Cops Have A Legal Right To Do Absolutely Nothing
The relationship between American citizens and the American police force is one that most people nowadays would describe as… tense. And maybe not tense in the emotional sense of “uncomfortable” but something closer to “a steel cable placed under such great tension that it might possibly snap and behead a passerby”. Their role, actions, and general power have effectively split most of the population into one of two camps: those afraid they’re going to be killed when they try to execute a no-knock warrant on the wrong house, and those who worship them as heroes and keep car decal manufacturers’ Punisher logo dies stamping out skulls as fast as Amazon marketplace can charge their credit cards.
What’s causing this growing disillusionment with cops? Well, mostly, the cops themselves. For a long time, police were sitting on a PR campaign anyone would kill for, in that they were the de facto heroes of pretty much every piece of dramatic media that hit the airwaves or the silver screen. This era of what’s now often referred to as “copaganda” was pervasive in cementing the image of every cop as a dutiful hero, hurling themselves with abandon in front of any bullet they could to protect a cowering public. Choose an american city name, slap “P.D.” after it, find an actor with a stubbled jaw who looks good in Kevlar, and you’ve got the attention of every family in America, Thursday nights at 8 pm.
These TV cops are wholly consumed by a desire to get between a gun barrel and a citizen, with a death drive that would make a lemming blush. When a bank’s being held up, or someone’s being held hostage, they’re stripping off their windbreakers dramatically, racking the slide on their pistol, and beelining for the nearest open air vent so they can drop into the bank lobby like a violent chandelier. Next thing you know, they’re busting through the front door, hand cupped over a gunshot wound in their shoulder or hip, dealer’s choice. The rest of the show is a montage of a kid in a space blanket telling them that they love them and they’re their new dad, then the mayor giving them a medal, a key to the city, everything but a deep, passionate kiss.
And in these shows, these cops have one mantra that they repeat above all else, usually with a furrowed brow. That mantra, of course, is “To Protect And Serve.” They read it off their badge while sipping whiskey at a bar, doing manly dry cry faces about capital d Duty. It caps off every inspiring speech they give before they charge into a dangerous situation. “Protect and Serve” is their “Semper Fi”. There’s only one problem with it: the Supreme Court has ruled, and it’s a matter of legal precedent, that the police have no actual responsibility to protect their citizens. Despite how badly the police want to be the military, even wearing their hand-me-down body armor and driving their retired armored vehicles like a kid in his dad’s suit, they’re not actually obligated to, as TV cops also like to repeat, “run towards the danger.” It seems that even though all cops like to picture themselves as Bruce Willis in Die Hard, shimmying into Nakatomi Plaza over a bed of broken glass, a lot of them find out in the moment that they’re Reginald VelJohnson, staring at the building from behind barricades, white-knuckling a radio.
The precedent was set by a case known as Castle Rock v. Gonzales, decided in 2005. The plaintiff in the case was Jessica Gonzales, a woman from Castle Rock, Colorado. After her husband Simon had begun stalking her, a permanent restraining order had been set, requiring Simon to remain at least 100 yards away from her and their children at all times. A violation of this order should have resulted in immediate arrest. However, on June 22, Simon got a whole lot closer to the children than 100 yards, by, well, abducting them. In the hours that followed, Jessica called the police 4 times, and ultimately visited the station in person shortly after midnight. Police took no action, citing that Jessica had occasionally allowed the husband to take the children on activities. Now, I think the biggest difference here would be that the other times, the mother hadn’t CALLED THE POLICE 4 TIMES IN A ROW AND THEN COME TO THE STATION. This isn’t even really a debate of nuance, but a debate of “do you know what a kidnapping is.” Which I have to assume is covered at the police academy, probably between the “how to take photos in surplus body armor” and “how to demand discounts at Dunkin Donuts” units.
Unfortunately, this case reeks of a pattern that continues through today, which is the connection between stalking or domestic violence and ensuing violence. 76% of murdered women experienced stalking leading up to their homicide. And as you might be able to guess, as cases where the kids were fine don’t often make it to the Supreme Court, this ended poorly as well. 3 hours after Jessica showed up at the police station, where I assume the police explained to a hysterical mother that she was the victim of a “misunderstanding”, Simon showed up at the station and was killed in a shootout, something they ARE pretty good at. When they searched his car, they found the dead bodies of the three daughters.
Here’s a record of the sequence of events, from the opinion of Supreme Court Justice and general ghoul Antonin Scalia. Keep in mind, this is from an opinion where they decide the police did nothing wrong:
At approximately 8:30 p.m., respondent talked to her husband on his cellular telephone. He told her “he had the three children amusement park in Denver.” Ibid. She called the police again and asked them to “have someone check for” her husband or his vehicle at the amusement park and “put out an ” for her husband, but the officer with whom she spoke “refused to do so,” again telling her to “wait until 10:00 p.m. and see if ” her husband returned the girls. Id., at 126a–127a.
At approximately 10:10 p.m., respondent called the police and said her children were still missing, but she was now told to wait until midnight. She called at midnight and told the dispatcher her children were still missing. She went to her husband’s apartment and, finding nobody there, called the police at 12:10 a.m.; she was told to wait for an officer to arrive. When none came, she went to the police station at 12:50 a.m. and submitted an incident report. The officer who took the report “made no reasonable effort to enforce the TRO or locate the three children. Instead, he went to dinner.” Id., at 127a.
At approximately 3:20 a.m., respondent’s husband arrived at the police station and opened fire with a semiautomatic handgun he had purchased earlier that evening. Police shot back, killing him. Inside the cab of his pickup truck, they found the bodies of all three daughters, whom he had already murdered. Ibid.
This case came up again when a man named Joe Lozito sued the NYPD in 2011, after he was attacked by a man on a stabbing spree, who he actually managed to subdue after, predictably, getting stabbed a bunch of times. If only the cops had been there to help! Oh, they were? Like… 3 feet away? And watched? And then, without any hint of shame, walked over, cuffed the guy Joe had tackled to the ground, and told Joe “we got him" as Joe passed out from blood loss? If you want more details on this case, you can hear it in Joe’s own words, in a video we did in 2017.
I fully expect to get a whole lot of, let’s say, mildly threatening feedback on this article, for suggesting that cops maybe aren’t superheroes who should be given complete immunity and backrubs. And it’s true, being a cop is a dangerous job… almost as dangerous as being a bartender. But especially recently, it seems like cops get nothing but opportunities to prove how needed they are, and every time, it’s the guys with the plate carriers and long guns that somehow prove less effective than unarmed citizens. We saw it with the recent subway shooter in New York, and most heartbreakingly, in Uvalde, Texas. If you want to believe that cops’ job is to protect citizens, just know that the same justice system they work for legally disagrees.