What Happens When the Police Stop Responding?

What are you going to do when the police don’t come? This seems like more of a rhetorical question than one that needs to be answered, but what would you do? There seems to be a pendulum swinging toward forcing the police to be kinder and gentler. This sounds good until you think about what it is that they do and the consequences of them not doing it. But that can’t happen . . . right? Or can it?

In May 2018, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed into law a ban on high-capacity magazines. This legislation defined a high-capacity magazine as a direct-feed magazine designed to hold more than 10 rounds. An exception to this ban had to do with on-duty police officers. However, an unintended consequence of the law was that it limited off-duty police officers, including those going to and from work, from carrying their pistols loaded.

Rachael Rollins was recently elected as Suffolk County’s (Boston MA) District Attorney. She has published a list of 15 charges for which she will decline to prosecute. These include trespassing, theft under $250.00, receiving stolen property, drug possession with intent to distribute, threats (including domestic violence), and resisting arrest.

In 2016 the Chicago Police Department and the Illinois ACLU reached an agreement to reform what the ACLU described as unconstitutional stop-and-frisk practices. The results of said agreement were an 82% decrease in street stops (which are undercover officers identifying suspicious individuals and stopping them) and a 58% increase in the homicide rate. “If nothing else,” Paul Cassell, a law professor, and Richard Fowles, an economics professor, write in their new paper, their statistical analysis “provide[s] strong evidence of a ‘discernible link’ between declining stop and frisks and the tragic spike in homicides in Chicago throughout 2016.”

The New Hampshire legislature currently is considering a bill that would revoke the legal authority law enforcement officers have to use using deadly force during an arrest. Supporters of the bill suggest they are not trying to tie the hands of the police, but rather to save lives.

In California, lawmakers will consider “The Police Accountability and Community Protection Act” (AB-931) which would raise the current guideline from “reasonable force” to “necessary force,” requiring officers take deadly action “only when it is necessary to prevent imminent and serious bodily injury or death” and, if given all circumstances, there was no reasonable alternative. This legislation provides for a retrospective review of police use of deadly force, which appears to be counter to Graham v. Connor, in which the United States Supreme Court ruled police use of deadly force must be examined through the lens of the police officer at the time.

All of these legislative reactions to public outcries put the police, as well as the community, at an increased risk. So what happens when the police become strictly reactive, where they only respond when requested to do so? What happens when the police increase their response time so that the perpetrator has time to leave the scene? What happens when the police drive by, don’t stop, and don’t get out of the car to investigate?

One may think that the police have to respond. One may think the police have a duty to protect. This is not the case. The United States Supreme Court has consistently ruled that the police have “no duty” to an individual citizen. In Warren v. District of Columbia (1981),the Court ruled, “official police personnel and the government employing them are not generally liable to victims of criminal acts for failure to provide adequate police protection.” In an oft cited companion case, Nicol, the Court ruled, “the fundamental principle that a government and its agents are under no general duty to provide public services, such as police protection, to any particular individual citizen.” In Trautman v. City of Stamford (1975), the Court found no special duty was owed the plaintiff, “the allegations of the instant case nowhere assert any conduct directed specifically by the defendant police officers toward the plaintiff individually.”  In Henderson v. City of St. Petersburg (1971), the Court found the police have no special duty to protect an individual citizen unless a special duty has arisen.

The Court has without exception concluded that when a municipality or other governmental entity undertakes to furnish police services, it assumes a duty only to the public at large and not to individual members of the community.

Job requirements change. When I first started policing, we didn’t carry rubber gloves or use pocket masks because we never considered there to be fatal diseased you could catch. We weren’t required to wear seatbelts. We didn’t have body cameras. But the job changes. So, what are you going to do when the police don’t come?

In the eyes of the law, the police are really “crime accountants.” Their job is to observe the aftermath of crimes and record what happened. If they arrive in time and if they feel so inclined, they can lend a hand. But that’s up to them. Citizens have neither the right to police help nor to recourse when it is refused.

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