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.
Jessica sued the police, and the case wound its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court’s decision affirmed decades of precedent in the lower courts: The police have no duty to protect any individual from harm. Their duty extends only to preventing crime and providing police services to an abstract public-at-large. This might seem absolutely outrageous, but it is logical, rational, and unquestionably necessary.
This same understanding applies equally to all publicly supported first responders. When the firefighters and police stood by for an hour watching a man drown in San Francisco Bay, they were acting in accordance with the law, and by their own admission, their internal policies. One would surely be justified in questioning the ethics and courage of such “public servants,” but they stood on firm legal ground as they watched the poor wretch work up the nerve to end his life. Their behavior was anything but admirable. When I served as a police officer, anyone behaving as those officers did would have been scorned as a coward and almost certainly punished for neglecting their duty. Apparently things are done differently these days.
The actual number of police officers patrolling the streets of any community available to answer emergency calls at any hour of the day or night is shockingly small. Even in Washington, D.C., the federally funded police force’s average emergency response time is about eight and a half minutes. For most Americans, response time is no better, and is often worse -- far worse. People living in rural areas or in small towns measure police response time in hours, not minutes. As bad as the situation is, response time is meaningless if the police -- as in the case of Jessica Gonzalez -- simply won’t respond.
Without a doubt, the police love to catch bad guys in the act. They love to catch violent criminals, taking special delight in catching those that hurt women and children. But the truth is they rarely catch criminals in the act. The police are very effective at deterring crime by their presence, but there are so few of them relative to the number of criminals and potential victims that it is easy for smart criminals to avoid detection, and the odds favor even dumb crooks.
Consider the consequences if citizens could successfully sue the police for failing to protect them. Could any city afford a police force? Who would become a police officer knowing that lawsuits would be filed against them daily? As outrageous as the Court’s decision might seem, it is eminently practical, for without it, there would be no police forces or fire departments. The bystander forced to retrieve the body of the unfortunate man that committed suicide might cynically ask what the difference would be, but police and fire departments do provide vital services. The nature of those services is in large part up to the political whims of local politicians.
The state will provide for your needs? The state will, without exception, protect you? Not now, not ever.
Not only does the state have no conscience, it is politically driven to reward those that nurture it and -- at best -- ignore those who do not. Yet the state will try to prevent you from obtaining the means to provide for and protect yourself -- firearms -- and politicians will demagogue the issue for political advantage, in essence threatening to withhold the protection they know they don’t have to provide.
It’s tempting to believe that police failure to answer calls or to assist those in need is rare. Any honest police officer can tell you it is far more common than most imagine, and that the old aphorism -- “when seconds count, the police are minutes away” -- is painfully accurate.
Strong, self-reliant people built America. They did not expect others to support and protect them. Despite our contemporary material plenty and comfort, certain fundamental realities of human existence have not changed and never will change. Spartanburg County, South Carolina Sheriff Chuck Wright had it right when he addressed the attempted rape of a local woman: “It just struck me wrong that we keep telling everyone 'trust us, trust us, trust us,' but in reality, you need to protect yourself.”
When it comes to protecting our lives and the lives of our families, as Jessica Gonzalez surely knows, we can rely only upon ourselves.