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Law Enforcement: Are Police Bound to Protect the People?

Kwade is a freelance writer who is always in pursuit of education. He feels every subject is fascinating and worth studying.

Are the police bound to protect people?

Are the police bound to protect people?

My Background

One important argument from both sides of the gun control debate is whether or not police are there to keep us safe.

When I was a kid, my father was a deputy sheriff. Since my earliest memories, I've had it drilled into me that police are there to keep us safe. When he was no longer a police officer, we still had friends and neighbors who were police. My mother dated police (after their divorce). I thought about joining the police force myself because I really respect the badge and the idea of protecting others.

I grew up in a different world. My generation grew up with television, school, and every other influence in our lives telling us "find an officer if you're ever in trouble." Society as a whole pushed the idea that all emergency workers are always the good guy. There were still bad cops but the expectation was different. The media didn't push the stories about bad cops the way it does today. There was this sense of expectation about the protectors of our society. Danger didn't lurk around every corner. We drank out of the hose and played outside without fear of kidnapping. The world was safe, and it was because cops are the good guy.

The point is, I have a deep respect for police officers.

This respect survived some seriously crooked police doing things they really should not have been doing. I've been present for some harassment directed at people I care about, and even had some false charges pressed against me at the behest of a crooked cop. It didn't stick, but it was a terrible experience. I grew up in an area with bored and crooked cops who don't deserve the honor of the badge. There were also some amazing police officers who showed nothing but honor. There were even those who literally put their life on the line to protect others. One such officer was a family friend who was shot and died in the line of duty, protecting the innocent.

My point is, despite some very bad police, there are also some very good police. The bad ones stand out, and the good ones are usually background because that's what makes a good cop. If there's a crisis, police are front and center. If everything is smooth, they don't usually stand out unless they're a bad example.

I know that the police force is there to "protect and serve." I also know that there are times it doesn't go the way it's supposed to. Sometimes that's the nature of the beast, other times it's because someone isn't doing their job. We can't define all cops by the actions of some. We need to judge individuals based on the case, and the overall success based on the organization. Whatever the case, there are some things we can expect. So let's get into some details.

"Police Are There to Keep Us Safe"

One pro gun control argument is "the police are there to keep us safe." The claim is simple and makes sense. It's the job of law enforcement personnel to "protect and serve." As the motto says.

"That is their role," Glasses says.

That's what I've always thought. That's classically what we've been told. Remember how I said society used to push that idea? Law enforcement was created to enforce laws that protect law abiding citizens. So it's silly to think anything else would be the case, right?

What does that mean for us? Essentially, the argument is that we need to let the police do their jobs. In order to do this, the citizens should provide as much support to law enforcement as we can. This means compliance to the authority granted to law enforcement officers. It means self governing to abide by laws.

The best way to do this (according to this argument), is to leave the dangerous weapons in the hands of the professionals. Which means anything beyond a certain scope of use is off limits to civilians. This can range from no guns at all, to no automatic weapons, assault weapons, etc. Depending on who you talk to. I've personally spoken with people arguing the whole range.

I see good reasons for this idea. Chief among them being that we'd know the level of training on everyone who has access to more dangerous firearms. I also see good reasons against this idea, but I'll address those later. For now, I'll focus on the roll of the police.

How Many Police Are There Per Citizen?

Knowing what kind of role the police can play in protecting the population depends on several things. Among these is, of course, understanding how many officers there are per person. Once again, the numbers vary. Thankfully, the Internet has these answers. To keep things really simple, the average for small towns under fifty thousand people is two police for every thousand citizens. Cities over fifty thousand have one and a half police per thousand citizens. That's fifteen for cops for ten thousand people. If that sounds tiny, that's because it is. There are ten time the plumbers per capita than there are police. No joke. Look it up.

"What is your point?"

The point here is that there are very few police per citizen. Are they enough? Perhaps. Would having more officers per citizen provide more safety? Perhaps. More officers per citizen may make things safer. There's also the question of standards. No one wants to hire a bunch of bad cops. So long as we keep the police set to a high standard, more officers on the street will likely make for safer streets.

"When Seconds Count, the Police Are Only Minutes Away"

I love this quote. I feel it expresses the greatest point here.

We are of course referring to the time it takes for an officer to arrive on the scene. The numbers vary between districts and I don't have an average. Austin Texas shows 8.04 minutes on average for emergency response in 2015. Dallas claims an average of 7 minutes 38 seconds in 2015. I've seen response times as long as twenty minutes, and as short as three. Three minutes to get from any point in a city to the site of a crime is impressive. Considering cities can cover very large square mile radiuses, it's impressive when police are distributed well enough to make it in under ten minutes.

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It's not that police are doing a bad job when they arrive after several minutes. Even a nine minute response time isn't something I would call deplorable considering what we discussed above. A person can only be in one place at a time, right? So, proper distribution of officers can cover more area.

The point this outlines is this: When a true crisis happens, how long will it take the police to get to you? What if it's only three minutes?

Try this experiment. Set a timer, close your eyes, and wait. Just wait. See how long it feels to wait for three minutes. Better yet, look up the police response time in your area and give yourself that much time. Don't count, try not to think about anything. Just wait. You'll probably count anyway, or get distracted. Even three minutes feels like a long time when you're doing nothing but waiting. I learned, working customer service, waiting on hold for even one minute feels like a very long time. When you're scared and/or stressed, it feels like even longer. Now, imagine you're being attacked. Waiting for the police feels like an eternity. A lot can happen in seconds, let alone minutes. "When seconds count, the police are only minutes away."

"Oh, please." Glasses shakes his head. "What's next, 'If I only had a gun, I'd be safe'?"

