Legal observers have been easy to spot at recent George Floyd-inspired demonstrations in Las Vegas. If their clearly marked red T-shirts or blue vests don’t reveal them, their vigorous note-taking will.
The positions, filled by lawyers, law students or community members with legal experience, are designed to be neutral parties in large gatherings where emotions might “run very high,” said Wesley Juhl, spokesman for American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada.
During a protest June 13 on the Strip, it was the emotions of legal observers that ran high. Metro Police and North Las Vegas Police detained and cited about a half-dozen of the observers, one of whom was booked into jail. At least two legal observers were “antagonizing and obstructing” officers, Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo later said.
Although their misdemeanor cases were being handled in traffic court, the episode set off a debate about what the role of the observers is.
What’s a legal observer?
Juhl described legal observers as neutral participants who show up to protests to monitor and document the actions of police to make sure there’s no First Amendment violations.
The role goes back until at least 1968, when the National Lawyers Guild established its Observer program in New York as protesters took to the streets for anti-war and civil rights rallies, according to the organization’s website. It quickly expanded to Chicago that year during the Democratic National Convention, where there were reports of mass arrests amid demonstrations.
Guild members in Las Vegas have made up the majority of the observers at recent protests. They wear bright red T-shirts.
Before going out to protests, the volunteer recruits go through training. The ACLU has an observer program in Northern Nevada, where participants receive refreshers on protester rights and the law, and they are taught how and what to document or record, Juhl said. ACLU observers typically wear blue vests.
Additionally, the National Lawyers Guild has a training program, where its members “who often have established attorney-client relationships with activist organizations or are in litigation challenging police tactics at mass assemblies” instruct recruits, according to its website.
When officers make arrests, observers try to document the names of the protesters and officers involved, and let the arrestees know of their rights.
The goal of having legal observers, according to the lawyers guild, is to deter “unconstitutional behavior” by police.
The bulk of the Las Vegas observers at recent protests, including those swept up by police, have been trained by the guild, Juhl said, noting that although ACLU of Nevada observers haven’t been arrested, some were hit with tear gas during a Reno protest.
Are they exempt from arrests?
Officers who detained the observers this month near the Strip did so after they gave dispersal orders during a march, police said.
When time allows, police give out several warnings through a loudspeaker before they move in to arrest participants. From that time on, the arrest of anyone who doesn’t leave the area is considered justified.
Lombardo last week defended the arrest of the observers, saying that a couple had shoved phones in the faces of officers and that another had apparently led a group of “aggressive protesters” when he went to approach an officer in a Metro cruiser.
Lawyers for the observers challenged the allegations, noting that they were just doing their job by taking photos and trying to collect information. Furthermore, they alleged the dispersal orders were confusing and that protesters were essentially trapped before officers moved in.
The lawyers said all of the observers detained were on sidewalks before they were cuffed.
“Legal observers should not be arrested for doing their job at protests, just as journalists shouldn’t,” Juhl said, referencing a pair of Las Vegas photojournalists who were taken to jail during a previous protest.
After the episode with the observers, Gov. Steve Sisolak called for an investigation. Lombardo said the department was looking into 17 complaints, noting that such probes last at least 30 days.
‘A good first step’
After authorities and lawyers gave conflicting news conferences, representatives from Metro met with several advocate groups to continue discussions about the roles of police, protesters and observers.
Police said the discussions have included the ACLU, Black Lives Matter, the lawyers guild, the Clark County Public Defenders Office, Clark County commissioners, the Nevada Attorney General’s Office, Las Vegas City Council, and Nevada lawmakers.
On June 19, Metro said it would communicate with legal observers prior to protests and “establish a designated liaison.”
When giving dispersal orders, police said they would give more clear instructions from different directions to “avoid confrontation and conflict.”
It also released guidelines and rules on what police and protesters should expect from each other.
Hours later, as officers moved to make arrests during a Juneteenth march in which protesters blocked Las Vegas Boulevard traffic, the observers were left alone. A pair of women in red shirts were seen quickly jotting notes as the commotion broke out a few feet away.