LOS ANGELES (AP) — A Southern California man died nearly two years ago as he screamed “I can’t breathe” while multiple officers restrained him as they tried to take a blood sample, according to records and a video.
Edward Bronstein, 38, was taken into custody by California Highway Patrol officers on March 31, 2020, following a traffic stop. Bronstein died less than two months before George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis as he, too, repeatedly told officers “I can’t breathe.”
A nearly 18-minute video, taken by a CHP sergeant at the Altadena station, was released Tuesday after a judge’s order to make it public. Bronstein’s family has filed a federal lawsuit against the officers, alleging excessive force and a violation of civil rights. The family is also calling for the officers to be criminally charged by the Los Angeles County district attorney.
The LA County coroner’s office ruled Bronstein’s cause of death as “acute methamphetamine intoxication during restraint by law enforcement.” A copy of the autopsy report was not immediately available.
“When the nation was in an uproar over the George Floyd tragedy, we had no idea this had also happened to Mr. Bronstein,” said Luis Carrillo, an attorney for Bronstein’s family.
A spokesperson for the LA County District Attorney’s Office said “the matter remains under review.”
“In my view the officers demonstrated a callous disregard for the value of human life and their actions should be investigated as potentially being criminal conduct,” said Bowling Green State University criminal justice professor Philip Stinson, who studies police behavior and misconduct.
The state attorney general’s office is representing the highway patrol and the officers in the federal lawsuit and referred media inquiries to CHP. Officer Shanelle Gonzalez, a spokesperson for CHP, said the agency is declining to comment on the case because of the pending litigation.
Gov. Gavin Newsom, in September 2021, signed a law barring police from using certain face-down holds that have led to multiple unintended deaths. The law was passed after Bronstein’s death and was aimed at expanding on the state’s ban on chokeholds in the wake of Floyd’s murder.
Stinson said the dangers are well known, but in this case the officers had a mat prepared, making it seem “like this was a routine occurrence for the officers, that they would take someone to the mat face down to gain compliance in order to get what they want.”
Moreover, their comments on camera seemed to indicate that they were of a mind “to teach somebody a lesson: ‘Well, if you’re not going to comply with what we want you to do, we’re going to do this the hard way and it’s going to be painful for you,’” said Stinson, who reviewed the video at the request of The Associated Press.
Finally, Stinson said, “It seemed that they were treating the incident as if the man was pretending to be unconscious. It did not seem to register with the officers that there was a medical emergency for many, many minutes.”
Family members say Bronstein was terrified of needles and believe that’s why he was reluctant to comply with the CHP initially as they tried to take a blood sample. In the video, an officer tells Bronstein they have a court order — an assertion that Carrillo doubts was true.
An officer tells Bronstein to take a seat for the sample: “This is your last opportunity. Otherwise you’re going face down on the mat and we’re gonna keep on going.”
Several officers force the handcuffed man to the mat as he shouts “I’ll do it willingly! I’ll do it willingly, I promise!”, the video shows. At least five officers continue to hold him down — the lawsuit alleges they put their knees on his back — as he screams “I’ll do it! I’ll do it! I promise!”
One officer replies: “It’s too late.”
Bronstein begins screaming “I can’t breathe!” and “I can’t!” before the blood is taken, shouting it about eight times and pleading for help as the officers continue to restrain him on the ground.
“Stop yelling!” an officer yells back.
Eugene O’Donnell, a professor of police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, didn’t blame the officers but said due to public sentiment, police agencies have to make it clear that their officers cannot engage in such confrontations except under the most dire circumstances.
“This is just an utterly explosive potential situation,” said O’Donnell, who also reviewed the video at the AP’s request. “If they’re not compliant, no longer can the police be having these wrestling matches with people because the consequences are deemed to far out-risk any benefit.”
Bronstein’s screams get softer and he soon falls silent. Even though he’s not responsive, a medical professional continues to draw blood as the officers hold him down.
They note he may not have a pulse and does not appear to be breathing. The officers and the medical professional slap Bronstein’s face, saying “Edward, wake up.”
More than 11 minutes after Bronstein’s last screams, they begin CPR.
The lawsuit names nine officers and one sergeant.
The officers are Carlos Villanueva, Christopher Sanchez-Romero, Darren Parsons, Diego Romero, Dusty Osmanson, Eric Voss, Justin Silva, Dionisio Fiorella and Marciel Terry. Also named is Sergeant Michael Little.
An attorney for the medical professional said the firm that employs him was “heartbroken” to learn of the death.
Attorney John C. Kelly said in a statement that the company does not participate in the arrest or physical handling of anyone, and just takes blood samples for testing. They are not there to provide medical clearance or evaluation, and most do not have that training.
That was true in this case, he wrote, and when Bronstein became unresponsive, the company’s employee “provided what help he could under the circumstances.”
A second video, more than 12 minutes long, shows the officers’ and paramedics’ unsuccessful attempts to revive Bronstein.
One officer tells the paramedics that Bronstein had been complaining of “shortness of breath.”
“When we rolled him back over, he was turning blue,” he said.
Soon after, someone reminds the group: “Everybody’s on camera.”
Associated Press Writer Don Thompson contributed to this story from Sacramento, California.