The cops are at demonstrations to observe and deter actions of the protesters. As a legal observer, you are there to observe and deter the cops. Even though protesters are usually more interesting to watch, make sure you're paying attention to the cops at all times. Also, be careful to represent yourself to the police and media as an observer, not as a spokesperson for other activists.
Work in pairs to corroborate each other's testimony and to keep each other safe. If one person is using a still camera or video camera, their partner should be taking written notes. And since people using cameras often get "tunnel vision," their partner should be keeping an eye out for danger or activity.
PreparationKnowing what type of demonstration you will be observing (mass permitted rally, small direct action, etc.) will help you prepare yourself appropriately. If you're unfamiliar with the area where you'll be observing, spend some time learning key street names and landmarks as well as orienting yourself by compass directions. Also, make sure you have any phone numbers you'll need handy: the National Lawyer's Guild, organizers of the protest, Legal Observer Coordinator, legal team, legal support person, medical team, etc.
PracticeTelevision culture makes people very passive observers. To hone your active observation skills, practice by taking notes or making a running commentary of everyday events. You can improve your ability to estimate distances by marking off increments on the sidewalk and memorizing them, or by estimating distances and checking with a tape measure.
- Pens (waterproof ink — it could rain water or pepper spray)
- Legal Observer Hat/T-shirt/Armband
- Extra water
- Tape recorder (& extra battery & extra tapes)
- Still camera (& extra film)
- Video camera (see the attached Video Observing guide)
- Cell phone, radio, or pager
In some states, you must give people notice that you are recording them with video cameras, tape recorders, etc. However, you don't have to announce it — having the device in plain view is notice enough. Be careful: Having a tape recorder and especially a video camera makes you a cop magnet.
In order to keep your notes, tapes, and film safe from the elements and from overzealous cops, you can periodically mail them to yourself or to the legal team, or have a runner who can take sensitive footage (or your whole camera) and run away with it.
Taking NotesIt sounds easy, but taking real-time notes when events are unfolding quickly is a skill that takes some practice. The information you collect could mean the difference between conviction and dropped charges for activists (and cops). The easiest way to make your notes useful for the legal team is to transfer them to a police misconduct report or copy them in an organized, legible format. Do this as soon as possible after the action, before your memory fades.
Number and date each page you take notes on and write "Attorney Work Product — Privileged and Confidential" on top of each sheet. Do this before the demonstration. By each entry, write the exact time. If you are taking pictures, write the roll number and shot number by the entry to give it context.
Some things to note:
- Name, rank, badge number, agency, and description of each officer present, and of the commanding officer (note if officers refuse to give this information)
- Name or nickname of arrestees and victim(s) of misconduct
- Names and contact information of any witnesses, including media (corporate or independent)
- Any force used by cops — pushing, shoving, blocking protestors with their bodies, grabbing arms, tripping, striking people, etc.
- Detailed description of arrests and anything the cops do that seems messed up
- Which weapons police used and how (e.g. Protesters drenched with pepper spray, tear gas canisters fired directly at someone, horses used to run into people, etc.)
- Police equipment and weapons (body armor, shields, pepper spray, tasers, etc.)
- License plate and ID # of official vehicles, or private cars moving through the demonstration
- Police actions and demeanor (e.g. marching around rhythmically thumping their leg armor with their batons, putting on or taking off gas masks etc.)
- Any inappropriate language, including swear words, identity-based insults (racist/sexist/homophobic, etc.), and rude language ("You idiots," "Moron," etc.)
- Not warning people to disperse before arresting them, refusing to let them disperse, etc.
- Warnings not audible and/or intelligible
- Exact date, time and location — update this throughout the demonstration
- Include street names, address #s, landmarks, what side of the street you're on, etc.
- Statements made by police and other officials
- If bystanders are taking leaflets, talking with protesters, and other 1st Amendment activities
- If the cops are blocking traffic — with their vehicles, hand motions, etc.
Video ObservingVideo of police misconduct has been crucial to winning cases against the cops. Video can show a whole scene from beginning to end. It's a lot harder for the police to make excuses for footage of sustained aggression and violence than it is for them to excuse a single photo. And the media loves video of police brutality. Here are some tips to help you make the most of videotaping the cops.
Battery Care:Charge your battery before the action and bring a fully charged spare. When you take the battery out of your camera, it may disrupt the date and time stamp, so you may have to reset that information. Remove the battery when storing the camera to prolong battery life.
Date/Time Stamping:Setting your camera clock is extremely importanti. If other people haven't set their camera clocks properly (very likely!), your tape may provide the timeline to which all other tapes of an incident can be synchronized. Make sure your camera's date/time stamp is set accurately before you go to the action. Setting the clock to your cell phone is a good idea.
If you're using mini-DV tapes, you don't have to make it visible in the video, because it's embedded in the tape. Making the time stamp visible makes it potentially easier to use as evidence later on in court; making it invisible will prevent the time stamp from visually covering up something you want to video. If you're using a camera without date/time stamping, narrate the information at the beginning and end of each segment: "It's now 9:30am on September 3, 2007. . ."