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Police video shows California man who died said, ‘I can’t breathe’

An image from body camera video taken May 10, 2017, shows Joseph Perez being restrained.
An image from body camera video taken May 10, 2017, shows Joseph Perez being restrained.
(Associated Press)

A man being restrained by Fresno police officers and sheriff’s deputies cried out, “I can’t breathe!” in the moments before he died, body camera footage released Friday shows.

The video in the May 2017 death of 41-year-old Joseph Perez was made public under a federal court order as attorneys for his family pursue a lawsuit against members of the two police agencies and paramedics from American Ambulance.

“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,” attorney Neil Gehlawat said in a statement.

The release comes as former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin is set to go on trial Monday in the death last year of George Floyd. Floyd, a Black man, died May 25 after Chauvin, who is white, pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck while Floyd was held facedown on the ground while handcuffed and saying he couldn’t breathe.

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Tony Botti, a spokesman for the Fresno County sheriff-coroner, said he couldn’t comment on the video “due to it being an ongoing litigation matter.”

Recently retired Fresno Police Chief Andy Hall said in a separate video synopsis released by the department that he had wanted to release the video earlier but the family had objected.

“Despite Mr. Perez’s personal struggles, it saddens all of us when a life is lost,” Hall says in the video, expressing condolences to the family. Hall said that the death was investigated by multiple agencies, all of which found no use of excessive force, and that officers followed policies as they tried to help Perez.

The department said at the time that officers from both agencies responded to a call “saying there was a man acting strange, running and yelling on Palm Ave.” They called for an ambulance “due to his mental state” and out of concern that he might be under the influence.

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He died on the way to the hospital. Hall said Perez had a toxic level of methamphetamine, though Gehlawat said that did not contribute to his death.

Perez is initially responsive but agitated and whimpering in the video from a Fresno police officer’s body camera, which lasts 16 minutes and 33 seconds. There are seven law enforcement officers at the scene, according to Perez family attorneys, and they can be heard repeatedly telling him to calm down and breathe, that they are there to help him.

It’s not until paramedics arrive and help officers restrain him with a blue plastic backboard that he becomes unresponsive.

“Help me!” Perez called out as the ambulance pulled up along the sidewalk of the busy street.

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“We’re going to put it on his back, and you guys can sit on this,” a paramedic tells the officers. ”Sit on that board.”

The video then shows officers pressing Perez facedown with the backboard. Hall said an officer sat on the board for 1 minute and 15 seconds.

“Hey, dude, I want you to relax, OK,” someone says. “Joseph, you OK? Joseph, you all right? You all right, dude?”

“He’s moving,” someone else responds moments before the video shows people restraining Perez’s apparently limp hand with a leather strap.

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His family’s attorneys said he was unarmed and died of compression asphyxia.

“Compression asphyxia during restraint is all too common, and we hope to expose this pervasive tactic used by law enforcement officers across the country,” Gehlawat said.


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