Not at all. I realize this may sound like fear mongering. That's really not the intent. It's all about understanding the circumstances. If we are going to make decisions, should we not understand the consequences of those decisions as clearly as possible? Part of that is understanding what the police are capable of and why.

As a rule, we cannot expect better than several minutes for the police to arrive. If you have an intruder or if there's a mass shooting, what's going to happen in the minutes it takes for the police to arrive? Three minutes is a whole song. A boxer can be knocked out in three minutes. Aiming and firing a gun takes seconds. Swinging a bat, stabbing with a knife, or otherwise using an improvised weapon on the innocent takes very little time. No matter the danger, "minutes" is a long time.

So, when a criminal decides to hurt a law abiding citizen, what do we do? Do we expect the victim to wait? Do we consider the lives lost a necessary casualty? Do we just shrug if the police don't arrive in time? Do we hold the police accountable for not arriving in time?

This brings us to our next thought.

"Police Are Not There to Protect Us"

This isn't my opinion. This is the official stance of the US judicial system. You're going to find officers, and police departments who disagree with this idea. Rightly so. Nearly every officer I know personally, joined the force to be able to do just that. To protect those they love by combating the dangerous elements of society. However, legally, they are neither required, expected, or held accountable for our safety.

Take the case of Warren v. District of Columbia: (The link is at the bottom with other sources. Be warned, it's disturbing.)

The short version is this: A woman (with her small child in the apartment) was being held at knife point by two men who were violating her. The upstairs neighbors heard noises. Thinking there was a break in, they called 9-1-1 requesting help with a burglary in progress. Due to a misclassification of the call, the officers went to check for suspicious activity instead. Seeing no sign of trouble outside the house, they didn't enter the residence and instead left. The two ladies upstairs saw the police arrive and leave. They called the police again.

Dispatch told them officers were on their way. This time no one was even sent. Meanwhile, they were hearing continued sounds of pain. They couldn't keep listening and doing nothing. Thinking the police would be there soon, if not already, they called down to the woman being held hostage. For their efforts they were captured as well. Since there were no police to help, the were robbed beaten, and continuously violated for the next fourteen hours.

The victims of this incident filed a lawsuit claiming negligence against the police department for their failure to protect when called upon. It was found the police department was not at fault. The ruling stated it is not the responsibility of the police to protect the people. Their job is to investigate criminal activity, not protect any individual member of the public.

The point of this ruling isn't to prevent protection of the public. The point is to keep the protectors from being punished for failing to protect. I disagree with this ruling in this case, but understand and applaud the point. If police are always worried about losing their job for protecting someone and slipping up, that's an unnecessary stress.

I say once more, any officer I know would act counter to that idea and do their best to help anyone in harms way. The officers involved may have done so too. The point of this ruling isn't to say police are not allowed to protect. It's to recognize expecting a small fraction of the population to keep everyone else safe, is silly. It also sets the precedent that punishing their best efforts to assist someone in harms way, is ludicrous.

This case is not the only one, just the one that stands out most for me. There are many others to look into. The police are not there to protect us. They are there to protect society, and investigate crimes.

So says the judicial system.

Citizen's Arrest

Citizen's Arrest is when a citizen with no legal law enforcement status arrests an individual for a crime. In the US, if a citizen sees a criminal activity, we can legally arrest the criminal or direct an officer to do so. Yes, you can tell a cop what to do. This varies by state, so if you want to know the details, look it up for your state.

This system is designed and implemented because the police cannot be expected to handle every case that happens. Sometimes they are simply not there, sometimes they are simply too busy. Either case, citizens have the right to protect themselves and therefore are capable of citizen's arrests. Sometimes this, or other steps to defend oneself are critical. When they are, waiting for an officer is often impossible. Emergency responders do a fantastic job, but the best prevention is not needing emergency personnel.

The Importance of Self Reliance

I feel it's important to point out one more thing related to police protection. We are able to plead self defense when charged with a crime against another individual. Why? It's inevitable that some of us will find ourselves in a position where no police are there to protect us. In these cases we already understand it's silly to punish someone who's only crime is defending against a criminal. For the same reason, the expectation that a cop will always be there is nonsense.

Relying on someone else to always be there in our defense is not only foolish, but unrealistic. Childish, even.

If you're being attacked by someone, would you just stand there hoping a cop happens along to help? I'm not saying we should all arm ourselves for the rare times it will be helpful. I am saying if we don't defend ourselves in the moment because we expect someone else to be there, we're being ridiculous. We're being equally ridiculous if we are expecting an officer to always be there when we have trouble. Or creating laws based on that idea. We don't expect the fire department to be on time, every time. Nor do we expect an EMT to be. Why would we expect it of the police?

It's important to be self reliant for those rare times an emergency happens. Like being capable of evacuating a building in case of an emergency; being ready to deal with a dangerous criminal is important. Both situations are rare, that doesn't mean we should ignore them.

To Recap

  1. Police are not legally bound to protect us.
  2. Even if they were, there are not enough police to protect us all the time.
  3. This is why it's legal to perform a Citizen's Arrest and defend ourselves.
  4. Police cannot always arrive to every emergency in time to avert disasters.
  5. We don't expect fire departments to arrive in time. We don't expect EMTs to arrive on time. We train in first aid and run fire drills to keep safe. Why would we expect police to protect us from every danger?

What do we do when the police cannot arrive in time? Whatever plan we come up with, whatever gun control measures go in place, we must take these issues into account.


Austin, Texas report on response times:

Warren v. District of Columbia: Story about women trapped and calling officers who didn't help court case deciding police are not there to protect, but to investigate.

This article by the New York Times showcases several instances in which the justice system ruled the police have no constitutional duty to protect a citizen:
Castle Rock v. Gonzales, No. 04-278
DeShaney v. Winnebago County
Bell v. Thompson, No. 04-514

© 2018 kwade tweeling

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