Legal Observing is an exciting way to play an important role in any demonstration or protest. However, this task also carries with it a great amount of responsibility. Legal Observers are most often law students, lawyers, or other members of the legal community because these individuals are usually familiar with the laws and can note any violations in legal terms. However, anyone can be an effective legal observer with proper training. If you’re interested in legal observing you most first attend a legal observer training.
Legal Observers are individuals who purposely position themselves close enough to demonstrations to be able to accurately watch and report the activities of participants and the law enforcement who interact with them. Just the presence of an explicitly identified Legal Observer can deter police from violating the rights of protesters. Legal Observers should not act as part of the demonstration, but should carefully record the actions of the police with the goal of later using that information as an objective account of the events. A Legal Observer will essentially be the official eyes and ears of protesters, documenting every detail in a thorough and professional manner. Typically, they fill out this official form (LO summary) for any incident so that all the information is uniform and organized.
The National Lawyers Guild is the leading resource for preparing legal observers. The NLG website has a wealth of information on the topic as well as a comprehensive legal observer training manual (PDF) which explains the roles and responsibilities of Legal Observers as well as recommendations for how to establish a Legal Observer team for your upcoming event.
The CLDC also provides resources for potential Legal Observers. We have organized Legal Observers for many demonstrations in the past. If you are interested in attending our next Legal Observer training or would like to schedule a Legal Observer training for your community, please contact us. In addition, if you need help recruiting Legal Observers for an upcoming event or have any other questions, you can call or email the CLDC.
If you are working as a Legal Observer with groups such as the NLG or CLDC in anticipation of litigation, you may be exposed to confidential and sensitive information. In such situations, you may be asked to sign a LO Confidentiality Agreement (PDF).
A Few Tips
Materials: A Legal Observer should always carry a pen and paper or the required forms for writing their observations, a camera or recording device for documenting situations, and an article that clearly identifies you as a Legal Observer (hat, t-shirt). An especially effective Legal Observer will also become familiar with the area in order to reference street names and directions. Noting the locations of restrooms or where medical care and other essential provisions can be obtained is also important. Know how to estimate distances and be able to recognize key players of the demonstration for communications purposes.
The Legality of Recording Cops: Videotaping police is one of the most powerful tools for protecting protesters. While police may assert that you must have consent to videotape them, the Oregon District Court suggests that videotaping police at a protest is protected under the First Amendment because protests are matters of public interest.
If your video camera is lost or damaged, you may want to bring a backup disposable camera or audio recorder.
Copwatching, sometimes called Police Watching, in its current incarnation is believed to have started in the early 1990’s in Berkeley, CA, but citizens have had their eye on cops throughout history. The group in Berkeley remains an authority in the area and they put together a handbook (http://www.berkeleycopwatch.org/resources.shtml) to assist any potential Copwatcher. Other Copwatching groups exist in towns and cities across the United States and Canada, many of which have websites and databases of incidents. Copwatching groups are intended both to promote public safety and to ensure that police officers remain accountable for their actions. They are almost exclusively organized and operated by volunteers promoting citizen action.
Copwatching is somewhat less technical than Legal Observing and anyone can join a Copwatch group. Copwatchers are on the lookout for police brutality at all times, not just when a demonstration or protest is taking place. However, the goals of decreasing police brutality and keeping cops accountable for their actions against citizens are the same. They also practice careful documentation of any incidents.
Copwatchers also usually refrain from becoming physically involved in police-citizen altercations, but may use non-violent tactics to help assert the rights of a detained individual.
Resources and links for some of the more active Copwatch groups in the larger West Coast and Southwest cities can be found below. Copwatching groups in the American Southwest are gaining momentum in response to the racial profiling mandated by SB 1070.
Berkeley, CA — http://www.berkeleycopwatch.org/
Portland, OR — http://www.portlandcopwatch.org/
Los Angeles, CA — http://www.copwatchla.org/
Phoenix, AZ — http://www.phoenixcopwatch.org/