SSU graduate sues Cotati, police alleging excessive force

A 2019 Sonoma State University graduate claims the Cotati police used excessive force and wrongly arrested him during a encounter outside a bar last year.|

A Sonoma State University graduate student who was beaten by police during his arrest last year outside a Cotati bar has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city and its Police Department, alleging two officers investigating a report of an argument mistook him as a suspect and used excessive force against him in an arrest captured on surveillance video.

Christopher “CJ” Alcala, 25, said he was waiting for an Uber rideshare driver outside the Tradewinds bar near closing time on July 19, 2019, when Officer Anthony Garber and Cpl. Brian Deaton singled him out of a crowd of people. Though Alcala claims he did not resist them, the officers used violent tactics while arresting him, according to the complaint.

One officer shoved Alcala into a wall and another took him to the ground, according to the complaint and the video. The officers punched Alcala and kneed him in the head “with forceful blows,” according to the complaint.

“They kept their knee on me and kept on smashing my head into the ground and making it so that I couldn’t do anything, couldn’t breathe,” Alcala said. “They just keep on going harder and harder.”

Alcala was taken to Sutter Santa Rosa Medical Center before being booked into the Sonoma County Jail on suspicion of public drunkenness and resisting arrest.

Prosecutors declined to file any criminal charges against Alcala, a decision reached in March, eight months after the arrest, according to Sonoma County Chief Deputy District Attorney Brian Staebell. Prosecutors determined the evidence against Alcala “was not sufficient to prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt at trial to a unanimous jury,” Staebell said.

Alcala is suing in U.S. District Court in San Francisco for unspecified damages for false imprisonment, excessive force, assault and battery.

“I’d really like the Cotati police to be held accountable for what they’re doing out there,” Alcala said.

Cotati Police Chief Michael Parish declined to discuss Alcala’s arrest and he also declined to say whether the department had conducted an administrative review of his officers’ actions. Parish said he wouldn’t talk about the case because of the pending lawsuit. Garber and Deaton didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Alcala’s attorney, Patrick Ciocca, said he was initially hired by Alcala to represent him in the criminal case, which was ultimately not filed after eight months of court continuances. As he learned more about the case and watched the video, he urged Alcala to consider suing the department because he believed his client had done nothing to warrant such a violent action on the part of the police.

“What this was is nothing other than an old-fashioned beating,” said Ciocca.

Alcala had just graduated from SSU with a degree in business. He grew up on his family’s farm outside Fresno and now lives in American Canyon, working as a project manager with a temporary employment agency.

Alcala said the scene outside the Tradewinds just before ?2 a.m. that night was hectic and boisterous. Alcala was out on a Thursday night when Cotati’s downtown cluster of bars draws peak crowds for what many call “the Cotati crawl.”

He insists he was not fighting with anyone and said his ride had just arrived when the police pulled him aside. He said he told them he had a safe ride and argued with them to allow him to leave.

The surveillance video taken from the Tradewinds shows Alcala talking with an officer, standing and gesturing with his hands. Another officer walks up and pushes him up against a wall multiple times, then the first officer grabs Alcala’s arms and spins him onto the ground. The officers appear to punch him in his sides and back, knee him in the face and beat him on the back, according to the video.

Alcala said he had bruises up and down his body and a gash on the side of his face.

After his arrest, Alcala tried to return to his job with Chili’s restaurant in Rohnert Park but found he was distracted and anxious as never before.

He continued with another job tutoring SSU students in math, but said it took some time to regain his footing after the arrest, which still causes him significant anxiety.

The injuries to his head have felt long lasting. He was taken to Sutter Santa Rosa Medical Center the night of his arrest, and Alcala returned to Petaluma Valley Hospital five days later when doctors discovered “significant swelling in his brain,” according to the complaint.

One month later, Alcala’s girlfriend found him on the ground, “unconscious with a mouthful of blood,” the court complaint states. Alcala said his doctors think he had a seizure, which he has never had before and not since.

Today, Alcala said he often has headaches and bodily discomfort which he believes are from the beating.

Ciocca said that while he does not want to cast aspersion on an entire police force, he said the Cotati Police Department has a reputation for aggressive behavior. Ciocca said he believes the city must be held accountable for its officers’ actions, and he believes the video shows the officers prevented Alcala from simply going home that night and escalated the encounter into a violent and unjustified arrest.

“When I saw it, I recognized this as a clear civil rights violation and he should do something about it. He was never looking to gain from this,” Ciocca said. “He was just trying to go out and have a nice night out with his co-workers.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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