Police Have No Duty to Protect You

(Steve C. Wilson | University of Utah via Associated Press) This Aug. 21, 2018, photo shows Lauren McCluskey, a member of the University of Utah cross country and track and field team. McCluskey was shot and killed on campus on Oct. 22 by a man she had briefly dated, Melvin Rowland, who was found dead hours later inside a church.

I’ve already stepped out on a limb with my previous post about the police, so I might as well go a little bit harder and controversial here: The police can’t protect you and more pointedly, have no duty to protect you.

That seems not just a controversial thing for me to say, but crazy. Of course they do! The entire point of police services existing in small towns of 80 people to big cities of 8.4 million people is to “protect and serve.”

But that’s just branding and marketing, folks.

When it comes down to it — as in, life and death manifest in real cases — the police cannot and have no duty to protect us. And this is before even getting into the issue of qualified immunity.

Let me tackle the first part of that claim. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been listening to the Generation Why podcast as of late. One recent episode I listened to was about Lauren McCluskey, a University of Utah student who sought help with her boyfriend from campus police, as well as Salt Lake City police, and ultimately, was killed by said boyfriend.

The details of this case are equal parts terrifying and maddening. Lauren began dating Melvin Rowland in September 2018 after meeting him at a bar where he worked as a bouncer.

He said he was in his mid-20s and was working as a bouncer to pay for his associate’s degree. Even within only a few weeks of dating, he was showing signs of being controlling. That eventually led to Lauren Googling him.

Turns out, Rowland lied about all of it. And didn’t even give his real name. He was a convicted sex offender on parole and was 37-years-old. Yikes. That obviously scared Lauren and she turned to her friends and then the police with as much information about him as she could. Obviously, a lot of it was easily accessible with a Google search.

By Oct. 12 and Oct. 13, Lauren reported to campus police harassing text messages she was receiving ostensibly from Rowland. Some of those messages demanded $1,000 from Lauren and if she didn’t produce it, Rowland would post a compromising photo of her online. She sent him the money.

She spoke to campus police multiple times, then the Salt Lake City police, who re-directed her back to campus police. Worse than that, one of the campus police officers bragged about having one of those intimate photos and showing it off to others. Disgusting.

On Oct. 16, a parole agent spoke with Rowland, but because campus police had not spoken with adult probation and parole, the agent didn’t know about the ways in which Rowland was violating his parole and how he likely would have been sent back to jail because of it.

Three days later, Lauren again contacted the Salt Lake City police and again was re-directed back to campus police. A detective she touched base with wouldn’t be able to help until coming back to work after the weekend. Over those next few days, Lauren sent police more text messages of screenshots of Rowland’s criminal history and offender details.

By Oct. 22, she was shot and killed by Rowland.

All of this information, which presumably the podcast also used, came from the wonderful reporting by The Salt Lake Tribune.

For some reason, the podcast lays out all the ways in which the police failed Lauren, but then make the main problem the straw purchase that led to Rowland getting the gun that killed Lauren. Rowland apparently was given the gun by a friend, who himself had a friend buy the gun.

While it is against federal law to purchase a firearm for an individual who you know is not allowed to own one, and the man pleaded guilty in Lauren’s case, I’m not sure of any existing law, such as that, or a new law related to guns, that would have prevented Lauren’s death.

Instead, it was the lack of coordination, investigation and attention paid to Lauren’s case by both campus police and the Salt Lake City police and as early as this year in February, a slate of legislation aimed at fixing policing issues were on the table and all of them seem pretty solid to me. Learn more about them here.

But the lesson from that case is that the police can’t protect you. That’s not exactly the message we want to tell someone in trouble from a dangerous individual like Rowland, but that was the reality of the situation. Perhaps the most dangerous situation a woman faces is trying to leave a man and unfortunately, the police weren’t capable or able to step in and be a safety buffer.

However, to the second claim I made, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in a prior domestic case, forget the capability, policies and procedures, the police do not even have a duty to protect you.

Decided in the summer of 2005, the Court ruled in Town of Castle Rock vs. Gonzales that the police do not have a constitutional duty to protect a person from harm and yet again, the specific case was a domestic one, where a woman practically begged police to protect her and her children from her violent husband. She had a court-issued protective order against him, no less, and it still wasn’t enough.

That estranged husband would end up killing their three daughters, ages 7, 9 and 10. Read about the full case here.

The Court’s ruling added to the precedent from the 1989 DeShaney v. Winnebago County case holding that the county social service workers weren’t in breach of their constitutional duty by not protecting a young boy from beatings by his father.

In short, the Justices found that the police have discretion in their actions.

The ruling was 7-2, for the record.

So, yeah, in short, the police cannot and do not have a duty to protect you. What the portends, or what you think the “solution” to that is is an entirely different discussion, but I think it’s worth laying it out that the police’s role in society is not quite what the branding and marketing suggests.

3 thoughts

  1. Quite often, there’s nothing the police can do unless a crime is committed, and by then it’s too late. There’s so many other factors as well: social standing, political influence, “the buddy system” between citizens and the force (previous relationships of some sort), manpower of the local law enforcement branch, general competency…basically, it’s possible for them to “Protect and Serve”, but certainly not a guarantee.


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