Fresno Police release body camera video under federal court order related to 2017 death of Joseph Perez

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FRESNO, California (KGPE) – Fresno Police released edited body camera footage and other materials to the public Friday under a federal court order related to the 2017 death of Joseph Perez while in police custody.

The department called the incident “a tragic loss of life under very sad circumstances” and Chief Paco Balderrama extended his heartfelt sympathies to Perez’s family on behalf of the department.

The edited body camera footage and other materials related to the incident were designated as confidential under a 2018 court order and were given to the family in 2019 in an ongoing lawsuit in federal court, police said. When the issue of releasing the video came up with former Chief Andy Hall in 2020, he was in favor of releasing the video.

The order to release the video was not given until Friday due to objections by American Ambulance, the department added.

In a press conference Friday afternoon, attorneys for Perez’s family showed the unedited video of the incident, which lasts approximately 16 minutes, to the media while family members wore face masks with the words “Justice for Joseph” and “I can’t breathe” They cried as the video began to play.

In the incident, which occurred on May 10, 2017, officers saw Perez walking in the roadway in the area of Palm and Santa Fe avenues. He showed signs of distress and was described as placing his own safety and the safety of others at risk.

Calls were also being received to the county 911 system from residents in the area concerned about Perez.

Officers got Perez to sit on the sidewalk, but he kept trying to go back onto the road and was handcuffed for his own safety and an ambulance was called, police said. Perez was agitated and struggled with officers and with Fresno County Sheriff’s deputies who responded a short time later.

Despite attempts to calm him, Perez struggled with law enforcement for more than 15 minutes. 

During that time, Perez made multiple attempts to harm himself by grinding his head against the sidewalk, police said. Officers and deputies worked together to protect him from injury including placing a towel between his face and forehead and the sidewalk.

In the video, Perez can be heard saying “I can’t breathe” to officers as they tell him to relax and breathe.

“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,'” said Neil Gehlawat, one of the attorneys representing the Perez Family.

When the ambulance arrived, police reported that they directed officers and deputies in the manner of restraint for transport.

The video shows them placing a spinal board onto Perez’s back as paramedics order an officer to sit on top of Perez.

Gehlawat described that moment as “extremely disturbing” as Perez struggles then becomes quiet as his body goes limp.

But instead of rolling him over, they continued tying his hands to the backboard – then turn him over.

Fresno Police said Perez became unresponsive and received CPR on the way to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

American Ambulance sent a statement Friday about the incident.

American Ambulance’s mission statement is simple and clear: We care for people. We are focused on caring for patients and their families, many of whom we encounter when they are in the midst of an unexpected and difficult event in their lives. 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. Our job is simply to help people and save lives. This was as true for Joseph Perez as it is for anyone else.

“Think about how difficult that has been for this family to see and to know that there are no consequences for this conduct,” Gehlawat said.

The officers and deputies had been cleared of any wrongdoing by their respective departments and the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office, according to attorneys. 

“What an opportunity for these departments to take a closer at this and say ‘we screwed up, we got this one wrong. We need to retrain our officers and deputies to prevent tragedies like this from happening again,'” Gehlawat said. “But that is the tragedy of policing in this community.”

The attorney called the condolences offered by Fresno Police “hollow.”

“They mean nothing because in the same breath they defend the conduct of their officers and their deputies in what can only be described as indefensible,” Gehlawat said.

The attorneys then echoed ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s upcoming trial following George Floyd’s death.

“And my clients are left wondering, why not these deputies and these officers?” Gehlawat said.

The Coroner’s Office determined the cause of death to be compressional asphyxia with a contributing factor of a toxic amount of methamphetamine in his system, 24 times the toxic level, Fresno police reported. Attorneys for the Perez Family said the autopsy report determined the manner of death to be a homicide.

John Taylor, the other attorney representing the Perez Family, said “the failures that we see throughout the video is the training of the officers and the deputies.”

The attorneys allege the video shows that officers did not know how to use the tools that they are given to restrain people who are combative.

“It’s a failure of the training to be able to adequately deal with somebody who’s not committing a crime and who’s handcuffed,” Taylor said.

Michelle, one of Joseph’s sisters, said in an emotional statement that the video disgusted her.

“Why didn’t anyone help him?” she asked. “When they finally flipped him over, they clearly saw he was unresponsive and they did nothing at that very time to resuscitate him. Why? My brother’s life was not disposable.”

She said that police departments need to change desperately, need proper training and that the officers involved in Perez’s death need to be disciplined.

“I want you to know, you ripped the hearts out of our souls that day you didn’t do your job right,” Michelle said. “You took someone so valuable to our family. We miss his smile, we miss his laughter, we miss his voice. Most of all, we miss his presence. We love you, Joseph.”

Terralee Perez, Joseph’s widow, in a tear-filled statement to the media, asked why his death happened.

“We still want to know why it was done,” she said. “He died in a very terrible and most inhumane way and he was suffocated. He could not breathe. This was wrong on so many levels. To hear his last moments begging for his life.”

“How can anyone watch this and say it was justified?,” Terralee asked. “The fear in his voice rips me to the core.”

Joseph’s widow said while she knew things are decided at a split of a second, but law enforcement and paramedics had more than a split second to do something differently.

“Joseph would’ve been here today,” Terralee said.

At the end of her statement, Joseph’s wife hoped new and better training for law enforcement would prevent this situation from happening to others.

“I hope these officers receive new and better training so that nobody ever has to go through the living hell that me and his family have been through,” Terralee said. “I miss Joseph so much. I’ll never forget his smile and I wish I could hear his voice again.”

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