To Serve and Protect--Itself


On November 18, 2001 , a woman was shot to death in her suburban Detroit home by her distraught husband. He then turned the gun on himself and died instantly.

This scenario, unfortunately, is played out all too often across the nation. If these were the only facts, you might shrug with empathy and ask yourself why this merits your consideration. This case was different.

In this case, the police were present ' not following the murder/suicide ' but before and during it.

Following threats by her husband to her life and the lives of her children, the woman went directly to the local police. She informed them that she was in fear for her life and the lives of her children if she tried to move out of the marital home. She informed the police that her husband had a gun, had threatened her and her children that day, and that she wanted to move out of the home. The police computer confirmed a personal protection order had been issued by the court against the husband.

The police agreed to accompany the woman to her home and remain there while she removed her personal belongings and her children. Two officers accompanied her to her home and remained inside to the end ' the end of her life and her husband's.

Despite encountering the husband, and having been apprised of all the facts which led them to accompany the woman to her home, the police never questioned the husband, segregated him from his wife or even bothered to search him for a gun. They hung around and watched as the husband followed his wife back and forth from the home to her car with her personal belongings.

As the police spoke with others in the house, the husband followed his wife into her bedroom, closed the door and shot her. He then shot himself. This was exactly what the wife had asked the police to protect her from, and what they had agreed to do.

If these police officers had been private security officers instead, they and their employer would be held accountable in a court of law under breach of contract or negligence theories. Alas, they are government employees. The result is that they are not accountable for their malfeasance or her death. This is what separates the private sector from government.

Another government branch ' the courts ' has decided that police are not legally responsible for such gross failures. In Michigan , the state's highest court has decided that individual police officers may not be sued unless they are the only cause of the injury or death. This special treatment is not available to those in the private sector. In every case involving private individuals or companies, negligence is assessed on the basis of each party's percentage of fault. Yet another branch of government--the Michigan legislature--passed a statute that grants absolute immunity to any municipality, thereby barring any claim against the officers' employer. No such privilege is available to private sector employers.

Faced with these obstructions, the deceased woman's estate pursued a claim against the officers' employer in federal court alleging that she was deprived of her life without due process of law. On June 9, 2004 a federal judge dismissed the estate's case. The basis for the dismissal was that, 'a State's failure to protect an individual against private violence simply does not constitute a violation of the Due Process Clause.' Coming from the U.S. Supreme Court, this is the law in every state. This outrage is compounded by the government's simultaneous efforts to prevent citizens from taking any steps to protect themselves, and punishing them when they do.

How do you explain this state of affairs to the family of the deceased? It was not easy. I was the attorney left with the task. The truth is that most citizens actually believe that the police are under some legal duty to come to your aid.

In oral arguments before the federal court, I closed by noting that if this is the state of the law in this country, the courts should require that all police vehicles be posted with a warning label that reads: 'Caution: We Are Not Required To Protect You.' Then, I explained, we will at least know the truth, and be able to take steps to protect ourselves.

The next time you read the phrase 'To Serve and Protect' on a police vehicle, remember that this is government's motto about itself, not you.

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John Peters's picture
Columns on STR: 15

John Peters is an attorney in Michigan, a Libertarian, and a freelance author.