Anaheim Protests: Legal Info

Projectiles used by police in Anaheim.  Photo by Tim Pool @TimCast

Anaheim Protests: Legal Info
by Sue Basko

July 25, 2012.  As you watch the live streams of the protest clashes in Anaheim, California, it may be helpful to understand some of the words and laws.  (Volunteer Spanish translator needed for this post.  If you can do this easily and quickly, please email

What happened?  Anaheim police shot dead two local men last weekend.  One man was reportedly either on the ground and/or handcuffed while being shot.  There is video of the incident.  The federal authorities will be reviewing the shootings.  In response, local people have been protesting.  The family of at least one of the men is suing the City of Anaheim.

Excessive Use of Force: Most such lawsuits claim the police used excessive force and that the person’s constitutional rights were violated.  Such lawsuits can take many years.

Less Lethal:  Police in crowd control situations in California use “less lethal” weapons.  The correct term is “less lethal,” not less than lethal or nonlethal, because these weapons can, in fact, be lethal.  “Lethal” means deadly, meaning it can kill you.   

It is important to be aware that the use of less lethal weaponry is a judgment call by the police and traditional lethal weaponry may also be used in crowd situations.  I have heard the police give Orders of Dispersal this year where the officer read a warning that less lethal and lethal weapons might be used and that these might result in serious injury or death.  Also, at some protest situations in the U.S. this year, there have been snipers on rooftops and balconies with what appeared to be traditional lethal rifles.

Common types of less lethal weapons in California today are:

Pepper Balls: These are guns that shoot balls that contain hot chili pepper powder.  The ball “punches” the person and subdues or shocks them with pepper spray.  These are considered compliance weapons.  These range from 4-shot weapons that may be carried in a gun belt to weapons that look like a grenade launcher.  One version has a big bright flashlight combined with a pepper ball launcher.  If you are out in such a protest and see a big flashlight shining at you, you are possibly about to be shot at with a pepper ball.

Bean Bags:  These are also called baton rounds.  These are small bags filled with birdshot that are launched at high velocity from a gun.  These will usually knock a person to the ground and leave a big lump bruise. 

Rubber bullets: These are rubber or foam rubber projectiles that expand as they are shot from a gun.  These can knock a person down, and leave very nasty round red marks, gashes, and wounds.  This is like being hit with a fast-moving baseball.  These have been known to cause serious damage to the heart or other organs.  

Tear gas:  Tear gas is sent into a crowd by canister or gun.  Tear gas is known to drift back and effect the police who shot it, and so pepper balls are often used.

Securitas/ Security Guards

Journalist Tim Pool noted last night in Anaheim that a television station van was being guarded by Securitas guards.  Securitas is a private security corporation incorporated in Switzerland.  The company provides security to individuals, corporations and governments.  I noted in some videos from Anaheim that it appeared to me as if a line of private security company guards, perhaps Securitas, were being used outside of a grocery store.  

In California, private security companies flourish because local police are often ineffective and because California law makes it relatively easy to get a Guard Card.  A person can start working as a guard after only 8 hours of training.  Further training is needed to stay employed as well as to carry a gun or tear gas.    In the Los Angeles area, especially, it is common for shopping malls, hotels, gated streets, and even individuals to hire private security.   

The good thing about private security firms is that private people with money can purchase the safety protection they feel they need.  One bad thing about this is that having private security can cause those with money to ignore that the public police forces are ineffective or harassing.  Also, the private security may be poorly trained and yet carry deadly weapons, and not be part of government.  The usual laws of what a police officer may and may not do becomes confused.  The public may also not be able to tell a police officer from a private security guard, and although a security guard may be overstepping legal bounds, he or she may be just as deadly, or moreso because of poor training, than a real police officer.  There are real big important questions of whether our nation should be policed by a private company from Switzerland, and it seems no one is asking these questions.  

How and Why Police Disperse a Crowd 

Unlawful Assembly/ Order to Disperse:   In California, as in the rest of the U.S., it is legal to gather in protest out on the sidewalk.  This is the right to peaceably assemble and it is guaranteed by the Constitution.  

According to reports, what happened yesterday in Anaheim was that there was a meeting at City Hall about the shootings.  Many people could not fit into the meeting, and were outside on the street corner. Some were overflowing into the street.  After a while, the police gave an Order to Disperse and then people moved away and police pursued them to clear the area, police fired pepper balls and other less lethal weapons, people started several fires in trash bins, and on and on.

