26-year-old Mario Gonzalez into custody, April 19, 2021, in Alameda, Calif. The video goes on to show officers pinning Gonzalez to the ground during the arrest that ended in his death. (Alameda Police Department via AP)
In this image taken from Alameda Police Department body camera video, Alameda Police Department officers attempt to take 26-year-old Mario Gonzalez into custody, April 19, 2021, in Alameda, Calif. The video goes on to show officers pinning Gonzalez to the ground during the arrest that ended in his death. (Alameda Police Department via AP)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – It’s common practice for police around the U.S. to place combative suspects face down and press down on their backs with hands, elbows or knees to gain control.

They aren’t supposed to do it for an “extended period" because that can lead to injuries or death. But what length of time is appropriate?

That question and the face-down method are in the spotlight after police video released last week showed officers in Northern California struggling with a man for more than five minutes as he lay face down.

He died. Two days after the video became public, a jury in Southern California awarded more than $2 million to the family of a homeless man who died in 2018 after officers in Anaheim used a similar technique to restrain him.

Now, a Los Angeles-area lawmaker who is a former police officer is trying to outlaw techniques that create a substantial risk of what's known as “positional asphyxia" — legislation police oppose as either vague or unnecessary given that most departments already restrict the practice.

“This does not mean that a police officer can no longer restrain anyone when they need to for public safety, but it would mean that they cannot keep anyone from breathing/losing oxygen when restraining them,” Democratic Assemblyman Mike Gipson said in a statement.

He cited George Floyd's death in Minneapolis last year, who was face down as an officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, and another California death before Christmas involving police in the San Francisco Bay Area community of Antioch.

The legislation is getting more attention after 26-year-old Mario Gonzalez died on April 19. Body camera video released last week showed he was pinned down by four Alameda Police Department employees. Officers confronted him after receiving 911 calls that he seemed disoriented or drunk and appeared to be breaking the security tags off bottles of alcohol he had in shopping baskets.