Legal Observing a Football Match
Heading to a day conference recently, I found myself witnessing a fairly major public order policing operation, concerning a football match between two teams with a history of violent clashes between supporters. Being me, this meant deciding whether to start legal observing (watching the police and writing down almost everything they do), or simply pass on and hope nothing came of it. But then someone I know from the world of activism spotted me and asked me, with some incredulity, if I was legal observing a football match. I found this quite a bizarre question, but it dawned on me that, to some activists, the use of legal observation in this situation was a bit silly.
Legal Observers are those people you sometimes see on protests wearing bright orange jackets, who aren’t stewards. Sometimes they’ll be from Liberty, i.e. an NGO, and sometimes they’ll be less organised. There are also dark-green bibbed legal observers from the NUJ, who’s job is purely to legal observe interactions between police and journalists. There is no legal protection or status of a legal observer, but the unwritten rule says that they’re removed from the protest situation and have some level of legal knowledge. This usually means they know more about public order law than the police officers around them!
Anyhow, the assumption that my friend seemed to be making was that legal observation is about protecting the liberties of, and gathering evidence for use by, protesters. However, I would certainly say that there is a much deeper, much more objective reason for citizens to monitor the activities of police forces.
For instance, many of the breaches of civil liberties inflicted by the police are a case of sloppiness, such as failure to observe the law when stopping and searching individuals. If individual officers are allowed to develop bad habits during visible operations, like failing to tell someone under which power they are being stopped and searched (generally s.44 terrorism, s.1 PACE or s.60 Public Order), then what’s to stop them continuing these habits when its groups of young Asian lads on street corners at night, and no one sees the abuse taking place?
As I’ve already said, police officers often only have hazy ideas of how exactly the law works, and they’re often under the impression that they can ask much more of people during stop & searches than they are actually allowed to. And there’s good reason why they don’t have total power, and its important that somebody takes the time to keep them under check; after all, a state where the police have total power is nothing less than a police state.
Surely legal observing is about showing the police that people do care if they cut corners on civil liberties, regardless of who these abuses target. Surely its also in part because the police, like everyone else, will develop habits over time, and through monitoring, complaining and civil-case challenges, we can prevent them from getting away with sloppiness. Surely its because, ultimately, all humans are endowed with certain inalienable human rights at birth and these need protecting? Or do we only care about protesters?