How Unlawful Assembly Works:  If there is a riot or crowd violence, police do not have to call an Unlawful Assembly, and can begin trying to disperse the crowd using less lethal weapons and making arrests.  However, in situations where people are merely assembled illegally or were there is time to make an announcement, police may announce an Unlawful Assembly.  The steps to this in California are:

1) Police Declare an Unlawful Assembly.  Police decide there is an Unlawful Assembly.  They usually decide this if a crowd is in the street, if the crowd is in a park or plaza that has closed, if anyone in the crowd throws rocks or bottles, if windows are being broken, cars rocked or overturned, or fires started.  Sometimes police call an Unlawful Assembly, it seems, just because they want the crowd to go home to make the police job easier. 
2) Order to Disperse. Police announce that they have declared the crowd to be an unlawful assembly and that they are issuing an Order to Disperse, saying people must leave the area.  Usually one police officer announces this, reading from a sheet of paper to get the wording correct.  This may be read from a megaphone or loudspeaker or using an LRAD type loudspeaker.  This announcement is supposed to be made multiple times so that everyone in the crowd hears it.  In most cases that I have seen, many of the people in the crowd have not heard the announcement or do not know what has been said. 

This is a typical style Order of Dispersal announcement, this one from Oakland

I am (rank/name), a peace officer for the City of Oakland. I hereby declare this to be an unlawful assembly, and in the name of the people of the State of California, command all those assembled at _____________ to immediately leave. If you do not do so, you may be arrested or subject to other police action, including the use of force which may result in serious injury.  Section 409 of the Penal Code prohibits remaining present at an unlawful assembly. If you remain in the area just described, regardless of your purpose, you will be in violation of Section 409. The following routes of dispersal are available (routes). You have  _______ minutes to leave. If you refuse to move, you will be arrested. *If you refuse to move, chemical agents will be used. (Provide the chemical warning only if use is anticipated).

The police are also supposed to attempt to make the announcement in other languages besides English if it appears the crowd may not understand English.  However, it is my understanding that such things are more a courtesy and practicality than a requirement.

The police are also supposed to announce exit routes that are acceptable, for example,  telling people which streets to use to leave, or which direction they may walk, such as to the east or west.  I saw one situation this year in downtown Los Angeles where the announcement gave directions about leaving only toward the west.  In downtown L.A.,  streets are angled and it is hard to know which direction is which – and individual police officers had obviously been instructed not to respond to protesters, and so when people asked the police which way was west, the police did not respond.  Which, by the way, is a ridiculous way to run things.  People who went the wrong way were reportedly kettled and arrested.

You can read more bout Unlawful Assembly and Orders to Disperse.

If you want to know a lot more about how California police do crowd management and how an Order to Disperse is  issued, you can download and read this Oakland Crowd Control Training Booklet

Media/ Legal Observers: An Order to Disperse applies to everyone, even legal observers and press.  Police will sometimes work with such people if they are clearly identified by a green hat or a press pass, and sometimes they won’t.  Sometimes police arrest, beat, or shoot at press or legal observers.  It is too complex for this blog post to get into all the legalities and practicalities about this, the point  is if you are present when an Order to Disperse is called, no matter what your role, you should be prepared to move quickly to try to avoid danger.

3) Dispersal Methods and Arrest.  Police can start arresting those who have not dispersed and charge them with Failure to Disperse.  Police may also begin to use less lethal and lethal weaponry.   Sometimes police try to disperse, and sometimes they kettle and make mass arrests.  Such mass arrests have a way of ending out in very few prosecutions and in large lawsuits. 

Failure to Disperse is a misdemeanor.  Here is the law on this:

Section 409.  Every person remaining present at the place of any riot, rout, or unlawful assembly, after the same has been lawfully warned to disperse, except public officers and persons assisting them in attempting to disperse the same, is guilty of a misdemeanor.

Failure to Disperse Bail Amounts:  The bail amounts on Failure to Disperse differ from county to county.  You can read about that and download some county schedules  HERE.  Anaheim is in Orange County and the bail schedule can be downloaded HERE (this may take a minute to download).  The bail scheme is complex, but as well as I can make out, the bail in Orange County California for Failure to Disperse is $500
Other Criminal Charges: At protests in California, people have been charged with many things, including being arrested for "lynching," which is commonly called de-arresting;  chalking,  and on and on.