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Angelo Quinto’s family says he died after police pinned him by his neck. Police deny they did anything wrong.

The 30-year-old Filipino Navy veteran was having a mental health crisis. Then the police arrived.

Protesters hold signs that read “Hate is a virus” and “Stop Asian hate” at the End the Violence Toward Asians rally in Washington Square Park on February 20, 2021, in New York City.
Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images

Police in Antioch, California, on Tuesday denied claims that use of force led to the death of Angelo Quinto, a 30-year-old Filipino Navy veteran, late last year. Quinto’s family says he died just days after police pinned him down by his neck for several minutes.

A video shot on December 23, 2020, which shows Quinto handcuffed and seemingly unconscious in his mother’s bedroom with blood soaking his face, has garnered greater attention in recent weeks in a time when anti-Asian attacks are on the rise and the country continues to reckon with racist police violence.

Quinto’s sister called 911 that night because her brother, who was suffering a mental health crisis, was reportedly acting erratically. Four police officers responded and found Cassandra Quinto-Collins, Quinto’s mother, embracing her son on the floor to try to prevent him from doing anything dangerous. The officers asked Quinto-Collins to step aside so they could put handcuffs on him. Quinto-Collins said that moments later, she watched as an officer pinned her son’s neck with a knee for nearly five minutes while another officer restrained his legs — a description that closely mirrors the police killing of George Floyd, whose death sparked nationwide protests for racial justice last summer.

However, the Antioch Police Department says the officer applied his knee for only a few seconds “across a portion of Angelo’s shoulder blade.”

“At no point did any officer use a knee or other body parts to gain leverage or apply pressure to Angelo’s head, neck, or throat, which is outside of our policy and training,” Antioch Police Chief Tammany Brooks said during Tuesday’s news conference, adding that the investigation is still ongoing.

Although Quinto-Collins did not capture the alleged knee-pinning part of the encounter, the video begins when officers realized Quinto was unresponsive, prompting them to remove his handcuffs. The paramedics arrived to take Quinto to a nearby hospital, where he died three days later in the intensive care unit.

Police didn’t disclose Quinto’s death until nearly a month after the incident, when the Mercury News began reporting the story in January. Quinto’s family filed a wrongful death claim — a precursor to a formal lawsuit — against the city in February, alleging that the use of police force ultimately led to his death.

“I should not, nor should anyone else, ever have to regret calling the police when they are supposed to be the people that help you,” Isabella Collins, Quinto’s sister, told NBC Bay Area.

The case comes at a moment when America is grappling with what to make of two converging crises: police violence — in this case, the use of force specifically against people with mental illness — and violence against Asian Americans. And as communities mourn, Quinto’s death shines a light on the historical depths of racist policing and anti-Asian sentiment in America.

Quinto’s death highlights the history of police violence against Asian Americans

Quinto, who was born in the Philippines, was honorably discharged from the US Navy in 2019 due to a food allergy. According to an online obituary, Quinto enjoyed fishing, cooking, and drawing and wanted to be a video game designer.

At a news conference in February, his family said Quinto began exhibiting signs of anxiety and paranoia following a head injury in 2020. They said they called the police that night hoping that the officers could help calm Quinto, who apparently was acting belligerently, but that they did not expect it to result in his death.

Throughout the encounter, Quinto-Collins said his son also pleaded for his life. “He said, ‘Please don’t kill me. Please don’t kill me,’” she told local station KTVU.

Although the family claims Quinto died of asphyxiation, Antioch police say pathologists found no evidence of strangulation or a crushed airway. While Quinto did incur some injuries during the encounter, Brooks said none of them were fatal, adding that toxicology testing is underway due to Quinto’s past drug use.

The Antioch Police Department’s press conference took place days after city officials discussed the possibility of police reform in the wake of Quinto’s case, as well as that of another man who died in custody late last month. The potential reforms could include measures as simple as body cameras, which are already required in vast swaths of the country, as well as mental health emergency response teams and community oversight boards — common measures underway in many cities as a result of last year’s elections.

The incident also highlights the hidden history of police violence against Asian Americans. In 1975, one of the largest protests ever led by Asian Americans erupted in New York City’s Chinatown following the police beating of 27-year-old Peter Yew. A month prior, a series of police shootings and stop-and-frisk policing incidents had engulfed Chinatown, where New York police officers later beat, dragged, and strip-searched Yew, evidently without cause.

In 1997, Kuanchung Kao, a 33-year-old Taiwanese man, was shot in his driveway in Sonoma County, California. He had arrived home after an altercation at a bar and exhibited behavior outside that alarmed his neighbors to the point that they called 911.

Quinto’s death also comes as anti-Asian sentiment and attacks are on the rise. According to Stop AAPI Hate, an organization that tracks reports of anti-Asian violence, roughly 3,000 verbal and physical attacks against Asian Americans have occurred since last spring. More recently, a Filipino man’s face was slashed as he rode the subway in New York; an elderly Thai man was aggressively shoved to the ground in San Francisco, which resulted in his death; and a Chinese woman was pushed against a newsstand outside a New York City bakery.

Recent protests have called attention not only to the uptick in anti-Asian violence but also the harmful stereotypes and sentiments woven into America’s fiber. On one hand, Asians are seen as “forever foreigners” who are “dirty” and eat “smelly” foods; on the other, they are “model minorities” who have risen above discrimination to become successful engineers and doctors, living “the American dream.” None of which shows the reality and nuance of the roughly 40 ethnic groups that make up the “Asian American” category, or the 12 percent who live in poverty, or the South and Southeast Asians who are often darker-skinned and suffer the most from anti-Asian sentiment.

For now, activists will continue to protest, and Quinto’s family will continue to fight through legal action. “The road to justice is not easy but we will continue to fight for justice for Angelo and justice for all,” Quinto’s family said Wednesday in an Instagram post. “We have no doubt that the truth will prevail.”