“You have no right to expect the police to protect you from crime. Incredible as it may seem, the courts have ruled that the police are not obligated to even respond to your calls for help, even in life threatening situations!. To be fair to our men in blue, I think most officers really do want to save lives and stop dangerous situations before people get hurt. But the key point to remember is that they are under no legal obligation to do so.”
Ruth Brunell called the police on 20 different occasions to plead for protection from her husband. He was arrested only one time. One evening Mr. Brunell telephoned his wife and told her he was coming over to kill her. When she called the police, they refused her request that they come to protect her. They told her to call back when he got there. Mr. Brunell stabbed his wife to death before she could call the police to tell them that he was there. The court held that the San Jose police were not liable for ignoring Mrs. Brunell’s pleas for help. Hartzler v. City of San Jose, 46 Cal. App. 3d 6 (1st Dist. 1975).
[Those of you in the Silicon Valley, please note what city this happened in!]
Consider the case of Linda Riss, in which a young woman telephoned the police and begged for help because her ex-boyfriend had repeatedly threatened “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.” The day after she had pleaded for police protection, the ex-boyfriend threw lye in her face, blinding her in one eye, severely damaging the other, and permanently scarring her features. “What makes the City’s position particularly difficult to understand,” wrote a dissenting opinion in her tort suit against the City, “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. New York, 240 N.E.2d 860 (N.Y. 1968). [Note: Linda Riss obeyed the law, yet the law prevented her from arming herself in self-defense.]
Warren v. District of Columbia is one of the leading cases of this type. Two women were upstairs in a townhouse when they heard their roommate, a third woman, being attacked downstairs by intruders. They phoned the police several times and were assured that officers were on the way. After about 30 minutes, when their roommate’s screams had stopped, they assumed the police had finally arrived. When the two women went downstairs they saw that in fact the police never came, but the intruders were still there. As the Warren court graphically states in the opinion: “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.” The three women sued the District of Columbia for failing to protect them, but D.C.’s highest court exonerated the District and its police, saying that it is a “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.” Warren v. District of Columbia, 444 A.2d 1 (D.C. Ct. of Ap., 1981).
The seminal case establishing the general rule that police have no duty under federal law to protect citizens is DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services (109 S.Ct. 998, 1989). Frequently these cases are based on an alleged “special relationship” between the injured party and the police. In DeShaney the injured party was a boy who was beaten and permanently injured by his father. He claimed a special relationship existed because local officials knew he was being abused, indeed they had “specifically proclaimed by word and deed [their] intention to protect him against that danger,” but failed to remove him from his father’s custody. (”Domestic Violence — When Do Police Have a Constitutional Duty to Protect?” Special Agent Daniel L. Schofield, S.J.D., FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, January, 1991.)
The Court in DeShaney held that no duty arose because of a “special relationship,” concluding that Constitutional duties of care and protection only exist as to certain individuals, such as incarcerated prisoners, involuntarily committed mental patients and others restrained against their will and therefore unable to protect themselves. “The affirmative duty to protect arises not from the State’s knowledge of the individual’s predicament or from its expressions of intent to help him, but from the limitation which it has imposed on his freedom to act on his own behalf.” (DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services, 109 S.Ct. 998 (1989) at 1006.)
About a year later, the United States Court of Appeals interpreted DeShaney in the California case of Balistreri v. Pacifica Police Department. (901 F.2d 696 9th Cir. 1990) Ms. Balistreri, beaten and harassed by her estranged husband, alleged a “special relationship” existed between her and the Pacifica Police Department, to wit, they were duty-bound to protect her because there was a restraining order against her husband. The Court of Appeals, however, concluded that DeShaney limited the circumstances that would give rise to a “special relationship” to instances of custody. Because no such custody existed in Balistreri, the Pacifica Police had no duty to protect her, so when they failed to do so and she was injured they were not liable.
A citizen injured because the police failed to protect her can only sue the State or local government in federal court if one of their officials violated a federal statutory or Constitutional right, and can only win such a suit if a “special relationship” can be shown to have existed, which DeShaney and its progeny make it very difficult to do. Moreover, Zinermon v. Burch (110 S.Ct. 975, 984 1990) very likely precludes Section 1983 liability for police agencies in these types of cases if there is a potential remedy via a State tort action.
Many states, however, have specifically precluded such claims, barring lawsuits against State or local officials for failure to protect, by enacting statutes such as California’s Government Code, Sections 821, 845, and 846 which state, in part: “Neither a public entity or a public employee [may be sued] for failure to provide adequate police protection or service, failure to prevent the commission of crimes and failure to apprehend criminals.”
“In other words this means the only people the police are duty-bound to protect are criminals in custody, and other persons in custody for such things as mental disorders. YOU have no recourse if the police fail to respond or fail to protect you from injury!“