On March 5th, the Fresno Police Department released 22 minutes of edited body camera footage that showed the death of 41-year-old Joseph Perez. Both the police and paramedics tried to keep this video footage of what happened to Perez confidential; it was only because of John Taylor and Neil Gehlawat’s efforts to challenge that designation that the court ultimately ruled the footage was in the public interest and could not be kept confidential.
During the video, Perez cries out for his father and tells the police who are restraining him that he can’t breathe – an all-too-familiar refrain for families whose loved ones have been killed by police, or while in police custody.
WARNING: due of the nature of the video, viewer discretion is advised.
Perez died in 2017. The Fresno County Coroner’s Office declared it a homicide.
What happened to Joseph Perez?
In May 2017, the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office received a call for a “welfare check” for a man who was allegedly actively strangely. That man was Joseph Perez. The deputies who went to check on Mr. Perez “initially arrived at the wrong location. Three Fresno police officers returning from an unrelated incident then saw Perez on a public street before stopping him, according to a statement from former Fresno Police Chief Andy Hall,” KVPR.org reports. When Mr. Perez tried to walk into the street, one of the police officers called for an ambulance, and then turned on his body cam.
The video, which lasts approximately 15 minutes, shows officers talking to Perez until the paramedic arrive. Per the Los Angeles Times:
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.
“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.
It is during this time, when an officer is sitting on Mr. Perez, that you can hear him say “I can’t breathe.” While they tie Mr. Perez to the backboard, he goes limp. He was pronounced dead before he reached the hospital. The official cause was 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,” Neil Gehlawat said during the press conference. He continued, “If you’re applying pressure to someone’s back and holding him down and pushing him down and preventing them from breathing, it doesn’t make it better for you to say ‘It’s ok, just breathe, just breathe, everything’s going to be ok.’”
Law enforcement and American Ambulance deny wrongdoing
As was expected, the officers, deputies and EMTs have denied any wrongdoing. Officers, including former Fresno Police Chief Andy Hall, claim Mr. Perez was resisting. They spoke to his mental status. They pointed out that he had a significant amount of methamphetamines in his system. The Fresno PD and Sheriffs’ Office use each other as support for these arguments. They claim they tried to deescalate, and that they only handcuffed Mr. Perez for his own safety.
American Ambulance, who transported Mr. Perez, first went to the wrong location before getting to Mr. Perez. It is their decision to tie Mr. Perez to the backboard – a long, rigid board used to transport patients with potential spinal injuries, despite there being well-documented proof that such boards “can induce pain, patient agitation, and respiratory compromise” – and a paramedic is the one who instructed the officer to sit on Mr. Perez.
Mr. Perez was unwell at the time of his death, but he didn’t die of a drug overdose: the official coroner report rules is a homicide resulting from compression asphyxiation. There is no camera footage of the alleged de-escalation; there is only a 41-year-old man innocent of committing a crime, calling out for his father while he slowly suffocates to death under a backboard, surrounded by seven people who are supposed to protect their community. Yet as John Taylor pointed out, “The more he [Perez] can’t breathe, the harder he struggles, the harder the officers push on him.”
And every single one of those people still has their job. There have been no repercussions, no dismissals, no firings. Mr. Perez’s widow, Terralee Perez, questioned this during the press conference: “Our lives have changed forever but what about the officers, the deputies and the paramedics? What have they changed? Are they still doing the same protocols?”
Joseph Perez’s life matters
Over the last few years, we have seen a steadily increasing stream of videos and stories about police officers using excessive, deadly force on people of color, and especially on people with mental health concerns. Taylor & Ring has taken on many of those cases, driven by the truth that no police officer – no person in law enforcement – should be allowed to escape responsibility for bending or breaking the law. Whether or not those paramedics and officers intended to kill Joseph Perez, or whether Mr. Perez was struggling, is not the issue at hand. The issue is that a man is dead, and no one has yet been held responsible. A man was killed not in the commission of a crime, or in an act of war, or in an act of domestic terrorism: he was surrounded, cuffed, pushed to the ground, and squeezed to death by the very people whose job is to keep us safe.
That is why Taylor & Ring will always fight for the victims and families whose lives were irreparably changed by police misconduct, and acts of excessive force and brutality. If you or a loved one has been wrongfully injured or mistreated by a police officer in Southern California, or if your loved one died at the hands of law enforcement, we are ready and able to seek justice for you and your loved one. Call 310-776-6390 or complete our contact form today. We’ll fight side-by-side with you.