How to be a legal observer

What is a legal observer?
What are the key roles of a legal observer?
Essential equipment
Mental preparation
Interaction with the police
Observation – the 5 W’s
Observing police tactics
Observing arrests
Observing stop and search

What is a legal observer?

Put simply, a legal observer is just someone who observes the policing of a demonstration. As a legal observer your role is to take careful note of the way the demonstration is being policed, and to give out basic information to demonstrators about legal rights to protest. If there are arrests, or if force is used by the police, legal observers can collect witness statements that may help protesters establish the facts in court.

While you are wearing a legal observer bib, you are a legal observer, not an activist. You should not to participate actively in the protest by holding banners, chanting, wearing stickers etc. This does not mean you are neutral – you are there to support protesters and you only need gather evidence which will help them, not the police.

You have no special legal status. Legal observers are usually respected by the police, but rarely get special treatment. Legal observers have to tread a difficult line between being near enough to an incident to observe what is taking place, but not so near that you as to get arrested for obstructing the police. You are not immune from arrest, but unless you are deliberately getting in the way it is rare for legal observers to be arrested.

You are not a lawyer, police negotiator or spokesperson for the protesters. You should not provide legal advice beyond what is provided in the bust cards, nor attempt to negotiate with the police, or speak on behalf of the protesters to journalists or police. Neither should you tell protesters what they should or shouldn’t do, no matter how strongly you feel. Your role is to observe!

What are the Key Roles of a Legal Observer

  • To monitor the policing of the protest, especially the use by police of controversial tactics such as stop and search and kettling.
  • To act as a deterrent to police misbehaviour. Legal observers are very noticeable in hi visibility bibs, and remind individual police officers that their actions are being monitored.
  • To reassure and inform protesters of their basic legal rights. Bust cards give information on basic protest rights, and contain the number of a trusted lawyer for them to call if they are arrested.
  • To monitor arrests. As a legal observer your role is to record anything you witness during an arrest, or obtain statements from other witnesses.
  • To record assaults on protesters by police. Legal observers should record assaults in as much detail as possible, and should attempt to obtain statements from any witnesses

Essential equipment

A watch – You need to be able to check the time easily and quickly – not that easy on a mobile phone. Notebook – get one that fits in a pocket with a hard back so it is easy to write on the go.
Pen and Pencil – A pencil writes better in the rain. But you need a back-up.
Mobile phone – Essential
A small map of the city/area.
Food/water – depending on where and for how long you will or may be legal observing for.
Recording equipment – a Dictaphone is great for taking witness statements, and recording things in a hurry, although it can be very labour intensive to transcribe it all afterwards!
Camera – can be useful, but care needs to be taken to avoid taking incriminating pictures
Video camera – this is risky, as it is difficult to be really in control of what you film. Police may also seize the footage if they think it contains evidence.

Mental preparation

Often legal observing takes a surprising amount of concentration and energy. Be prepared for this and if you feel that you are physically or mentally worn out try and get relieved. It is a stressful and responsible role. Never do it if you have had any alcohol. Also, no matter how experienced you are, you will always miss something, so don’t beat yourself up afterwards about it. Everyone feels nervous and probably unprepared on their first time – you learn a lot ‘on the job’ but it can be extremely rewarding. Don’t worry if you feel like you need more knowledge, you will pick it up as you go along, and we hope this briefing will give you most of what you need.

Interaction with the police.

Some interaction with police can be helpful – you may want to obtain information from them such as their plans to release people from a kettle, or their reasons for a stop and search. Don’t assume that what the police tell you is true – often they are misleading or downright untruthful.

However, the police may try and draw you into negotiating on behalf of the protesters. This is NOT the role of a legal observer. It is essential that you are not seen as a police ‘go-between’, as you could easily lose the trust of the protesters. If the police ask you to take messages or negotiate with protesters, politely decline and tell them that as a legal observer you must not be seen as being directly involved in events.

The police may ask about the legal observer role. There is no particular reason why you need to explain your role, or tell them whether you are, or are not, legally trained. You can explain that you are there to monitor policing, that you have had training to be a legal observer, but are not (as is sometimes alleged) ‘touting for business’ on behalf of certain law firms.

Observation – the 5 W’s

The 5 Ws: Who, What, Where, When, Why.

  • Who – Write down the shoulder ID numbers of any officers involved, and names of witnesses or victims.
  • What – Simply what is happening, for example, police have formed a line stopping people from leaving.
  • Where – Where did it happen? Junction of High Street and King Street, outside WH Smith.
  • When – The time is essential! It may be an idea to get used to noting the time at regular intervals even when nothing is happening, so that when an incident happens you can make an approximation of the time from your notes later.
  • Why – When you have a calm moment, you can note your analysis of events – but be sure not to write anything down that can incriminate a protester.

Other things to note:
What the police say – Any explanations the police give of why they are doing what they are doing, anything that is said prior to the use of force, or during an arrest can be crucial evidence. Write it down!

