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 Columbia, the 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. Gonzales, a 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.