When Seconds Count, Police Under No Legal Obligation To Act

By | 2018-02-27T13:40:36+00:00 February 27th, 2018|
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As with many hot-button issues, Americans are sharply divided over Second Amendment rights. Liberals argue that only trained police officers should be armed and citizens should rely on them for protection. Observers from the Right counter that a trained “good guy with a gun” could limit the number of casualties in the critical minutes before police officers get to the scene.

Both arguments share a fatal flaw: Neither the police, nor private citizens, are legally obligated to come to your aid if you are being assaulted, robbed, or injured.

To Protect and Serve?

U.S. courts have ruled repeatedly that police officers cannot be held liable for failing to respond, except when they have affirmatively promised protection to a particular person—say, a witness testifying against a gangbanger. The facts in such cases are chilling:

  • The District of Columbia Court of Appeals affirmed a trial court’s dismissal of a case against the Metropolitan Police Department for negligent failure to provide adequate police services in a 1981 ruling. Three women who were raped, beaten, and tortured for 14 hours by two home invaders sued, because two of them were reassured that officers were on their way each time they called 911 over a period of 30 minutes. They had reported two men had broken into their townhouse and were assaulting their roommate. Eventually, the intruders discovered the presence of these other roommates.
  • In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the 10th Circuit and ruled that police do not have a constitutional duty to protect, even when a court-issued protective order requires arrest for a violation. Authorities in that case failed to take action when a woman repeatedly called the police station to report her estranged husband had kidnapped her three daughters. As the mother tried futilely to get help, the husband murdered the girls and went to the station where he was shot and killed in a  gun battle.
  • The Manhattan Supreme Court dismissed a 2013 suit against New York City by a Long Island man attacked on an uptown No. 3 subway by a Brooklyn man who had stabbed his girlfriend, her mother, and his stepfather, and then ran a stranger over with a car, in a drug-fueled killing spree. Two police officers on the lookout for the perp watched from the motorman’s cab as he repeatedly stabbed the passenger, who managed to wrestle him to the ground and disarm him—at which point the officers left the safety of the locked cab and handcuffed the murderer. One of the officers admitted to a grand jury that he didn’t come to the passenger’s aid because he feared the assailant could be armed with a gun.

Law enforcement officers swear an oath of honor to protect the community at large, not to protect specific individuals. And some cannot act, because of department protocols—for instance, Orlando police treated the Pulse Nightclub terror attack as a hostage negotiation while waiting two hours for a tactical unit to arrive—or because they are ordered to stand down, as was the case in Chicago during a Trump campaign rally in March 2016.

There is no guarantee a cop will be around when you need one, or that one will intervene even if they are present.

Mistakes Were Made

The Associated Press called the February 14 mass murder at Stoneman Douglas High School an “abject breakdown at all levels” that involved errors by a plethora of social workers, mental health counselors and school administrators, as well as local and federal law enforcement.  

Home visits documenting violent behavior and warnings from several people—including a tip about the killer’s plans that had been passed on to the school resource officer by the Broward County Sheriff’s office—could have prevented the attack or the shooter’s  ability to purchase a gun, but were routinely dismissed.

The atrocity was compounded by the incompetence or cowardice of the school resource officer and four other Broward County deputies on the scene, and by confusion over whether Coral Springs Police Department officers who entered the freshman building were tracking the shooter on a live security camera feed or viewing a tape-delayed recording.

Police departments have varying protocols when a lone officer is the first responder at the scene of an active shooter. While some allow the officer to stop a shooter “by arrest, by containment, or by use of deadly force,” others require waiting until other officers arrive and can form a “contact team.” Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel’s contention that he has given “amazing leadership” to the agency notwithstanding, it is unclear which protocol the Broward County Sheriff’s office had put into place. Clearly, there were enough armed deputies crouched behind their vehicles to have formed a contact team.

The Coral Springs Police Department apparently follows a very different active shooter protocol and stepped up.

Sgt. Jeff Heinrich was off duty and watering a baseball field at the school, where his wife teaches and his son is a student, when he heard the first rifle shots ring out. Though he was unarmed and out of uniform, he ran toward the sound of the gunfire. After rendering first aid to a student shot in the leg, he returned to the building where he met up with a member of his department’s SWAT team. He put an extra Kevlar vest over his t-shirt, borrowed a handgun and ran into the building with his colleagues.

Bye-Bye Bystander

Ten states—California, Florida, and Wisconsin  among them—enacted laws requiring people to notify law enforcement when a stranger is in peril. But moral obligation notwithstanding, in the United States there is no legal requirement to come to the rescue of another, unless he or she created the peril to the person, or has a “special relationship” with the person—for instance, a spouse, the parent or babysitter of a minor child, or a business owner with employees in the workplace.

In a 1907 case, the Michigan Supreme Court reversed the manslaughter conviction of a married man who stashed his mistress in the basement instead of seeking medical attention after she deliberately overdosed morphine in an apparent suicide attempt, on the grounds that there was no duty to rescue. A century later, the Superior Court of New Jersey reversed a lower court decision and held that passengers in a car that rear-ended a motorcyclist had a duty to call for emergency assistance or to stay with the injured motorcyclist to ensure that another car didn’t run over him. In this case, the 18-year old driver and his friends made 44 cell phone calls over a two-and-a-half hour period, none of them to 911, and had fled the scene; the victim died when he was run over by another driver.

Before giving up all hope for humanity, consider there are also courageous people who rise to the occasion and put themselves in harm’s way to help others in danger. While the killer in Florida was fulfilling his desire to “become a professional school shooter,” unarmed teachers and students tried to disarm him, shielded students from the bullets, or helped people hide in classrooms:

  • Wrestling coach Chris Hixon raced towards the sound of gunfire in a golf cart and was killed while attempting to disarm the shooter.
  • Geography teacher Scott Beigel and JROTC Cadet Peter Wang, who opened doors to classrooms and shepherded students and faculty inside, were both killed. Anthony Borges was shot in the back and in both legs as he frantically tried to close and lock the door to a classroom, and helped save roughly 20 students. Culinary teacher Ashley Kurth pulled as many as 65 people into her classroom and hid them in a storage area, and journalism teacher Melissa Falkowski hid 19 students in a closet.
  • Football coach Aaron Feis was slain when he threw himself in front of several students to protect them from getting shot. JROTC Cadet Colton Haab hustled as many as 70 students into a JROTC classroom and covered them with Kevlar sheets. Haab, who survived, told a reporter that he was thinking about “how I’m going to make sure everyone goes home to their parents safely.”

How many people do you know who could be as brave, quick-thinking and level-headed in an active shooter scenario or other emergency?

An Army of One

Police officers are taught the “first rule of law enforcement” is to go home alive when their shift ends. Critics contend that this ethos leads to unnecessary civilian deaths. But as we saw in Parkland, Florida, there is a thin line between restraint and inaction.

While many armed citizens successfully confronted an armed assailant or stopped an assault, there is no guarantee that the good guy with a gun will put his or her life on the line to protect a stranger. In some cases, fear of legal jeopardy may also deter an armed bystander from intervening.

The harsh truth is that you are the only person you can count on to protect you and your family. Do you want to leave it to chance that the police or an armed bystander will get there in the nick of time, and will act? You’re forced to, because politicians who take donations from gun control activists have passed unreasonable gun control laws that effectively negate your Second Amendment rights.

About the Author:

Ruth Papazian
Ruth Papazian is a Bronx-based health and medical writer, and a political junkie.