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Police Have NO DUTY To Protect You


Police have No Duty to Protect You

August 12, 2009

"...there is no constitutional right to be protected by the State
against being murdered by criminals or madmen."  [Bowers v. DeVito, U.S. Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit, 686F.2d 616 (1882)

See Also: Reiff v. City of Philadelphia, 477F.Supp.1262 (E.D.Pa. 1979)]


In 1856, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that local law enforcement
had no duty to protect a particular person, but only a general duty to
enforce the laws. [South v. Maryland, 59 U.S. (HOW) 396,15 L.Ed., 433

There are numerous court cases which hold that the police have no
legal obligation to protect individuals.  Here are some relevant
cases, some with background:


Carolyn Warren, of Washington, D.C., called the police on 16 March
1975: two intruders had smashed the back door to her house and had
attacked a female house-mate.  After calling the police, Warren and
another house-mate took refuge on a lower back roof of the building.
The police went to the front door and knocked.  Warren, afraid to go
downstairs, could not answer.  The police officers left without
checking the back door.

Warren again called the police and was told that they would respond.
Assuming they had returned, Warren called out to the house-mate, thus
revealing her own location.

The two intruders then rounded up all three women.  "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 the intruders.

The Superior Court of the District of Columbia held that:

        "...the fundamental principle [is] that a government
        and its agents are under no general duty to provide public
        services, such as police protection, to any particular
        individual citizen...The duty to provide public services is
        owed to the public at large, and, absent a special relation-
        ship between the police and an individual, no special legal
        duty exists."

In an accompanying memorandum, the Court explained that the term
"special relationship" did not mean an oral promise to respond to a
call for help.  Rather, it involved the provision of help to the
police force.  [Warren v. District of Columbia, D.C. App., 444 A.2d 1


In 1959, Linda Riss, a New Yorker, was terrorized by an ex-boyfriend,
who had a criminal record.  Over several months, he repeatedly
threatened her: "If I can't have you, no one else will have you, and
when I get through with you, no one else will want you."  She
repeatedly sought police protection, explaining her request in detail.
Nothing was done to protect her.

When he threatened her with immediate attack, she again urgently beg-
ged the New York City Police Department for help: "Completely
distraught, she called the police, begging for help, but was refused."
The next day, she was attacked" A "thug" hired by her persecutor threw
lye (sodium hydroxide) in her face.  She was blinded in one eye and
her face was permanently scarred.

The Court of Appeals of New York ruled that Linda Riss has no right to
protection.  The Court refused to create such a right because that
would impose a crushing economic burden on the government.  Only the
legislature could create a right to protection:

        "The amount of protection that may be provided is limited
        by the resources of the community and by a considered leg-
        islative-executive decision as to how these resources may
        be deployed.  For the courts to proclaim a new and general
        duty of protection ...even to those who may be the partic-
        ular seekers of protection based on specific hazards, could
        and would inevitably determine how the limited police resources
        of the community should be allocated and without predictable

Judge Keating dissented, bitterly noting that Linda Riss was victim-
ized not only because she had relied on the police to protect her, but
because she obeyed New York laws that forbade her to own a weapon.
Judge Keating wrote:

"What makes the city's position particularly difficult to understand
is that, in conformity to the dictates of the law, Linda did not carry
any weapon for self-defense.  Thus, by a rather bitter irony she was
required to rely for protection on the City of New York, which now
denies all responsibility to her."  [Riss v. City of New York, 293
N.Y. 2d 897 (1968)].


Even a person whose life is imminently in peril is not entitled to
help.  On 4 September 1972 Ruth Bunnell called the San Jose
(California) police department to report that her estranged husband,
Mack Bunnell, had telephoned her to tell her that he was coming over
to her house to kill her.

In the previous year, the San Jose police, "had made at least 20 calls
and responses to Mrs. Bunnell's home...allegedly related to complaints
of violent acts committed by Mack Bunnell on Mrs. Bunnell and her two

Even so, Ruth Bunnell was told to call back only when Mack Bunnell

Some 45 minutes later, Mack Bunnell arrived and stabbed Ruth Bunnell
to death.  A neighbor called the police, who then came to the murder scene.

The California Court of Appeals held that any claim against the police

        "...is barred by the provisions of the California Tort Claims
        Act, particularly Section 845, which states: `Neither a public
        entity nor a public employee is liable for failure to establish
        a police department or otherwise provide police protection or,
        if police protection service is provided, for failure to provide
        sufficient police protection."  [Hartzler v. City of San Jose,
        App., 120 Cal.Rptr 5 (1975)].


On 20 April 1961, Josephine M. Keane, a teacher in the Chicago City
Public Schools was assaulted and killed on school premises by a
student enrolled in the school.  Keane's family sued the City of
Chicago, claiming that:

        "...the City was negligent in failing to assign police
        protection to the school, although it knew or should have known
        that failure to provide this protection would result in harm
        to persons lawfully on the premises (because) it knew or
        should have known of the dangerous condition then existing
        at the school."

