NMP publishes report on community legal observing during the London Olympics

The gloss and spectacle of mega sporting events can hide many potential threats to human rights and equality. Today, on International Migrants Day, we are reminded of one of the starkest examples of this: the pattern of exploitation of migrant workers that has cast a shadow over the preparations for global sports events in recent years. In September 2013, reports emerged of brutality and forced labour in Qatar, which is preparing for the World Cup in 2022. This is one of many instances of exploitation around such events that extend beyond the appalling denial of employment rights. These include the displacement of people from their homes (as witnessed in Rio’s favelas in the preparation for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics in Brazil), unfulfilled promises to create jobs and affordable housing, environmental damage and harassment of working class, black or migrant communities by security officials, enforcement officers and police.

During the 2012 Olympics, Newham Monitoring Project (NMP) set up a human rights observation project in an attempt to monitor, record and challenge any detrimental impact on or targeting of local communities in east London. Today we publish a report setting out in detail how one of the UK’s longest-established civil rights organisations deployed close to a hundred ‘community legal observers’ (CLOs) during last summer’s Olympics, what these volunteers witnessed and how the experience of monitoring street level policing during such a major event can help other organisations, both in the UK and abroad, to consider using community legal observers in the future.

‘Monitoring Olympics policing during the 2012 Security Games’ is available online here or to download here [PDF, 1.1 Mb]

Important lessons that NMP learnt during the six weeks of the Olympics and Paralympics in London include the following:

Local information is essential

Before the start of the Olympics, NMP expected that the massive increase in security associated with the Games would exacerbate existing concerns about oppressive local policing, rather than necessarily create entirely new ones. As a casework-based civil rights organisation with more than 30 years of experience working in the main Olympic host borough, we had a wealth of knowledge that provided a local context so that our CLOs had some idea of what they might expect. It meant, for example, that we already had a clear picture of hotspot areas for the use of police powers of stop and search and of the policing of dispersal zones in the borough.

Most local communities outside of east London do not have organisations with NMP’s remit, which means that other organisers of community legal observing will need to allocate time and resources to talk to those most affected by heavy-handed local policing – young people in general, and members of black communities (especially young men) in particular. Gathering information and trends about people’s experiences of the police is a vital part of planning CLO training.

It is worthwhile recruiting and training as large a pool of volunteers as possible

Unlike legal observing during a demonstration or protest, where the commitment of volunteers is measured in hours, NMP faced drawing up a rota covering up to 12 hours a day for the six week duration of the Games, involving teams of at least three CLOs. Whilst some of our student volunteers were able to give more time over the summer, others were only available for evening shifts. We were, therefore, fortunate to attract over 100 people to take part in CLO training. This meant that we had a larger pool of volunteers to draw upon, with 83 people participating in rota shifts. The volunteers who came forward were diverse in terms of age, ethnicity and included teachers, lawyers, students, local residents and activists.

It was important to ensure CLO training focused on observation and common sense

CLOs are not lawyers and our training emphasised that their role was to gather evidence rather than to intervene, which means that specialist legal experience was unnecessary. Anyone could participate – volunteers simply needed common sense, an ability to keep calm and a preparedness to record whatever they witnessed. Whilst the training provided background on issues most likely to affect local residents, especially young people, it also focused on what to record if witnessing an arrest, how to recognise different police ranks and how to deal with confrontational behaviour by individual officers.

The most experienced legal observers are needed at the start

It was helpful to have more seasoned CLOs acting as team leaders and out on the streets with new volunteers on the first days of legal observing, when we were unclear about the police reaction to an initiative they had not encountered before. In practice this meant at least one member of NMP’s staff team and volunteers who had previously taken part in legal observation for Green and Black Cross (GBC Legal) during protests. The first evening, with the Olympics opening ceremony, was exceptionally busy because of the decision by the police to arrest and detain a large number of cyclists taking part in a Critical Mass ride. However, we were just as concerned about documenting the lower-profile, day-to-day incidents, and the presence of experienced volunteers helped to build the confidence of the CLO teams to deal with the situations that had been outlined during the training.

Community Legal Observing is not just documenting incidents but talking to people

Time spent talking to local people about their experiences and handing out rights cards was just as valuable as the monitoring of police activity. This is part of the expanded role of CLOs that differentiates them from legal observers at protests, and our volunteers told us this was the most enjoyable part of their shifts:

No one ever responded negatively, about 50% with curiosity, wanting to know more, and a great many with delight that such a project existed…

I got the sense from many I spoke to that in discovering there were actions they could take to protect their rights, and that there was an organisation out there to support them, they felt empowered again to stand up for themselves when they felt they were being treated unfairly.

The cards we handed out had become well recognised by the final shifts I did. On more than one occasion I offered out cards to be told that the person I was offering it to already had one, or their friends had one and they knew what it was about.

Back office support for volunteers on the streets is essential

NMP adopted some of the evolving good practice used by GBC Legal (borrowing with permission from the GBC London guide for regional groups) to ensure CLOs had constant contact with a staffed office for support and guidance and to report regularly on what they had seen and heard. This was covered by at least one member of the NMP staff team and ensured we were able to analyse trends and, when necessary, follow up with more detailed legal advice or referrals to solicitors in the event of an arrest.

Recording a timeline helps to manage evidence gathered

Again, NMP drew upon the experience of GBC Legal in using a very detailed timeline of events consisting of Back Office call logs, CLO notes and, on occasion, emails from members of the public. One volunteer was responsible for coordinating the daily updating of the timeline spreadsheet, on which all evidence gathered was noted. This included descriptions of individual encounters with officers, incidents of the use of police powers, details of changes in police presence or movements of vehicles, CLOs perceptions of the general mood or level of tension and any community feedback received.

Regular volunteer meetings and feedback are essential

We encouraged volunteers to phone in with emerging developments during each shift and also provided a simple template to help CLOs type up their notes. It was also helpful to have a dedicated email address – we set up olympics@nmp.org.uk – to ensure that incoming information was directed to the volunteer coordinating evidence and added to the timeline every day. In addition, we held weekly open meetings for volunteers to address their experiences during shifts, address specific concerns and debate changing tactics by CLO teams.

‘Cycle patrols’ by CLOs enabled us to cover far more ground

One of the ideas that emerged from the weekly CLO meetings was to organise CLO shifts with teams of cyclists, which would enable volunteers to cover a far larger area. This was a major success: it meant that CLOs were able to respond quickly to information picked up from talking to local people and on a number of occasions, to attend and witness incidents in the streets and estates well away from the main Olympic venues.

A celebration of our CLO volunteers’ work was important and uplifting

After volunteers had worked so closely together, it was important to organise an event at the end of the Olympics and Paralympics period to thank everyone for their commitment and hard work over the summer. This took place a few weeks after the Games were over and included a first look at some of the key trends that emerged from the evidence gathered. CLOs also received a surprise memento of their volunteering during August and September – a medal bearing the famous ‘human rights salute’ protest by Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Peter Norman at the 1968 Mexico Olympic Games.