Legal Observers Help Monitor Police

NEW YORK - DECEMBER 4: People gather in front of the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Buiding during a protest December 4
NEW YORK - DECEMBER 4: People gather in front of the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Buiding during a protest December 4, 2014 in New York. Protests began after a Grand Jury decided to not indict officer Daniel Pantaleo. Eric Garner died after being put in a chokehold by Pantaleo on July 17, 2014. Pantaleo had suspected Garner of selling untaxed cigarettes. (Photo by Yana Paskova/Getty Images)

The advent of smartphones and other easily accessible recording technology have clearly demonstrated that in the face of police brutality, civilians can find power in observation and documentation. The extent of this power, though, has been limited by just about every law, ordinance and restriction possible.

Take, for example, the case of Eric Garner. The police officer that choked him was not indicted for his murder, despite a video recording of the entire interaction. The videographer was even arrested on weapons charges. Even with increasingly sophisticated "copwatch" technology, it seems almost prohibitively difficult to unravel the concealed web of police brutality and subsequent non-indictment that has spiked in public consciousness this year.

One key aspect of the machinery needed to unravel this web might be legal observers. Common consensus first places legal observers on the ground in London in the 1930s, during protests against the British Union of Fascists (rumored to have been supported by the British police force). Legal observers have since been utilized by many groups across the globe, from Australia to the United States, to support protesters and organizers when a conflict with police and security forces may arise. How? By observing and documenting police activity.

The term "legal observer" isn't legally recognized, and people falling under that title are given no legal privileges or protections. Rather, it is a strategy that has been used by organizations including Amnesty International, the Black Panthers, the ACLU, and Baltimore Action Legal Team (BALT), the organization whose training I attended. BALT's definition is simple: legal observers are the 'eyes and ears' of the legal team.

While BALT's mission is explicitly to support racial justice organizers in Baltimore, legal observers always assume a neutral, third party position when attending protests and actions. They stay on the sidelines, which is conveniently also where police forces spend the duration of protests, and focus all of their attention and energy on documenting the police, not the protesters. During the span of a protest, legal observers note how many police are present, what type of equipment they're carrying, any displays of force or intimidation, and most importantly, arrests. During an arrest (which is also most likely to happen on the sidelines of a protest), a legal observer will ask the arrestee for their name and date of birth, and document any injuries or excessive force being used. This data gets called in immediately to a team of lawyers. With that information, arrestees can be tracked through the system from the minute of their arrest, and connected to bail funds, eyewitness testimony, and legal supports.

In essence, legal observers take notes on everything the police do. This, in theory, not only provides legal recourse to protesters who've been subject to police misconduct, but also incentivizes police to not engage in misconduct in the first place. If you know you're being watched, you're less likely to break the rules. The legal observer strategy has the added benefits that 1) there's no chance of accidentally capturing protester civil disobedience in the background of your video of police misconduct, and 2) eyewitness testimony is still widely respected in courts of law, meaning you won't get arrested on weapons charges.

Still, the strategy is limited. Would a legal observer have helped indict, for example, Eric Garner's killer? Probably not. Eric Garner wasn't at a protest; he was standing on a street corner. Unless legal observers are placed 24/7 at every single street corner, which isn't likely, it's doubtful that this strategy will accomplish anything for acts of violence such as the one that took his life (or Michael Brown's, Tamir Rice's , Yvette Smith's, Aiyana Stanley-Jones' etc.).

What legal observers can do is provide legal protection for the revolution against police misconduct and brutality. They can observe, document, and expose the ways in which revolt is pushed down. And, they can provide a means for fighting back against the tactics used to quell revolutionaries.

In short, legal observers are not going to curtail police brutality. They can, however, weaken the smoke-screening that deters revolutionary progress against it.