Last week, the San Diego Police Department released a new procedure to “establish guidelines for the coordination, facilitation and management of First Amendment Activities.” The detailed 15-page procedure includes guidance on planning for First Amendment events; managing lawful assemblies, unlawful assemblies, and riots; crowd dispersal strategies, objectives and techniques; and public information and the media.

San Diego Chief David Nisleit spoke with PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler about the new procedure.

Chuck Wexler: Describe the demonstrations you’ve seen in San Diego over the past year. Are they different from previous demonstrations?

Chief Nisleit: Right after the George Floyd incident in Minnesota, there was a protest in a small city that’s adjacent to our jurisdiction, where several banks were burned, there was civil unrest, and a lot of violence. We were concerned about that trickling into our city.

I’d say the vast majority of the folks involved in these protests were there to peacefully demonstrate. They wanted their voice to be heard and they wanted change.

But unfortunately, as in other cities, there were bad actors whose whole intent was violence and destruction. I’ve never seen our officers assaulted more. Anything they could throw at us was being thrown at us. They were using some of the peaceful protesters as a buffer to make it difficult for us to use pepper balls to try to get some space. Because if we can get space, we’re going to be fine.

We’ve had more than 400 protests since late May here in San Diego, and only a handful were violent. We’ve done a great job of facilitating those peaceful protests, and we still have some on the weekends. But the early parts were violent, and they were hellbent on doing that.  

Wexler: What brought about this new policy?

Chief Nisleit: After George Floyd and some litigation, we started looking at protest policies, and a lot of us realized that we really don’t have one. We have a use-of-force policy. We have a policy on special munitions. We have a policy on what’s allowed under the First Amendment. But I wanted an overarching policy that would give my officers guidance and expectations, and would inform the community about what they can expect from us, and what I expect from them. It also gave some guidance to my field commanders about what munitions they could use, when they could use them, and it requires chief-level approval for some, like CS gas and sting-ball grenades.  Those are the kinds of tools that should be last-ditch, but are still needed to prevent buildings from being burned, major assaults, and life-threatening behavior.

San Diego PD works in a very collaborative way with other law enforcement agencies, so if someone comes into our city, they know our protocols.

Wexler: What is your approach to munitions?

Chief Nisleit: Last year we had a bill proposed at the state level that would take away law enforcement’s ability to use gas, and I know that bill is coming back again. So we want to be good stewards of equipment that we need to have to keep our community safe, and also be very careful about how we use this tool. That’s why I established this guidance, and I want to have thoughtful, expectation-setting conversations with my field commanders who are running the show during these protests. We’ll talk about de-escalation, restraint, and when they would use these tools.

These tools are under litigation and have been removed in some states. In my mind, I still need CS gas. This is my way of saying that we’ll be good stewards of this type of instrument, but there are still scenarios where it’s needed. I would much rather drop a canister of gas to disperse a very violent crowd that might be looting or trying to set a building on fire. When you’re looking at the possibility of serious bodily injury or death to members of the public or our officers, it’s a much safer way of dispersing a crowd than going hands-on. When we go hands-on, we’re talking about injuries to officers and injuries to the public. These are the tools I want to be able to drive people away, keep that buffer zone, and keep the community safe.

Wexler: Who makes the decision about CS gas?

Chief Nisleit: I don’t want people thinking that if we have a preplanned event that gets violent, the captain has to call the chief when he or she is going into the crowd. A lot of this will be in the planning stages. It will make us have a great game plan about what we’ll do, how we’re going to protect ourselves, and if we start to see someone set a building on fire, or mass looting, or felonious activity where great bodily injury or death may occur, we can use gas. But it’s going to be a last resort. I expect our officers to use restraint, but not to the level where we’re going to allow people to go out and start assaulting people and our officers.

We start with unlawful assembly declarations and make sure those are heard. We say it in multiple languages if that’s needed. And it’s important to give people time to disperse.

And we’re always going to try to use the lowest level of force. If conditions justify it, we’ll start off with pepper balls if we can, and hopefully that will disperse those bent on violence. If that doesn’t, maybe we’ll move up to the 40mm sponge rounds. Then we might have to step it up to gas. But we’re hoping that with all those other tools and sound tactics, we won’t get to the point where we have to use CS gas. At the same time, it’s important to us not to lose that option.

Wexler: What is the role of de-escalation in this policy?

Chief Nisleit: Part of de-escalation is making sure we have the resources, officers, and command and control on hand. I look at that as “de-escalation by numbers.” We try to have a relationship with the organizers and allow them to do things they want to do safely.

And part of de-escalation might be not reacting to one thing being thrown at you. Get some distance. If someone is committing criminal assaultive behavior, we know sometimes making an arrest will escalate a situation. So we might just make note of it, and maybe arrest that person afterwards.

Just like anything we do, time and distance are always our friend. And we try to build a relationship and collaboration with the demonstrators. We tell them that we’re just there to facilitate safe movement and will try to stay out of the way. But we’re also not going to let people tear up the city. I think San Diego has become known for being willing to facilitate demonstrations, and also being willing to arrest people for criminal activity, which I think is one reason we may not have seen too many major issues.

We’ve trained a lot in this area. We have commanders who are well-versed in this stuff. And we have officers who show a great deal of restraint and stay very professional. This policy just gives guidance to everybody.

Wexler: How do you implement this policy? Is there training associated with this?

Chief Nisleit: We pushed it out through our commanders. We have been working on this policy, and our Critical Incident Management Unit, field commanders, SWAT unit, and our legal team all had input. We are constantly doing training with our teams on civil unrest and protest.

This policy incorporates multiple policies into one document. They already know the use-of-force policy, but it gives them definitions and guidance specific to these situations.

Wexler: What has been your officers’ reaction to this policy?

Chief Nisleit: It’s been well-received. They appreciated the fact that we left the tools available to them. We may have made a couple things more restrictive, but the tools are still available. It was important to the union and the rank-and-file that they still have the tools to protect themselves and the community.

Wexler: How do you communicate this policy to the community?

Chief Nisleit: We had some community involvement in this policy. Our Citizens Review Board, which has since turned into an Independent Review Board, had some input. Our Chief’s Advisory Board, which works through the mayor’s office, also had some input. We’re going to have conversations with more community groups, and if there need to be some additional changes, we’ll take a look at that.

We’ve been having conversations with the sheriff’s department and our other law enforcement partners, and we’re pretty much all on the same page. I think we all came to the realization that we didn’t have a policy, and I don’t think a lot of departments nationwide have protest policies. We have all these other policies related to these events, but not one whole policy focused on protests.

Wexler: Are you concerned that there might be upcoming protests related to the trial in Minneapolis?

Chief Nisleit: We were all excited to get through 2020, and now, two months into 2021, it feels like the heart of 2020 is still alive. I have concerns about the trial in Minnesota and what that might bring. That’s why we’re constantly training, talking to our folks, and putting together plans for possible unrest. It just takes one incident somewhere in this country and we could have a flashpoint.

There are still calls for defunding, so that’s still a concern. And there’s the officers’ fatigue. Our officers are tired and frustrated. Violence is up in this city and just about every other big city in this nation. It’s difficult to get people into jail right now because of COVID. There’s a lot of angst and fear about what might come next.


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.