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Do the Police Have an Obligation to Protect You?

By Richard Dahl | Last updated on

The Uvalde, Texas, School District Police Department has received withering criticism for its failure to stop a school gunman who shot and killed 19 children and two teachers.

While the shooter was inside two adjoining classrooms, 19 law enforcement officers stood outside for nearly an hour as they waited for tactical equipment to arrive.

Texas Department of Public Safety Col. Steven McCraw called it "the wrong decision. Period. There's no excuse for that." Calling the response "100% flawed," Thor Eells, executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association, said, "If you're in a classroom with innocent victims and I know that shots have been fired, I need to engage you."

Unfortunately, families of the victims have little legal recourse against the police because police officers are typically protected from lawsuits by qualified immunity. Police occasionally face consequences for their actions, like when Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering George Floyd. But criminal charges against police officers who fail to protect the public are extremely rare.

Questions of Police Duty

The motto, "To Protect and Serve," first coined by the Los Angeles Police Department in the 1950s, has been widely copied by police departments everywhere. But what, exactly, is a police officer's legal obligation to protect people? Must they risk their lives in dangerous situations like the one in Uvalde?

The answer is no.

In the 1981 case Warren v. District of Columbiathe D.C. Court of Appeals held that police have a general "public duty," but that "no specific legal duty exists" unless there is a special relationship between an officer and an individual, such as a person in custody.

The U.S. Supreme Court has also ruled that police have no specific obligation to protect. In its 1989 decision in DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services, the justices ruled that a social services department had no duty to protect a young boy from his abusive father. In 2005'sCastle Rock v. Gonzalesa woman sued the police for failing to protect her from her husband after he violated a restraining order and abducted and killed their three children. Justices said the police had no such duty.

Most recently, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit upheld a lower court ruling that police could not be held liable for failing to protect students in the 2018 shooting that claimed 17 lives at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Police Guidelines

Police do have protocols for dealing with dangerous situations like the ones in Uvalde and Parkland, and these protocols emphasize the need for police to take rapid action. The International Association of Chiefs of Police, for instance, says, "Taking action during active shooter incidents, rather than waiting for specially equipped and trained officers, can save lives and prevent serious injuries. Time lost by delayed action is likely to result in additional casualties."

IACP provides guidance on how officers in those situations should assess how to proceed with that rapid response.

No matter how they do it, it will probably be extremely dangerous. They might be risking their own lives.

But as courts have determined, they have no obligation to do that.

So, the next time you see a police car roll by with "To Protect and Serve" emblazoned on the door, keep in mind they have no constitutional obligation to do that.

If you need police to protect you, all you can do is hope they will.

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