Commentary: Death of Michael Barrera Needs to Be Independently Assessed

Last summer the district attorney concluded that there was “insufficient evidence to conclude that the use of force by the officers was unreasonable or had proximately caused or contributed to the unfortunate death of Michael Barrera.”

The family of Mr. Barrera, including his sister Marissa (who is an employee of the Vanguard), has not accepted that explanation and has continued to push their case which includes a planned march this Sunday in front of the Yolo County Courthouse at 3 pm.

There has been considerable pushback by those in the Woodland community, but when the Vanguard evaluated the death of Mr. Barrera last summer in the wake of the DA’s report, we found a very troubling finding – similar to the death of Eric Garner.

While in the case of Eric Garner it was an illegal chokehold that contributed to his death, he was heard gasping for air stating, “I can’t breathe” more than 11 times, where the police reacted, “You are talking, you can breathe.”

The Vanguard analysis of Michael Barrera suggests a similar dismissive attitude when the subject complained he could not breathe.

The report says, “At no time was Barrera put into any control holds that would cause his inability to breathe. And even though Barrera’s face ended up on the muddy ground, at no time was his mouth
or nose obstructed in a way that would deprive him of the ability to breathe (this was evident from a photograph taken of Barrera shortly after the officers commenced CPR on him).”

The DA writes, “At one point, Barrera said he could not breathe. Officer Gray responded by stating that Barrera was talking and he was fine. A little over a minute after Barrera said he could not breathe, the audio captured Officer Gray stating Barrera was still breathing.”

But then later in that paragraph, the DA describes, “All of a sudden, Barrera began to vomit and liquid was coming out of Barrera’s mouth. Barrera then became unresponsive as he ceased to grab onto Officer Wright’s hands. Barrera continued to cough up liquid. The officers immediately turned him over and summoned medical assistance.”

At this point they couldn’t detect a pulse. The timing on this is important – it all happened very quickly. The DA describes that “the time between the officers’ initial arrival at Garfield Place to the time Barrera was last heard on the recording was approximately 3 minutes and 48 seconds.

“From the time Barrera was last heard on the video to the time an officer announced ‘he’s out’ was approximately 1 minute and 18 seconds,” they said.

So you have a case where the man is complaining about being unable to breathe, the officers discount that, and then, within a minute or so, he’s in deep jeopardy.

In New York in 2014, Eric Garner was restrained by four officers while repeating, “I can’t breathe” 11 times. He would lose consciousness and the officers turned him onto his side to ease his breathing. He remained on the sidewalk for seven minutes, but the officers did not perform CPR because “they believed he was breathing.”

Is this a similar situation where police ignored the plea of a man who was in trouble? The DA makes no analysis of this other than to take the officers at their word.

“That analysis is not provided as to whether they were right to continue in their approach even after he said I can’t breathe,” Police Oversight Consultant Aaron Zisser, who has since been hired by San Jose as their police auditor, explained. “The report seems to believe the officers that the statement ‘I can’t breathe’ wasn’t true. In other words, they were justified in not believing him.” He again references the still photo taken after the encounter as evidence cited by the DA.

“That part is just so bizarre to me,” he said.

The key question Mr. Zisser points out is never asked by the DA – is the claim reasonable that, because he can talk, therefore he can breathe normally? “If it was unjustified for them to ignore that plea, where does it fit in terms of the legal standard about whether they were obligated under the law?”

It is clear that the DA was not going to do a thorough and fully independent assessment here – there need to be fresh eyes looking at how the situation was handled, and in particular during the critical minute and 18 seconds when Mr. Barrera was clearly in distress.

Thanks for reading.

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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