The Appeals Court affirmed the judgment of the Circuit Court of Cook
County.  Presiding Justice Burke of the Appeals Court held that,
"Failure on the part of a municipality to exercise a government
function does not, without more, expose the municipality to
liability."  Justice Burke went on to say that:

        "To hold that under the circumstances alleged in the complaint
        the City owed a `special duty' to Mrs. Keane for the safety and
        well-being of her person would impose an all but impossible burden
        upon the City, considering the numerous police, fire, housing
        and other laws, ordinances and regulations in force." [Keane v.
        City of Chicago, 98 Ill App2d 460 (1968)].


On 3 June 1985 police tried top arrest a man and his "girl friend",
both of whom were wanted on multiple murder charges, and who were
known to be heavily armed.

The alleged murderers - along with the "girl friend's" two sons, aged
nine and ten years, - tried to flee in a car.  As the police closed in
after a running shoot-out, the children were poisoned with cyanide and
then shot in the head either by the mother or her "boy friend", one of
whom then blew up the vehicle, killing both.  The boy's father - who
had filed for divorce - sued the law enforcement agencies and officers
for "wrongful death" of his sons.  The North Carolina Court of Appeals
held that:

        "...the defendant law enforcement agencies and officers did not
        owe [the children] any legal duty of care, the breach
        of which caused their injury and death...Our law is that in the
        absence of a special relationship, such as exists when a victim
        is in custody or the police have promised to protect a particular
        person, law enforcement agencies and personnel have no duty to
        protect individuals from the criminal acts of others; instead
        their duty is to preserve the peace and arrest law breakers for
        the protection of the general public.  In this instance, a special
        relationship of the type stated did not exist....Plaintiff's argument
        that the children's presence required defendants to delay
        arrest until the children were elsewhere is incompatible with
        the duty that the law has long placed on law enforcement personnel
        to make the safety of the public their first concern; for permitting
        dangerous criminals to go unapprehended lest particular individuals
        be injured or killed would inevitably and necessarily endanger
        the public at large, a policy that the law cannot tolerate,
        much less foster."  [Lynch v. N.C. Dept. of Justice, 376 S.E. 2nd
        247 (N.C. App. 1989)].


Marvin Munday murdered Jack Marshall in Virginia.  Mundy - convicted
for carrying a concealed pistol - was sent to jail by a judge who
expressed concern that Munday, "might kill himself or a member of the
public".  Munday was mistakenly released from jail 8 days later.  Nine
days later he was re-arrested on a unrelated charge.  Five hours
later, the same jailer and sheriff released him, apparently without
checking to see if that was proper.  Three weeks later, Mundy robbed
and murdered Marshall.  Marshall's widow sued, alleging negligence on
the part of the sheriff and jailer, asserting a violation of Jack
Marshall's right to due process.  The Court rejected the claim:

        "....a distinction must be drawn between a public duty owed
        by the officials to the citizenry at large and a special duty
        owned to a specific identifiable person or class of persons.
        ....Only a violation of the latter duty will give rise to
        civil liability of the official....to hold a public official
        civilly liable for violating a duty owed to the public at
        large would subject the official to potential liability for
        every action he undertook and would not be in society's best
        interest.".....no special relationship existed that would
        create a common law duty on the defendants to protect the
        decedent (Marshall - ed.) from Mundy's criminal acts. Similarly,
        without a special relationship between the defendants
        and the decedent, no constitutional duty can arise under the
        Due Process Clause as codified by 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983.  Therefore,
        Plaintiff's due process claim also must fall."
        [Marshall v. Winston, 389 S.E.2nd 902 (Va. 1990)].


For similar cases, also see:

Calogrides v. City of Mobile, 475 So. 2d 560 (S.Ct. Ala. 1985)

Morris v. Musser, 478 A.2d 937 (1984)

Davidson v. City of Westminster, 32 C.3d 197,185 Cal. Rptr. 252,649
   P.2d 894 (S.Ct. Cal. 1982)

Chapman v. City of Philadelphia, 434 A.2d 753 (Sup. Ct. Penn. 1981)


The lone exception [to police not having to provide protection]
appears to be informants, persons under arrest, and people who are
assisting the police:

"In a civilized society, every citizen at least tacitly relies upon
the constable for protection from crime.  Hence, more than general
reliance is needed to require the police to act on behalf of a
particular individual. ...Liability is established, therefore, if the
police have specifically undertaken to protect a particular individual
and the individual has specifically relied upon the undertaking.
...Absent a special relationship, therefore, the police may not be
held liable for failure to protect a particular individual from harm
caused by criminal conduct.  A special relationship exists if the
police employ an individual in aid of law enforcement, but does not
exist merely because an individual requests, or a police officer
promises to provide protection." [Morgan v. District of Columbia, 468
A2d 1306 (D.C. App. 1983)].


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