'I can't breathe': Video appears to show death of California man held down by police

Mr Edward Bronstein was pronounced dead after being pinned down by California Highway Patrol officers for several minutes in 2020. PHOTO: CALIFORNIA HIGHWAY PATROL/FACEBOOK

LOS ANGELES (NYTIMES) - Two years ago, Mr Edward Bronstein was pulled over in Burbank, California, by California Highway Patrol officers who believed he was driving under the influence of a narcotic.

They brought him to the parking lot of a patrol station near Pasadena to take his blood, according to police and autopsy reports. When he asked why they needed a sample, they threw him facedown on a mat and one officer knelt on Mr Bronstein's back as he yelled, "I can't breathe," video footage of the March 31, 2020, encounter shows.

Mr Bronstein, who was 38, appears to lose consciousness after being pinned for several minutes. He was pronounced dead by paramedics later that morning, according to an autopsy report.

The video showing Mr Bronstein's encounter with police, which a lawyer for his family said showed his last moments, was not made public until this week.

A federal judge approved its release over the objections of lawyers for the California Attorney-General's office who are representing the officers in a federal lawsuit that Mr Bronstein's family has filed against the highway patrol.

It was crucial for the public to see what happened to Mr Bronstein, said Ms Brianna Palomino, 22, the eldest of his five children.

"It's heartbreaking to release the video and have people see my dad in such a vulnerable state," Ms Palomino said Thursday (March 17). "But justice needs to be served."

The Attorney-General's office referred a request for comment to the California Highway Patrol, which declined to comment, citing the lawsuit.

The suit, which was filed in US District Court for the Central District of California, accused the officers and other highway patrol employees of wrongful death and of violating Mr Bronstein's civil rights.

Mr Bronstein's death came two months before Mr George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis as horrified bystanders recorded his final moments with their phones.

Mr Floyd's death touched off worldwide protests against racism and police violence and led to the murder conviction of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who pressed his knee into Mr Floyd's neck for more than nine minutes as Mr Floyd cried out for his mother and said, "I can't breathe."

Mr Michael Carrillo, one of the lawyers for Mr Bronstein's family, said prosecutors in the office of Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascon should bring charges against the officers involved.

The officers showed "no reverence for human life whatsoever," Mr Carrillo said.

Mr Greg Risling, a spokesperson for Mr Gascon's office, said that "the matter remains under review."

Mr Bronstein was driving in Burbank around 1am March 31, 2020, when he was pulled over, Mr Carrillo said. He was about five minutes from the house in Burbank where he lived with his father, Ms Palomino said.

The officers gave him a breath test, which showed that he was under the legal limit, but they suspected that he was under the influence of a narcotic and obtained a warrant to draw his blood, according to a police report.

They placed him in handcuffs and brought him to the station parking lot near Pasadena. The video, which was filmed by a police officer using what appeared to be a handheld camera, showed Mr Bronstein kneeling before the officers, his arms behind his back.

Mr Bronstein's death came two months before the killing of George Floyd. PHOTO: AFP

"This is wrong," Mr Bronstein said.

"You're bringing the fight to this, not us," an officer told him.

"I'm not fighting at all," he responded.

The officer told him to take a seat and provide his arm.

"This is your last opportunity," the officer said. "Otherwise you're going facedown on the mat and we're going to keep on going."

Mr Bronstein sighed and then said, "I just need a minute, OK, please?" His face crumpled.

"I can't do it," he said, and then quickly added, "I'll do it willingly." But by that point, the officers had grabbed him and forced him down on the mat.

"Please don't," Mr Bronstein said, repeating over and over again that he would cooperate.

"It's too late," one of the officers said. For nearly two minutes, Mr Bronstein screamed and gasped, telling the officers at least a dozen times, "I can't breathe."

He appeared to lose consciousness as the officers kept him on his stomach for about six more minutes, slapping his face, calling his name and checking his pulse.

About 10 minutes after he lost consciousness, the officers gave Mr Bronstein oxygen, the video shows. A few minutes later, they began to administer CPR.

Mr Bronstein died of "acute methamphetamine intoxication during restraint by law enforcement," Zuhha Ashraf, a deputy medical examiner, wrote in an autopsy report, adding that the manner of death was "undetermined" in part because of the presence of the narcotic in his system.

Mr Luis Carrillo, another lawyer for Mr Bronstein's family, said he planned to call experts who would testify that Mr Bronstein would not have died had the officers not placed him in a prone position and then knelt on his back. Six officers held Mr Bronstein down, according to the autopsy report.

Ms Palomino said she forced herself to watch the video so she could know what her father's final moments were like.

"It was horrifying," she said. "To hear his screams and to see that nothing was done for so long."

Ms Palomino said her father was terrified of needles, and that was most likely why he hesitated when officers ordered him to put out his arm.

"I can see in his eyes that he's so scared," she said.

Ms Palomino said she still did not understand why officers stayed on top of him even after he told them that he would submit to a blood sample and that he could not breathe.

"It takes one person to speak up for this to stop," she said. "And not one of them did."

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