Video of Arrest Raises Questions About Policing Methods Amid Mental Health and Substance Abuse Concerns
ATASCADERO — A recent video circulating on social media has spurred conversation amongst the public regarding methods used during an arrest made by the Atascadero Police Department.
On Saturday, Dec. 9, the Atascadero Police Department (APD) responded to a call on the 2200 block of El Camino Real. In the video circulating social media, it begins with the suspect on the ground, held down by three officers. One officer then uses additional force to punch the suspect in the face while trying to handcuff him.
The suspect is identified as Anthony Cagnina (28) of Atascadero. Cagnina, who grew up in Atascadero, is known to many as an unhoused individual. He is also known to have struggled with his mental health and substance abuse.
Atascadero News sat with acting Chief of Police Joe Allen, who gave the department’s perspective and reasons for the course of actions taken during the arrest.
Due to pending litigation, body cam footage is unavailable to the public as it is active evidence. Therefore, Chief Allen related the incident from beginning to end for Atascadero News.
According to Chief Allen, on the day of the arrest, two officers were called to the business (Big Lots) by an employee who asked officers to remove Cagnina. The employee stated that Cagnina had stolen goods from the store on a previous occasion.
Officers knew Cagnina from previous encounters. He currently has seven warrants out for his arrest, many of which involve resisting officers. He has failed to appear in court for those warrants.
Cagnina who had a cart and backpack full of goods refused to listen to officers when they asked him to empty his backpack. Chief Allen explained that officers wanted Cagnina to empty the backpack inside the store to avoid having to arrest him for theft if the goods were to leave the store building. However, acording to Chief Allen, Cagnina refused to comply and to avoid officers swung his backpack towards one officer who intercepted the bag. The two ended up on the ground, and a wrestling scene was activated.
Chief Allen explains how officers are taught to use their body weight to hold suspects while trying to handcuff them. He says it is done for the safety of the officers and the suspect. During the wrestling match, the other officer used his taser, which ineffectively worked to incapacitate Cagnina, who stands at 6 feet and 6 inches and 190 pounds according to his arrest record on slosheriff.org/jail-information/whos-in-custody/.
A second “dry stun” was also ineffective, and more officers were called to assist in the arrest. Chief Allen explains officers mind set at the time which were concerned if Cagnina’s state of mind or if he had any weapons he was trying to reach. Cagnina did at one point during the wrestling get a hold of one of the taser “darts.”
While officers were still trying to obtain Cagnina’s arm behind his back, officers repeatedly tried to verbally get Cagnina to comply. One officer warned Cagnina three times (which can be heard on the circulating video), that if he did not begin to comply he would “punch” him.
Cagnina still refused and the officer punched him in the face. Cagnina then began to comply with officers.
Chief Allen explained that due to proximity, the officer could not deploy pepper spray and he used what he had to. With the fire department on their way to the scene, officers brought Cagnina outside to finish the search while waiting for him to receive a medical overview.
Due to another individual harassing officers at the scene, they brought Cagnina to the APD to receive his medical treatment.
Cagnina has since been booked into San Luis Obispo County Jail and is being held for RESISTING AN EXECUTIVE OFFICER [69PC], and POSSESSION OF UNLAWFUL PARAPHERNALIA [11364(A)H&S] along with charges from seven other arrest warrants.
“We are trying to do the right thing,” says Chief Allen in defense of his officers.
Following the arrest and footage of the bystander video on social media, an internal investigation was launched. According to Chief Allen, the arrest and use of force complied with the department’s, city, and state’s policies. Therefore, it also did not meet criteria for an external investigation.
“We have gone full circle on this. Absolutely, if our officer did something outside the lines, we are going to deal with it administratively,” adds Allen.
As for the department’s history and interactions with Cagnina, most of the officers are familiar with him. While he does not have any medical records to their knowledge confirming his diagnosis, they are certain he has troubles with a mental illness and verified trouble with substance abuse.
Chief Allen showed Atascadero News a public court document from Cagnina’s appointed attorney who states he “has doubts to the suspects mental competence.”
Which leads Chief Allen to address a larger problem in our community — and that is getting people proper mental health help and treatment.
Officers within the department receive regular training on handling suspects who suffer from mental illness.
“Trends change. Our homeless population is obviously larger now. So, going and arresting our homeless population isn’t working. That’s ineffective,” said Chief Allen.
He further explains that each individual is their own “ball of wax,” meaning different addictions, different illnesses — different lives.
In response, the department has developed an outreach team with behavior specialists, a psych technician, and a volunteer from the El Camino Homeless Organization (ECHO). The team works with unhoused individuals in Atascadero to get them treatment and hopefully off the streets and into homes.
In regards to Cagnina, Chief Allen says, “He’s not clearly thinking, and it’s sad because at some point in time if he is not treated and he doesn’t go someplace where he is going to get well, it’s going to go bad again.”
The police chief also adds concern for the public’s safety if someone were to encounter Cagnina during a manic episode.
He adds, “I am hopeful that with this attorney, he gets what he needs. I don’t think he needs to be incarcerated. He needs help.”
In regards to the bystander video, Chief Allen says its unfortunate the public is only able to view a small window of the incident at this time.
“I wish the public could understand our perspective. We did not want to fight with Anthony Cagnina that day. They [the officers] did not,” said Chief Allen.
He adds, “Our officers did what they had to do that day. As ugly as it may have looked, they did what they had to do that day to take him into custody with the least amount of force.”
Who is Anthony Cagnina
Atascadero News spoke with Cagnina’s father, Michael and stepmother Maria about their son’s arrest and who he is to them.
Michael explains his son lives a homeless lifestyle, coming to his home for showers and to clean up. Michael says Cagnina often can be found near the riverbed.
“I’ve never known him to be aggressive. I’ve knew him to get upset, and I know when he gets upset, he gets belligerent,” says Michael of his son.
Michael, who has been sober and clean for over 20 years, knows his son struggles with substance abuse as well as mental illness.
“The thing is, Tony [Cagnina] has mental health issues, and the police department knows this,” says Michael, who was surprised to see the social media video of Cagnina’s arrest.
He adds, “I’m not saying he is an angel, but this is out of line,” referring to the police force used against his son.
Cagnina is known to be a “teddy bear” in the community.
“He is always polite and respectful around me,” says Maria regarding Cagnina’s behavior towards her. “I know he has that other side to him, but he never does it to me. My feeling is that when they arrested him, they may have had a good reason to arrest him, but when I saw that tape, I thought that officer just needs…it’s just not right.”
Cagnina’s parents stated they are looking into pressing charges against APD for their method in arresting their son.
“I don’t think its okay to do that just because you hold that power,” said Maria who is also looking into filing a complaint with the Department of Justice.
Overall, Michael and Maria find the way the APD handled Cagnina’s arrest was inappropriate and would like to see some retribution.
What happens now
Cagnina is currently booked into the San Luis Obispo County Jail. According to the SLO County District Attorney’s office, he is scheduled for a court hearing on Jan. 2 in the Superior Court in SLO.
Atascadero News is following this story and will provide updates as they become available.