'I can't breathe': Fresno police video reveals restrained man's call for help

Saturday, March 6, 2021
'I can't breathe': Fresno police video reveals restrained man's call for help
Video from a Fresno police officer's body-worn camera shows Joseph Perez telling officers he was struggling to breathe in the minutes before his death.

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- Video from a Fresno police officer's body-worn camera shows a Fresno man telling officers he was struggling to breathe while on the ground, being restrained, minutes before his death. "Oh god," Perez said. "I can't breathe."

The City of Fresno released the video Friday, almost four years after Perez's death in May 2017, showing the 16 minutes and 33 seconds of an interaction police, sheriff's deputies, and paramedics had with Perez.

The angle of the video makes it unclear, but family members believe officers held him down the entire time, even sitting on Perez for more than a minute as he went silent forever.

*Video contains strong language and viewers may find the video disturbing and hard to watch.* This version of the video was released by Fresno Police and reflects the department's view of what happened.

"Sixteen minutes was the amount of time I watched as my brother was being murdered," said his sister, Michelle Perez.

The Fresno County coroner's office ruled Perez died as a result of homicide caused by "compression asphyxia during restraint."

Fresno Police released an abbreviated version of the body camera video Friday, along with an on-camera explanation from Andy Hall, who was the chief when they initially planned to release the video in 2020. American Ambulance objected to the release of the video, delaying the federal court order to publish the video.

Hall said officers had to restrain Perez to keep him from running into traffic on Palm near Santa Fe and they repeatedly tried to deescalate the situation, urging Perez to calm down, relax, and breathe.

The video also shows officers knew Perez, as they repeatedly spoke to him using his first name. The officers also tried to care for him by placing a towel under his face as Perez ground it into the gravel.

In the video, Hall blamed drugs for Perez's death, "In fact, Mr. Perez was found to have a level of methamphetamine in his system that was 24 times the toxic level in his system."

"The fact that it was in his system probably didn't help, but it did not cause his death," said Neil Gehlawat, an attorney for the Perez family. "The coroner has been very clear, including in his deposition, that what caused his death was the pressure applied to his back."

*Video contains strong language and viewers may find the video disturbing and hard to watch.* This version of the video was released by the attorneys representing Mr. Perez's family. It is complete and only edited as required by a court to remove some identifying information.

The family's attorneys say Fresno police officers, Fresno County sheriff's deputies, and American Ambulance paramedics all contributed to the 41-year-old man's death.

They sued all three entities and blamed bad training for creating the conditions for compression asphyxia.

"The more he can't breathe, the harder he struggles, the harder the officers push on him," said attorney John Taylor.

Legal analyst Tony Capozzi watched the video and told us it might be tough to convince a jury police used excessive force, but the family could still win the case.

"There may be some negligence here in how they treated him, how they dealt with him," Capozzi said while noting he thought the video made it clear nobody in law enforcement intended to harm Perez.

Fresno Police issued a statement as the video was released that read in part, "This incident is a tragic loss of life under very sad circumstances. As the current Chief of the Fresno Police Department, Chief Paco Balderrama extends his heartfelt sympathies to the family of Joseph Perez on behalf of the Fresno Police Department."

American Ambulance also issued this statement on 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."

The sheriff's office declined to comment, citing pending litigation.

Internal reviews cleared officers and deputies of any wrongdoing. The Office of Independent Review also found the incident was within policy.

Perez's widow says the policies need to change so other families don't experience the same grief as hers.

"I miss Joseph so much," said Terra Lee Perez. "I'll never forget his smile and I wish I could hear his voice again."

For now, a memorial at the scene of his death carries most of the family's memories of Joseph Perez, but they're hoping they'll get justice in court.

If the case does go to trial, it would still be months away, with the trial scheduled to begin on May 10, 2022, the fifth anniversary of Perez's death.