California will pay a $24 million civil rights settlement to the family of a man who died in police custody after screaming “I can’t breathe” as multiple officers restrained him while trying to take a blood sample, lawyers said Tuesday.
Seven California Highway Patrol officers and a nurse were charged with involuntary manslaughter earlier this year in connection with the 2020 death of Edward Bronstein, age 38.
Annee Della Donna and Eric Dubin, attorneys for Bronstein’s young children, said it’s the largest civil rights settlement of its kind by the state of California, and the second largest nationally since the city of Minneapolis paid $27 million in the George Floyd case. The attorneys scheduled a news conference in Los Angeles for Wednesday to provide details.
The settlement comes amid renewed scrutiny of potentially fatal restraints following last week’s death of a New York City subway rider, Jordan Neely, who was placed in a chokehold by a U.S. Marine veteran. Bronstein’s death also echoes that of Eric Garner, a New Yorker put in a chokehold by police in 2014 and whose dying words “I can’t breathe” became a chant in protests against racial injustice. Both Garner and Neely were Black.
The Los Angeles County coroner said Bronstein’s death was caused by “acute methamphetamine intoxication during restraint by law enforcement.” The report lists Bronstein’s race as white.
Bronstein was taken into custody following a traffic stop on suspicion of driving under the influence on March 31, 2020. He died at a highway patrol station in Altadena, north of downtown Los Angeles, less than two months before Floyd was killed by police in Minnesota as he, too, repeatedly told officers, “I can’t breathe.”
When announcing the criminal charges in March, LA County District Attorney George Gascón said the highway patrol officers failed Bronstein, “and their failure was criminally negligent, causing his death.”
A nearly 18-minute video showing the officers’ treatment of Bronstein was released last year following a judge’s order in the family’s federal lawsuit alleging excessive force and a violation of civil rights.
Family members have said Bronstein was terrified of needles and they believe that’s why he was reluctant to comply with the CHP initially as they tried to take a blood sample.
The video, filmed by the sergeant, shows several officers forcing a handcuffed Bronstein to a mat on the floor as he shouts, “I’ll do it willingly! I’ll do it willingly, I promise!”
He continues screaming as six officers hold him face-down — the lawsuit alleged they put their knees on his back — and pleads for help.
“It’s too late,” one officer replies. “Stop yelling!” another shouts.
“I can’t breathe!” and “I can’t!” Bronstein cries, and an officer responds, “Just relax and stop resisting!”
But Bronstein’s voice gets softer and he then falls silent. While he is unresponsive, the nurse continues to draw blood and the officers keep pinning him down.
After they realize he may not have a pulse and does not appear to be breathing, they slap his face and say, “Edward, wake up.” More than 11 minutes after his last screams, they begin CPR.
Bronstein never regained consciousness and was later pronounced dead.
In a statement, CHP Commissioner Sean Duryee extended condolences to the family and said he would respect the judicial process. His office didn’t immediately respond Tuesday to request for comment on the settlement.
The officers, who were put on administrative leave in March, face one count each of involuntary manslaughter and one felony count of assault under the color of authority. If convicted, they could get up to four years in prison. The registered nurse was also charged with involuntary manslaughter.
Bronstein’s death prompted the CHP to change its policies to prevent officers “from using techniques or transport methods that involve a substantial risk of positional asphyxia,” the agency said. Additional training was also ordered for uniformed officers.
In September 2021, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law barring police from using certain face-down holds that have led to multiple unintended deaths. The bill was aimed at expanding on the state’s ban on chokeholds in the wake of Floyd’s murder.