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Police Not Required to Protect; Are They Required to Serve?

by Matt Clarke

At a recent hearing, former Broward County, Florida, Sheriff’s Deputy Scot Peterson claimed that he had no legal duty to protect the children inside the Parkland high school he was assigned to while Nikolas Cruz committed mass murder. 

Broward County Circuit Judge Patti Englander Henning disagreed, ruling that Peterson – on duty as the school’s resource officer – had a duty to protect the students inside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School instead of cowering outside the building while 34 were shot, 17 of whom died.

Peterson, a.k.a. “The Coward of Broward,” may have lost the ruling but could be right on the law as set down in previous court cases. The leading case on the subject is Warren v. District of Columbia, 444 A.2d 1 (D.C. Ct. of App. 1981), in which three women who were being held hostage by two men twice managed to telephone police and request their help. The police never came, and the three women were beaten, robbed, and raped during the following 14 hours.

The women sued the police, but the appellate court held that the “fundamental principle of American law is that a government and its agents are under no general duty to provide public services, such as police protection, to any individual citizen.” The women had argued that, since they had twice-alerted police to the crimes being committed, the police had a duty to protect them. But the court ruled in favor of the police, following the “well-established rule that 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 DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services, 489 U.S. 189 (1989), the U.S. Supreme Court held that the only duties of care required by the Constitution are those extended to individuals who are restrained by the government and therefore unable to protect themselves. This includes prisoners and involuntarily committed mental patients.

That’s why, when Peterson claimed he was assigned to the school to provide security, not to protect individual students, he might be legally correct. 

“There is no legal duty to be found,” said Michael Piper, Peterson’s attorney. “At the very worst, Scot Peterson is accused of being a coward. That does not equate to bad faith.” 

“Then what is he doing there?” asked Andrew Pollack, whose daughter, Meadow, was murdered during the mass shooting and whose negligence suit led to the ruling. “He had a duty. I’m not going to let this go. My daughter, her death is not going to be in vain.” 

Judge Henning found Peterson’s suggestion that he had no duty to protect the children offensive. Perhaps she will be proven correct in her ruling as Peterson was there, at the scene, and the other cases referenced involved police who were not present at the crime scene. More likely, however, is that it will be overturned. After all, the police in Warren were well aware of the crime but still failed to respond. In truth, the police are not there “to protect and serve,” the famous slogan of the LAPD. Instead, they are there at best to enforce the law—usually long after the lawbreakers have fled the scene. 



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