The primary role of a legal observer
is that of a witness who watches and records the actions of the police
at demonstrations. Observers are important because they may deter police
brutality, provide information which may be helpful in later court proceedings,
and provide follow-up on the special needs of arrestees, such as those
unexpectedly arrested or those needing medical attention.
Our strategy is to have several
levels of observation at demonstrations.
Disseminating legal information
to as many of those attending the demonstration as possible. Have trained
legal observers throughout the demonstration areas. Planning emergency
response teams comprised of observers, attorneys and people with video
What a Legal Observer is
For several decades, groups such
as NLG and the ACLU have utilized individuals to act as witnesses during
political demonstrations. These individuals record the details of what
they see so that they can later be witnesses.
The role of a legal observer differs
in important ways from that of a peace monitor or spokesperson. Legal
observers should not become involved in crowd control, conflict resolution,
or speaking for demonstrators. Police officers and the media will always
be looking for leaders to negotiate with or speak with. Be direct with
them that you are here as an observer and that you are only here as an
It is important that the observer
not do anything to detract from that credibility. This means:
- A Legal observer is a witness
not an activist with a cause. During the time they are observers, they
do not engage in activity that could be confused with that of a demonstrator.
- Legal observers tend to be more
likely to risk arrest. They should conduct themselves accordingly. This
means no drugs. No drugs in system. Also no weapons. They should have
identification at all times.
- Legal observers don't give legal
advice unless they are licensed to do so.
- Legal observers do not engage
in violence either oral or physical. They do not damage property.
- Legal observers never get physically
involved. If a legal observer witnesses an excessive use of force, they
may express themselves by saying things like: "Please don't hit
him like that,"
What to Bring
- A Shirt identifying you as a
legal observer, large enough to be worn over your street clothing
- A Clipboard. The clipboard should
contain complaint forms, as well as scratch paper. We also advise a
piece of plastic to go over the clipboard to protect against rain or
snow. Bring several pens.
- Clothing should be neat and comfortable.
Dress with the understanding that you will be moving around.
Use of a Buddy System
Legal observers should always work
in teams of two or more. This provides a measure of security, as you always
have a witness. It also provides additional corroboration should you observe
anything. It is helpful to work with someone you know, so if you are considering
becoming a legal observer, you may want to recruit a friend. It is also
a good idea for less experienced observers to work with more experienced
ones during their initial outings, if this is possible.
Proximity to Police
Legal observers should try to get
as close to the incident as possible. In doing this observers should try
to maintain a calm demeanor and make no sudden movements that could be
construed as threatening.
Legal observers are there to observe
what is taking place, and to witness it. They should take extensive notes.
Since legal observers are there to focus on what the police are doing,
their notes should capture the details of what the police are doing. Their
notes should include time and location of incidents, as well as circumstances
that led up to the incident. These notes should be rewritten later when
the incident is still fresh in the observer's mind.
The following is a checklist
of things to write down:
- Names, badge numbers and other
identifying characteristics of all law enforcement and government agencies
present. If they refuse to supply you with these, or if they are not
visible, make note of these.
- The manner in which the officers
are identified. If there is no identification supplied, make note of
- Who is in charge. If they refuse
to tell you who's in charge, make note of this.
- Warnings given, who gave them,
- License numbers of private cars
moving through the demonstrations.
- Name(s) of person(s) arrested.
Also ask the person there birth date so you can track them.
- Any unusual circumstances, force
used, injuries, sweeps.
- Witness names, address and phone
- Names of media present.
- Names of people with cameras.
- Always track time in your notes.
- Note other facts that seem important.
After the demonstration, please
take the time to transcribe your notes. Give a copy to a legal coordinator.
Keep a copy of the notes in a secure location. Remember it may be months
before this information is needed by lawyers putting together a legal
defense or by you on the witness stand.