Protest monitors would provide eyes on all

Activists held a "4th Precinct Shutdown Eviction" rally at City Hall in December 2015. File photo by Sarah McKenzie

City officials are researching an idea to enlist independent protest monitors to observe protests as a neutral party.

The research underway is commissioned by the city’s Police Conduct Oversight Commission (PCOC), which audits police complaints and makes recommendations on policing policy.

PCOC member Andrew Buss said the Twin Cities are starting to see significant numbers of protests, ranging from the Black Lives Matter movement at the 4th Precinct to the Women’s March that drew thousands to St. Paul.

“There are going to be events or confrontations or a lot of he-said-she-said types of situations,” Buss said. “Part of the idea here is to have a designated, independent neutral party that’s visibly identifiable. They don’t work for the police, they’re not part of the protest. They stay on their own neutral turf but they’re monitoring both sides.”

Minneapolis monitors could be dispatched whenever there is protest activity, Police Conduct Operations Supervisor Ryan Patrick said in a presentation last fall. They would wear recognizable clothing and carry a camera.

The monitors would watch to see whether police are allowing peaceful protests to happen, and whether citizens are acting outside the bounds of a peaceful protest, Buss said. They could watch for police orders to disperse, any abusive language, use of force, police lines that enclose or herd protesters, arrests, treatment of medical personnel, treatment of the press, use of chemical irritants, and whether police allow citizens to record the action.

“Some police have stopped people from using cameras to record,” Buss said.

Officers guard the 4th Precinct in mid-November as protesters condemned the police shooting of Jamar Clark. File photo by Annabelle Marcovici
Officers guard the 4th Precinct in November 2015 as protesters condemned the police shooting of Jamar Clark. File photo by Annabelle Marcovici

Washington, D.C. is cited as a model for independent protest monitors. Under the city’s Office of Police Complaints, monitors wearing black and silver jackets with the OPC logo recently watched demonstrations surrounding President Donald Trump’s inauguration. Their report on the protest is due out this month. A 2015 report on a National Mall rally organized by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan said officers behaved in a “professional and commendable” manner. Eight monitors at that rally said police were alert and non-confrontational, provided traffic control, and didn’t bar the press from any area of the protest. The report reminded officers that names and badge numbers should be visible at all times over traffic vests or other clothing.

Staff from the Office of Police Conduct Review and the Civil Rights Department are currently studying the idea. Unanswered questions include the method of choosing the monitors, what authorities or protections monitors would have, and the source of program funding.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the National Lawyers Guild send marshals and legal observers to protests as well.

“The difference here — and I don’t mean this in a negative way — but they have their own agenda of why they’re there, what they’re looking for,” Buss said. “[Monitors] are intended to be a truly neutral party. … They’re just there to watch both sides.”

The observations could result in a debriefing session, a summary report or perhaps a policy recommendation, he said.

“Help make things better for the future for the next time something rolls around,” Buss said.