April 19, 2021

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New body cam video shows man telling officers ‘I can’t breathe’ before he died in 2017

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In an introduction to the edited video released Friday, former Fresno Police Chief Andrew Hall said 41-year-old Joseph Perez was contacted by officers from the Fresno Police Department in May 2017 after they saw him acting erratically and believed he needed help. Perez was not cooperative, prompting officers to restrain him face down on the pavement for his own safety as they waited for paramedics to arrive, Hall said.

Paramedics eventually arrived on scene and decided to restrain Perez, who was lying face down, to a backboard. A Fresno officer was asked to sit on the backboard for about a minute while paramedics strapped Perez to the backboard.

Perez lost consciousness, Hall said. Paramedics attempted to save his life in the ambulance, but they were unsuccessful. He was pronounced dead at the hospital.

Perez’s family has filed a lawsuit against law enforcement officers, paramedics and others. The defendants have denied the allegations in court documents. The death was ruled a homicide by the county coroner, an attorney for the family told CNN.

The body camera footage was posted on the Fresno Police Department’s YouTube channel Friday under a federal court order. The family had previously requested its release, but it was delayed after American Ambulance, a California EMS that serves Fresno County, objected. In an introduction to the video, Hall said he had been in favor of releasing the video in late July 2020 “in the spirit of transparency.”

“Despite the Defendants’ efforts to keep this footage confidential, truth and transparency have prevailed,” Neil Gehlawat, an attorney for Perez’s family, said in a statement. “The Perez family is deeply troubled by the circumstances leading to Joseph’s death, especially in light of the police violence epidemic plaguing the country.”

A spokesperson for the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office and the coroner declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation. American Ambulance has not responded to CNN’s requests for comment. However, in a statement to CNN affiliate KFSN, the company said its mission was to “care for people.”

“Regardless of who the patient may be, our goal is always to administer excellent care and to treat everyone with the same level of dignity and respect,” the statement said. “Our job is simply to help people and save lives. This was as true for Joseph Perez as it is for anyone else.”

‘I can’t breathe’

On May 10, 2017, the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office received a 911 call from a resident who said a man was erratically running into a busy street. In audio of the call, included in Friday’s video, a man is heard describing Perez as “running sideways” and “just acting real, real strange.”

Three Fresno police officers who were unaware of the 911 call came upon Perez by chance and stopped, seeing that he needed help. According to Hall, the officers thought the man “was possibly on drugs, alcohol or suffering from some sort of mental distress.”

Perez had a history of contact with law enforcement, Hall said. The previous day, he’d been discharged from a hospital after a mental health evaluation by other Fresno police officers, though this was unknown to the officers at the time of the fatal incident, Hall said.

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Perez became uncooperative after officers approached him and he was handcuffed for his own safety, Hall said. Deputies from the Fresno County Sheriff’s Department soon arrived, and officials from both agencies requested an ambulance, according to Hall.

Sheriff’s deputies and police officers tried to calm Perez, but he “continued to be uncooperative and physically combative,” Hall said. Authorities laid him face down on the sidewalk while waiting for emergency medical personnel, but Perez started “grinding his forehead into the sidewalk,” he said.

In the body cam footage released Friday, authorities are heard repeatedly asking Perez to calm down. Perez is heard screaming and cursing.

“Please help me,” Perez is heard saying.

Paramedics from American Ambulance arrive on scene, and a blue plastic backboard is seen being placed on Perez’s back. An officer is instructed by a paramedic to sit on it while emergency personnel finish securing him.

As officers struggle to restrain him, Perez is heard crying out, “oh god” and “I can’t breathe.”

“Sit on that board,” a paramedic tells an officer.

According to Hall, the officer sat on the backboard on Perez’s buttocks for one minute and 15 seconds before the paramedic told the officer to get up. Paramedics then took Perez away in the ambulance, but he was pronounced dead at Community Regional Medical Center.

4 agencies investigated incident

The Fresno County Coroner’s Office ruled Perez’s death a homicide caused by “compression asphyxia,” Gehlawat said. In his statement, he said “compression asphyxia during restraint is all too common and we hope to expose this pervasive tactic used by law enforcement officers across the country.”

The family is “disturbed that the involved officers, deputies, and paramedics are still employed by their respective agencies and have not been prosecuted,” the attorney said.

In Friday’s video, Hall said “Perez was found to have a level of methamphetamine in his system that was 24 times the toxic level at the time of his death,” and that it was a contributing factor.

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Hall said the incident was “thoroughly investigated” by four different agencies, including the police department, the sheriff’s office, the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office and the City of Fresno’s Office of Independent Review.

“All four agencies concluded that the officers and deputies did not use excessive force and their actions were within policy, and that both the sheriff’s department and the police department were following directions from emergency medical staff on scene,” Hall said.

“On behalf of myself and the entire Fresno Police Department, I would like to express my deepest condolences to the family of Joseph Perez for their loss,” he said.

The Perez family’s case is set to go to trial in May 2022.

CNN’s Chris Boyette contributed to this report.

2021-03-06 17:53:38

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