Courts Have Held that Police
Have No Obligation to Protect

    Courts have held that governments are not liable for their failures to protect.  Specifically, "A State's failure to protect an individual against private violence generally does not constitute a violation of the Due Process Clause, because the Clause imposes no duty on the State to provide members of the general public with adequate protective services.  The Clause is phrased as a limitation on the State's power to act, not as a guarantee of certain minimal levels of safety and security .  .  ."  (See the Supreme Court decision DESHANEY v. WINNEBAGO CTY. SOC. SERVS. DEPT.)  So, Maryland law enforcement can release violent people back into society (see Pinder vs. Johnson for another case of gross failure of law enforcement that resulted in the deaths of three children) and Maryland officials have no responsibility for that negligence.

    Moreover, other jurisdictions have held similarly:
".  .  .  a government and its agents are under no general duty to provide public services, such as police protection, to any particular individual citizen .  .  ."

Reference: Warren v. District of Columbia, 444 A.2d 1 (D.C. App.181)

    In this case three rape victims sued the city and its police department under the following facts: Two of the victims were upstairs when they heard the other being attacked by men who had broken in downstairs.  Half an hour having passed and their roommate's screams having ceased, they assumed the police must have arrived in response to their repeated phone calls.  In fact their calls had somehow been lost in the shuffle while the roommate was being beaten into silent acquiescence.  So when the roommates went downstairs to see to her, as the court's opinion graphically describes it, "For the next fourteen hours the women were held captive, raped, robbed, beaten, forced to commit sexual acts upon each other, and made to submit to the sexual demands" of their attackers.

    Having set out these facts, the court promptly exonerated the District of Columbia and its police, as was clearly required by the fundamental principle of American law that a government and its agents are under no general duty to provide public services, such as police protection, to any individual citizen.

    As the phrase "fundamental principle of American law" suggests, this holding is not some legal aberration unique to the District of Columbia.  It is universal, being enuciated by formal statute as well as judicial decision in many states.  Nor is it simply a cynical ploy for government to avoid just liability.  The proposition that individuals must be responsible for their own immediate safety, with police providing only an auxiliary general deterrent, is inherent in a high crime society.  Consider the matter just in terms of the number of New York City women who each year seek police help, reporting threats by ex-husbands, ex-boyfriends etc.: to bodyguard just those women would exhaust the resources of the nation's largest police department, leaving no officers available for street patrol, traffic control, crime detection and apprehension of perpetrators, responding to emergency calls etc., etc.  Given what New York courts have called "the crushing nature of the burden", the police cannot be made responsible for protecting the individual citizen. Providing such protection is up to the individual who is threatened; it is not the function of the police.

    For more cases and discussion on the limits of government responsibility to protect citizens see the court decision discussed in "Police Have No Duty To Protect Individuals" by Peter Kasler and the book Dial 911 and Die by Richard W. Stevens.  In summary, governments have no obligation to protect you and no recovery of damages is possible when governments fail to protect you.  Most importantly, if you lose your life, no amount of damages could make that up to you.

    Prof. Leddy, formerly a N.Y. officer, cites personal experience: The ability of the state to protect us from personal violence is limited by resources and personnel shortages [in addition to which] the state is usually unable to know that we need protection until it is too late. By the time that the police can be notified and then arrive at the scene the violent criminal has ample opportunity to do serious harm. I once waited 20 minutes for the New York City Police to respond to an "officer needs assistance" call which has their highest priority. On the other hand, a gun provides immediate protection. Even where the police are prompt and efficient, the gun is speedier.

Reference: Silver and Kates, "Handgun Ownership, Self-defense and the Independence of Women in a Violent, Sexist Society" in RESTRICTING HANDGUNS at 144-7.


Updated by Phil Lee on 5/18/00.  Contact maryland_alert at yahoo dot com (sorry for being obscure, but web mail address scavenge programs make this practice necessary).