The police have no legal obligation to try and save your life

First, the background.  When Jenna and I teach a Level 1 Colorado Concealed Handgun Permit Class, one of the running themes is taking responsibility for your own safety.  This mindset of “YOUR safety is YOUR responsibility” propagates into nearly everything we do.  Unfortunately, society is geared more-and-more toward making people dependent on the government, don’t rock the boat, etc.  I’ve mentioned the tv show “I Survived…” more than a few times – you only need to watch one episode of that show, any episode, to understand how pervasive that line of thinking has become (how few people call 9-1-1, the “yes he was carrying an axe, but it looked like he just ran out of gas… so I offered him a ride home” thing).  And yes, the Normalcy Bias is partially to blame for that (I told you that it could explain everything!).

So one of the ways that I like to explain taking responsibility for your own safety is by mentioning Castle Rock v. Gonzales, followed by the line “the police have no legal obligation even to try and save your life” – which is absolutely a true statement.

But one of my friends, Marc MacYoung, thinks I’m lying when I say that (even though he and I actually completely agree on the concept) – and if he doesn’t like it, I’m sure he’s not the only one.  So I’m clarifying this out of respect to Marc (but no, I’m not changing how I say it).

Your safety is your responsibility

Here’s another disclaimer that I always use when talking about this, so as not to offend anyone with close ties to law enforcement: “I have some good friends who are law enforcement.  They risk their lives and they do an amazing job – and a job that I wouldn’t want.” And I believe every word of that to my core.

But their job is to do their best protecting the community – not you.  And that’s an important distinction when it comes to self-defense.

Yes, they have a duty to act.  Yes, they’re highly trained.  Yes, they’re better at stopping crime than I will EVER be.

But in nearly 100% of the violent crimes than many of us worry about, the police show up after the fact.  Think about that.  That’s also why I don’t like calling law enforcement a “first responder” – not because I don’t appreciate them or because I think they’re useless… quite the opposite.  It’s because if someone breaks into my house when I’m home, the cops will (hopefully) be the SECOND responder.  *I* will be the first responder – I’m already there!

Look, if I can use the police to help save my life, I will – 100% of the time!  I’m not a superhero and I don’t play one on tv.  I’m a regular guy with regular goals for my life and for my family.  I’m not a hostage negotiator, I’m not a Navy SEAL, and I’m not a ninja.  So hopefully this isn’t coming off as one of those “I hate the cops” things.

So let’s go back to the “duty to act” philosophy (one which I support, by the way).  You’d have to talk to a sworn law enforcement officer to get the full definition, but one legal-ish” website defines it this way:

  • Duty to act refers to duty of a party to take necessary action to prevent harm to another party or the general public. Breach of duty to act may make a party liable for damages, depending on the circumstances and relationship between the parties. For example family members, working colleagues and contracting parties will all have a legal duty in tort to act non-negligently toward each other. Ordinarily the common law does not impose an affirmative duty to act.

Here’s how I personally would translate that:

  • A sworn law enforcement officer has an obligation to attempt to stop or prevent bad things from happening, within the best of their abilities, if they perceive (or reasonably perceive) the commission of those bad things is happening or is imminent.

What it does NOT say is “you’re absolutely 100% safe in your home, in your car, or in the Wal-Mart parking lot.”  All it really says is that if a police officer sees an assault taking place, they have to do the best they can to stop it (and then the best they can to bring the bad guys to justice after the fact).

So the legal liability is a huge part of this – you can’t sue the cops for not doing “a good enough job.”  That’s the point with Castle Rock v. Gonzales.  Which is why the victims (and their families) can’t sue the Aurora Police Department for not protecting them on July 20, 2012.  It’s also why, if hypothetically I lived a block away from that incident and my house was broken into later that day on July 20, 2012, I can’t sue them if it took them hours to finally respond to my emergency.  You see, the police were acting – they just weren’t prioritizing exactly like you wanted them to.

Their job, their “duty,” means that if they did NOT act reasonably to stop an assault (whatever “reasonably” means), that they could lose their jobs, or worse.  But that’s not the point that I want to focus on.  I’d be seriously hard-pressed to find a single example of that ever happening.

For them, on July 20th, they were doing their very best to do the most good for the community as a whole.  The catch is that sometimes in their emergency triage, you happen to rank somewhere between “property crimes” and “a cat is stuck in a tree again.”  Clearly, if bad things are happening to you, you would prioritize yourself over everyone else… and thank God none of us has the ability to do that.

The law enforcement duty extends to the community as a whole – it’s not a guarantee that they’ll protect every (or any) individual in the community.  YOUR safety is YOUR responsibility.

Hopefully that helps!

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4 comments on “The police have no legal obligation to try and save your life

  1. Kalaryn says:

    It’s interesting, I never took the slogun on their car “To serve and to protect” as only being the community, as you stated but you are pretty much right. It reminded me once when I stupidly wrecked my car on an in the process of being built median, it got stuck, it wasn’t a great section of town at the time (down on Broadway by the Gothic Theater – almost a decade ago) and one cop drove right by as I was stuck in a hole with half my car in it, a second went by and this time stopped, gave me a roadside test, I sort a failed one but was completely sober and offered to actually go in for a test. Well, at any rate the cops called me a tow truck and one car left, the other car was about to leave and asked him why he was leaving me there in a (at the time) bad area of town, by myself, a women and with my car half in a hole, which just screams “attack me, I’m totally vulnerable.” the cop paused for a second and I interjected as he turned his back on me and asked him about the slogun, “to protect and to serve”. He politely got in his car and waited until the tow truck arrived but before I had to convince to stay he was really going to leave me out there.

    Reading this, yes I’m sure he had better things to do and things that required a higher priority but I am really glad he stayed and waited, I was barely over, 20, all things mentioned above and petite (I didn’t carry in those days).

    I guess from now on I will probably see the slogun with the adding “community”.

    • I’m glad you’re ok! But yes – the police cars should say something like “To serve and protect… someone, maybe not you right now, so maybe you should serve and protect yourself until I’m less busy.”

      • Kalaryn says:

        That’s great! I think if it really did say that more people might take protecting themselves more seriously and be less dependent on police and our government. At least your version of the slogan is more accurate.

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