The Police Have No Obligation To Protect You. Yes, Really.

It’s a holiday. You’re at the beach with your family when you notice a man standing neck deep in the water. Something tells you he may be trying to commit suicide. Firemen and police officers soon arrive, but to your amazement, they do nothing, watching for an hour until the man finally succeeds. Then they refuse to collect his body. Disgusted, you swim out and pull the unfortunate man to shore.

Fanciful fiction? Unfortunately, no. On Memorial Day, 2011, a suicidal man stood in San Francisco Bay near Alameda in neck deep water for about an hour as many people watched. The man’s mother called 911 and police and firefighters responded but did nothing, and when the man finally drowned, they refused to enter the water to bring his body to shore. A bystander had to do it.

Firefighters blamed budget cuts, which did not allow them to properly train for cold-water rescues. The police said they didn’t know if the man was dangerous and therefore could not risk the safety of their officers. The bystander was apparently unencumbered by a lack of specific training and the fear that paralyzed the police.

Americans have come to believe that first responders, particularly the police, not only will protect them but have a duty to protect them. It is this belief that underpins arguments about gun control and every other nanny state social policy. Don’t worry, be happy for the benevolent state will provide for and protect you. Leave it to the experts.

In truth, the state can’t protect anyone and has no such legal obligation. As the citizens of Alameda discovered, the state has no conscience and can decide -- on the spot -- which services it will provide. A little-known yet vital Supreme Court case explains why.

June 22, 1999, 5:00 p.m., in Castle Rock, Colorado: Jessica Gonzalez’s three daughters, 7, 9, and 10, were playing in her yard. Without her knowledge or permission and against the conditions of a custody agreement and a restraining order, her estranged husband took the girls. Jessica called the police at 7:30 p.m., and two officers came to her home. She showed them copies of the custody agreement and the restraining order and begged them to enforce it and to return her daughters, but they told her they could do nothing and to call at 10:00 p.m. if the girls weren’t home.

Many police departments schedule shift change at 10 p.m. The officers were likely trying to put the call off on the following shift, a common practice for officers that don’t want to handle an annoying or potentially unproductive call.

Jessica spoke with Gonzalez by cell phone at about 8:30, and again called the police, who again refused to act. She called the police at 10:00, and they put her off until midnight. She called at midnight and again, the police did nothing.

Jessica drove to Gonzalez’s apartment, but finding no one home, called the police at 1:10 a.m. They promised to send an officer, but no one came. At 1:50 a.m. she again went to the police station and begged them to make an incident report. The officer taking her complaint actually did something: he went to dinner.

At about 3:20 a.m., Gonzalez arrived at the police station, determined to commit suicide by cop. With a handgun he bought hours earlier, he opened fire on the station. The police finally did their duties and granted Gonzalez his wish by returning fire and killing him.

But, due to the laziness of the Castle Rock Police, Gonzalez was able to realize an additional desire. Inside his pickup truck, parked nearby, police found the bodies of his daughters. Gonzalez shot them hours earlier.