Legal Observers and Cop-Watchers

Guidelines, Strategy and Tactics for Legal Observers


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.

Overall Strategy

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 cameras.

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 observer.

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.

Taking Notes

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 this.

  • Who is in charge. If they refuse to tell you who's in charge, make note of this.

  • Warnings given, who gave them, time given.

  • 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 numbers.

  • 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.

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