Legal or human rights observers act as an independent third party, observing police behaviour in order to keep police accountable for their actions. Legal observers can write incident reports describing police violence and misbehaviour and compile reports after the event. As observers, they are more removed and thus better able to objectively and independently describe events.
It is vital that a Legal Observer Team has discussed and is clear about their role and mandate, especially about whether their role is to monitor the behaviour or police, of protesters of both or of others. A political philosophy to legal support will generally insist that the role of Legal Observers is to monitor the behaviour of the police and that their role is not to police or to monitor protester behaviour in anyway.
It is arguably inappropriate for Legal Observer Teams who are committed to working in political support and solidarity with protesters to monitor and quasi-police the actions of protestors. The police and the apparatus of the state dedicate plenty of resources to the profiling, surveillance and criminalisation of individuals and movements that work towards progressive social change. Legal Observer Teams should aims to widen the political space to take protest action; by monitoring violence and harassment by police and other authorities and acting in a way that better enables movements to take the actions they want to take (whether those actions are inside or beyond the law).
Legal Observers are needed to provide handouts on legal information, provide protesters with phone numbers for legal support, track arrests and policing incidents and collate information for ongoing legal support and or arrestee solidarity.
Legal Observers should also encourage protest participants to write an appropriate legal support telephone number (this may be a mobile number activated by the legal Support team for this particular protest, or the number of a supportive criminal law firm or community legal centre). Even participants who do not intend to get arrested or feel they will not get arrested should be encouraged to do this. Firstly, police responses may be unpredictable and arbitrary and it is not uncommon for people who had no intention of being arrested (even bystanders who were not part of the protest) to be arrested. Secondly, if some participants have the number written on their hand and others don’t it may cause police attention to be drawn to people with the number on their hand, on the assumption that they intend to engage in more militant or confrontational tactics.
Legal Observers are vital to create a feeling of safety, to allow people to make informed decisions about their actions and to observe police tactics and promote accountability.
It is useful for Legal Observers to identify themselves as such by wearing signs or distinctive clothing such as fleuro safety vests with ‘Legal Observer’ stencilled on the back. Make sure each Legal Obersver is equipped with a clipboard, relevant arrest tracking sheets, blank paper and pens.
Make sure you have debriefing organised - the role can be very draining, as Legal Observer may be witnesses to police violence, but the role requires them to keep doing. In such situations organising a group debrief to acknowledge how shocking and upsetting some of the things that were witnessed and observed may have been.
If a Legal Observer Team is not possible, arrange for people to video, record and take notes during the action.
Download and use the Arrest Watch Report Forms Located on this website under Support team resources
Also see the National Lawyers Guild ‘Legal Observer Manual’