A Review of “To Protect and Serve”

BY: Alex Ragland

Alex is currently a line editor for the Georgetown University Undergraduate Law Review.

The phrase “To Protect and to Serve” originated as the motto for the Los Angeles Police Department before being adopted by departments throughout the country. The popular phrase has turned out to be quite misleading. Through a series of former decisions, the courts have affirmed that the police have no legal obligation to prevent harm except under specific circumstances.

In Warren v. District of Columbia (1981), the District of Columbia Court of Appeals decided that the police were not obligated to protect three women during a home invasion. They plainly stated that “a government and its agents are under no general duty to provide public services, such as police protection, to any particular citizen.”[1] They reasoned that “absent a special relationship between the police and an individual, no specific legal duty exists.”[2] Warren v. District of Columbia stated that the police have a duty to perform if there is a special relationship with the individual, such as the individual being in custody.[3] Absent a special relationship, the police also have a duty once they have “embarked upon services under circumstances where it was reasonably foreseeable that a citizen might rely on their performance.”[4] The court defined one such circumstance as the police telling an individual that “help is on the way.”[5] Warren v. District of Columbia decided that police departments are only responsible for the protection of certain members of a community under specific circumstances.

Since the pivotal decision in Warren, courts have continuously upheld that the police do not have a duty to protect. In the case DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services (1989), the Winnebago County Social Services Department was accused of failing to protect a young boy from his abusive father.[6] The Supreme Court decided that government agencies are not required to “protect the life, liberty, and property of its citizens against invasion by private actors” under the Due Process Clause.[7] They further stated that the Due Process Clause “cannot fairly be extended to impose an affirmative obligation on the State to ensure that those interests do not come to harm through other means.”[8] Therefore, according to the court, because the boy was in the custody of his father—a private actor—the state actor had no obligation to protect him.[9] Thus, it has been definitively stated that government agencies do not have a duty to protect outside the bounds and requirements of State custody.[10] Unless someone is within the limits of police custody, there is no legal duty for officers to prevent harm.

More recent court cases have upheld the precedents set in Warren and DeShaney, including the infamous Castle Rock v. Gonzales (2005). In 2005, the Supreme Court heard the case of Castle Rock v. Gonzales. Jessica Gonzales sued the police department after her husband, whom she has a restraining order against, violated the court order. He later abducted and killed her three children.[11] The police officers did not attempt to enforce the restraining order, even after Gonzalez called multiple times asking for help. The Supreme Court upheld the precedent set in DeShaney and affirmed that State actors, in this case police departments, have no legal duty to protect.[12]

The idea that the police do not have an obligation to ‘protect and serve’ has been upheld in court cases over the past few years. After the 2018 Parkland shooting, a group of students sued the local police department for not protecting them. The District Court dismissed the suit, stating that “for such a duty to exist,” the student “would have to be considered to be in custody” and since “schoolchildren are not in a custodial relationship with the state,” there is no mandate to protect them, further affirming the DeShaney decision.[13] It may seem shocking that, despite their motto, police departments are not obligated to protect and serve. Further, courts have repeatedly affirmed the idea that, barring specific circumstances, there is no constitutional obligation for the police to protect and serve.

[1] Warren v. District of Columbia, 444 A.2d 1 DC: Court of Appeals 1981.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.t

[5] Ibid.

[6] DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services, 489 U.S. 189 (1989).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Castle Rock v. Gonzales, 545 US 748 (2005).

[12] Ibid.

[13] L.S. v. Peterson, Case No. 18-cv-61577-BLOOM/Valle, 12 (S.D. Fla. Dec. 12, 2018).


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