How Do I Become a Legal Observer?

Marlene Garcia

No special skills are needed to become a legal observer, but training sessions and workshops might prepare a person for unexpected events at a demonstration or election rally. A person who wants to operate video equipment as a legal observer might consider taking a short course to learn how to record successful videos. Some activist groups offer training to people who want to become a legal observer for the organization. One group is the Activist Legal Project in the United Kingdom, which uses volunteers who become legal observers at political protests.

When an activist is arrested, details of the incident are recorded by a legal observer.
When an activist is arrested, details of the incident are recorded by a legal observer.

A legal observer is not an activist, but an unbiased witness who records police misconduct, documenting as much information as possible. This person commonly wears a T-shirt or other form of identification to alert law enforcement he or she is not part of a demonstration. A legal observer watches what takes place and records details of any confrontation between protesters and police.

A legal observer may record police misconduct.
A legal observer may record police misconduct.

Observers commonly carry a clipboard, pens, and a small tape recorder. If an activist is arrested or injured, legal observers write down the name of the person arrested, the date and time, and what led to the confrontation. The name of the arresting officer, the identification of any media present, and names of witnesses represent other information observers note.

These notes are typically compiled into a narrative after the demonstration concludes. This preserves details of the encounter for civil or criminal court proceedings where the observer may be asked to testify. Organizations that train people to become legal observers commonly recommend that narratives be stored in a secure place and a copy be given to an activist support group.

Risks are typically explained to anyone who wants to become a legal observer. The volunteer enjoys no special rights and might face arrest. He or she does not give legal advice, although some activist support groups ask a legal observer to hand out information cards to anyone arrested. These cards might include contact information for the attorney who represents the organization and a phone number of the support group.

During training to become a legal observer, role playing might prepare the volunteer for various scenarios. These exercises focus on the observer’s safety and provide tips on behavior so the observer stands apart from demonstrators. Workshops might stress that an observer does not handle crowd control or serve as a spokesperson for the organization that trains him or her.

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