Observing police tactics.

There are a number of things to look out for:

Police forming lines and kettles. Sometimes police will form loose cordons, which allow people to pass through, but which allow the police to close the road quickly, or to allow people to pass in one direction only. It is worth noting any change or use of police cordons.

Deployment of police evidence gathering or surveillance teams. Note their shoulder ID numbers, in case protesters want to track down police footage or photographs later. Note whether they are taking still photographs or using video cameras. Look out also for Forward Intelligence Officers who are normally seen wearing a blue ‘bib’ on their yellow hi-vis jackets.

Taking photographs without consent. There is no obligation on protesters to co-operate with police photography. The police cannot use force to make someone have their photograph taken, nor demand that protesters are lined up in order to be filmed or photographed, and legal observers should look out for this.

Police data gathering. The police often misuse powers to obtain the name and address of people on the protest. This happens most frequently at stop and search operations, or on allowing people to leave a kettle or containment. Any instance of the police insisting on taking someone’s name and address should be noted.

Stop and search. This is a police tactic that is frequently misused on demonstrations. Legal observers should take careful notes of any stop and search operations, particularly if the police appear to be focusing on a specific group or ethnicity.

Use of metal cordons or crowd control barriers. A penned area surrounded by crowd control barriers may mean the police intend to pen or kettle the protest in that area, or keep protesters out of an area they wish to protest in. The use of such pens can sometimes involve the use of force by police, and should be monitored.

The use of force The use of horses or dogs for crowd control purposes should be closely monitored by legal observers, as should the use of batons, shields and any other instrument of force. Police frequently push and shove people at demonstrations. The police must be able to justify the use of any force used – if they cannot, the use of force is unlawful.

Snatch squads. Police sometimes form arrest teams, or snatch squads, which move quickly into a protest area or kettle to make an arrest.

Observing arrests

Get a name. If possible ask the person arrested for their name, as this helps track what has happened to them. Sometimes people do not want to give their names to the police, and legal observers should respect this and not press for a name if they do not want to give it. Sometimes it is possible to obtain a name from friends of the person arrested.

Give them a bust card. Sometimes you may be able to give the person being arrested a bust card – although very often you will not be able to get close enough to do this. It is worth making an extra effort to hand out bust cards if it looks as though the police may make arrests.

Note the reason for arrest. The person arrested should be told that they are under arrest, and the reason for their arrest. If you are close enough to hear conversation, listen out for this. If the person is not given the right information, it can make the arrest unlawful. Make a careful note of everything the police officers do and say.

Note any use of force. Force is frequently used on arrests, but it should not be excessive. Note the use of handcuffs including whether the person is handcuffed to the front or rear, and whether the person seems to be in pain from the use of the handcuffs. Other force used on arrests can include leg straps which bind the legs together, the use of pressure points to cause pain, neck holds, pressure placed on ankle and other joints, arm and wrist locks and knee or hand strikes.

Obtain witnesses. If you have not been able to observe an arrest, ask around to see if you can locate any witnesses. Take contact details, preferably a name, e-mail address AND telephone number, and ask them to complete a witness statement. If you have a dictophone or other recording device, it can be useful to ask them to talk through what they saw.

Observing Stop and Search

Legal observers should familiarise themselves with the various search powers that the police can use. The key things to note are the reasons why an individual or group were selected for a stop and search and whether the police insisted on obtaining personal details. Legal observers should always take a note of time, place and police officers involved in a stop and search.

Legal observers should look out for any instances where the police appear to be focusing their stop and search activity on any particular ethnic or social group.

Legal observers should also look out for instances where police insist on obtaining the name and address of the person searched, either by threat or by taking the name from an item discovered during the search, such as a bank card. The presence of a police video or stills camera should also be noted.

3 Responses to “How to be a legal observer”

  1. Tim 08/12/2012 at 13:49 #

    Yes the police may do stuff wrong, but the protesters are also sometimes in the wrong, actively encouraging people not to take evidence of criminality within the protestors is ridiculous… This article has a huge ANTI police bias, and they are there to protect the public and the property around. This may include methods that seem dubious, BUT ARE LEGAL but the methods sometimes used by protestors are CRIMINAL and therefore should expect the law to be used against them.

  2. Stuart 09/11/2013 at 11:38 #

    Tim i think you have taken this article and put your own interpretation upon it, i hope for all parties sake that in the future you never become a Legal Observer as you would indeed be totally biased .


    • Frank Coles (@FrankColes) 10/02/2014 at 21:24 #

      Please clarify what you mean Stuart. Why shouldn’t you record incriminating behaviour of protestors? It seems a reasonable query (although gratuitous use of CAPS).

      If for example I was an observer of either an ANL or EDL demo and saw a demonstrator willfully attacking an uninvolved pedestrian (while police are kettling) why would I not record this? Obviously as a legal observer I would primarily be there to record police behaviour but as citizen I could not turn a blind eye to such an attack.

      That would seem immoral.

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