Pittsburg police never investigated whether officer Ernesto Mejia’s hold on Humberto Martinez, depicted here in a body camera video screenshot from Martinez’s July 25, 2016 death, was appropriate, and never probed any of the other officers’ actions that day (Courtesy: Pittsburg Police)
PITTSBURG — The city has agreed to pay $7.3 million to settle a lawsuit by the family of a man who was killed after an officer placed him in a carotid hold for 50 seconds, using a controversial technique that has since been widely banned by law enforcement agencies, in the wake of the George Floyd killing.
Humberto Martinez Sr., 32, died from having the blood stream to his brain cut off, according to the forensic pathologist who conducted his autopsy. During the 2016 incident, Pittsburg officers chased Martinez through a home on Hillview Drive after he fled during a traffic stop, then struggled to detain him in the kitchen. Video of the incident shows an officer keep his arm around Martinez’s neck for several seconds after Martinez goes unconscious, until another officer tells him to get off.
“I was 14 when my Dad was killed. I was getting older and needed a father figure. The police should be the people you go to when you feel unsafe,” Martinez’s son, Humbert Martinez Jr., said in a written statement released by his attorney. “It was unreal that they treated my dad like that.”
The multimillion dollar lawsuit settlement is one of the largest — if not the highest — ever paid to settle a police killing lawsuit in California history. It’s also part of a growing trend of huge payouts in police misconduct suits.
The officer who placed Martinez in the carotid hold has been identified as Officer Ernesto Mejia, who later told his colleagues that Martinez was trying to bite, punch, and headbutt him during the struggle. At one point on the video, Mejia says that he put Martinez in a “chokehold,” and an unidentified officer corrects him, saying, “You mean the carotid?”
An autopsy found he’d cut off Martinez’s breathing and fractured cartilage in his throat, causing “extensive hemorrhages.” The autopsy also found methamphetamine in Martinez’s body that the pathologist testified may have played a role in his death.
At the time, carotid holds were an acceptable technique in police departments across the state. They’re intended to briefly cut off blood flow to the brain and render the subject unconscious, but they can often cause the arteries to close and not open up again.
In the wake of the George Floyd killing, police departments across the country — eager to distinguish themselves from the four Minnesota officers charged with murdering Floyd — quickly moved to ban the Carotid hold. The city of Pittsburg was among the first, passing a resolution in early June that banned city police from using the technique.
Pittsburg police did not respond to requests for comment about the settlement. Last year, an investigation by the California Reporting Project found that Pittsburg police never conducted an internal review of the incident to investigate whether Mejia violated department police. A District Attorney investigation cleared him of criminal wrongdoing.
“These Pittsburg officers took Beto Matinez’s life for a simple misdemeanor,” the Martinez family’s attorney, Michael Haddad, said in a news release. “They continued to beat and choke him even when he can be heard on their videos saying, ‘I can’t breathe!’”
In 2017, Bay Area News Group got officer body camera footage of the incident released, via public records act request.
Police said at the time patrol officers were investigating “suspicious narcotics activity” in the area, but that Martinez was pulled over for a traffic infraction. He got out of his car an ran into the Hillview Drive home after the police pulled him over.
In one officer’s body cam, a 1-minute, 44-second video shows an officer chasing Martinez into the garage, stun gun in hand, then following him into the kitchen. The video ends as he begins to employ the carotid hold.
Another video shows more officers rushing into the front door to assist two others attempting to arrest Martinez. When they arrive, Mejia has Martinez in the hold as he lies on the floor, while another officer sits on Martinez’s back. Mejia releases his neck about 50 seconds later, after Martinez is handcuffed and another officer says, “Get off.” The other officer continues to sit on Martinez’s back for another minute.
During the struggle, police are heard yelling “Stop resisting” and “Give me your arm.” Another asks him, “What is your problem, dude?” After Martinez is cuffed, the officer who put him in a neck hold is told to go outside and relax.
As Martinez remains on the floor, an officer pats him on the face and says, “Wake up.” One asks whether Martinez is breathing and another replies, “Yeah, he’s breathing.” About a minute later, they realize he is “going purple” and call for medical help, while removing his handcuffs.
The footage shows several minutes of officers conducting CPR on Martinez, yelling, “Come on, bud,” and telling him to “Breathe” and “Wake up.” Another can be heard saying, “Please, don’t croak.” One says he thinks they’re bringing him back, but Martinez is led out on a stretcher minutes later and a family member can be heard asking if he’s not breathing.
Police say the officers and AMR personnel were able to bring back a pulse but that Martinez died at a hospital later that day. The medical examiner listed cause of death as “probable mechanical obstruction of respiration complicated by carotid sinus reflex stimulation,” due to the carotid hold.
After the incident, an unidentified officer interviews Mejia while another officer who participated in the struggle stands a few feet away.
“He kept on trying to bite me, so I put him in a chokehold,” Mejia says, demonstrating with his arms.
“You mean the carotid?” the unidentified officer says.
“Yeah, the carotid,” Mejia says, adding that Martinez was trying to “punch me and head-butt me” throughout the incident.
A coroner’s inquest jury, which carries no civil or criminal liability, found Martinez’s death to be an accident.
The settlement marks the third time in recent weeks that a Bay Area police department has agreed to a multimillion dollar lawsuit settlement over a police killing. Last month, Vallejo police agreed to pay $5.7 million to settle a suit by the family of Ronell Foster, who was killed by ex-Vallejo Ofc. Ryan McMahon. Three weeks later, Walnut Creek agreed to pay $4 million to settle a suit by the family of Miles Hall, who was shot and killed by multiple officers after police were called to help Hall during a mental health crisis.