- Voice of San Diego - https://www.voiceofsandiego.org -

Morning Report: When Is a Protest Unlawful? Depends.

Police officers block off Fourth Avenue in downtown San Diego amid protests over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

What defines an unlawful assembly is not always clear. Protests erupted this weekend across the United States, but how police treated those gatherings differed depending on the department. 

Unlawful assembly could be a happy public gathering in San Francisco, said Gary Gibson, a San Diego criminal defense attorney and professor. Or maybe not. “Law enforcement is vested with immense discretion,” he told Ashly McGlone in a new story [1]. “They don’t have to arrest everyone for everything they see.”

In San Diego, a spokesman for the Police Department said the unlawful assembly orders were typically issued after the rocks and bottles started flying in their direction. 

California police officer standards say crowds should be able to hear dispersal orders, so that protesters can find exit routes and have enough time to leave before the arrests come down. But who gives the order can vary and it doesn’t necessarily mean everyone hears it. 

SDPD’s spokesman, for example, wasn’t sure whether helicopters overhead announced the dispersal orders, or whether protesters had a meaningful amount of time to leave the protest before police deployed teargas and rubber bullets.

Police make exceptions to the law at times of unrest. A youth protest blocked a San Diego street unlawfully but, as Takeuchi said, “as long as protests are peaceful we will do the best we can to facilitate. But we cannot tolerate violence or destruction.” 

Still, organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union say shutting down a protest through a dispersal order should be law enforcement’s last resort. 

The Last Time San Diego Reformed Police Oversight

San Diego has made efforts in the past to reform its management of police and improve its community relations. 

In 2015, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit with the financial backing of the U.S. Department of Justice was critical of SDPD’s ability to monitor its own and made 40 recommendations to the department. Two years later, city officials signed off on the last of those changes, including a new system for supervisors so that they could better track and detect troubling behavior before it manifested into something severe. 

But as Jesse Marx reports, there hasn’t been much follow-up by elected officials to know independently whether those reforms are working out [2]. At the time, the police chief said the changes would make the city safer. Behind closed doors, according to one former elected official, she was defensive and dragged her foot on actually making the changes. 

City Councilwoman Monica Montgomery, who chairs the public safety committee, and others are now pushing for a new citizens’ oversight commission, one with sweeping powers to investigate uses of force. Faulconer came out in support this week. A spokesman for Police Chief David Nisleit said he’s remaining neutral. 

Across the region, agencies are reconsidering their de-escalation techniques. 

Coronado Police Chief Chuck Kaye announced that his city is banning the carotid artery restraint [3], which uses pressure to restrict blood flow to the brain. San Diego banned their use of it earlier this week. As did Sheriff Bill Gore, 24 hours after defending its use [4]

Two community boards that review police practices are holding emergency meetings this week [5]. Faulconer said the boards will “take a serious look at de-escalation recommendations that could be implemented by our department” and more, City News Service reports. 

Activists Take Over La Mesa’s Press Conference With Calls for Justice

La Mesa is also banning use of the carotid restraint. Officials made the announcement Wednesday afternoon at a press conference and simultaneously released the body camera footage [6] from an incident late last month. 

Officers approached Amaurie Johnson, a 23-year-old black man, near a trolley stop on suspicion of smoking marijuana, but he wasn’t charged for it. He was charged with assaulting an officer and resisting arrest. Cell phone footage showed the police officer shoving Johnson. 

The police chief and others promised an independent investigation and were evasive when reporters and activists pressed for more information Wednesday. They also asked about a 59-year-old woman they shot in the forehead with a bean bag and why officers didn’t help her. She’s now in a medically induced coma. 

The press conference quickly got heated [7]. After officials walked away, a group of activists took over the podium to denounce what they’d just witnessed as a sham. They demanded that Johnson’s charges be dropped, that the public stop shedding crocodile tears and that people in positions of real power act. 

“We are again watching the establishment protecting the establishment and nobody wants to cross this thin blue line that’s not very thin when it comes to black and brown lives,” said Genevieve Jones-Wright. “I am tired of it. We are all tired of it.” 

In Other News

The Morning Report was written by MacKenzie Elmer and Jesse Marx, and edited by Sara Libby.