Her case against the City of New York for failing to protect her was, not surprisingly, unsuccessful. The lone dissenting justice of New York's high court wrote in his opinion: "What makes the City's position [denying any obligation to protect the woman] particularly difficult to understand is that, in conformity to the dictates of the law [she] did not carry any weapon for self-defense. Thus, by a rather bitter irony she was required to rely for protection on the City of New York which now denies all responsibility to her."  |
Instances of police refusing to protect someone in grave danger, who is urgently requesting help, are becoming disturbingly more common. In 1988, Lisa Bianco's violently abusive husband was finally in jail for beating and kidnapping her, after having victimized her for years. Ms. Bianco was somewhat comforted by the facts that he was supposedly serving a seven-year sentence, and she had been promised by the authorities that she'd be notified well in advance of his release. Nevertheless, after being in only a short time, he was temporarily released on an eight-hour pass, and she wasn't notified. He went directly to her house and, in front of their 6- and 10- year old daughters, beat Lisa Bianco to death.
In 1989, in a suburb of Los Angeles, Maria Navarro called the L. A. County Sheriff's 911 emergency line asking for help. It was her birthday and there was a party at her house, but her estranged husband, against whom she had had a restraining order, said he was coming over to kill her. She believed him, but got no sympathy from the 911 dispatcher, who said: "What do you want us to do lady, send a car to sit outside your house?" Less than half an hour after Maria hung up in frustration, one of her guests called the same 911 line and informed the dispatcher that the husband was there and had already killed Maria and one other guest. Before the cops arrived, he had killed another.
But certainly no cop would stand by and do nothing while someone was being violently victimized. Or would they? In Freeman v. Ferguson  a police chief directed his officers not to enforce a restraining order against a woman's estranged husband because the man was a friend of the chief's. The man subsequently killed the woman and her daughter. Perhaps such a specific case is an anomaly, but more instances of general abuses aren't at all rare.
In one such typical case  , a woman and her son were harassed, threatened and assaulted by her estranged husband, all in violation of his probation and a restraining order. Despite numerous requests for police protection, the police did nothing because "the police department used an administrative classification that resulted in police protection being fully provided to persons abused by someone with whom the victim has no domestic relationship, but less protection when the victim is either: 1) a woman abused or assaulted by a spouse or boyfriend, or 2) a child abused by a father or stepfather." 
In a much more recent case,  a woman claimed she was injured because the police refused to make an arrest following a domestic violence call. She claimed their refusal to arrest was due to a city policy of gender- based discrimination. In that case the U. S. District Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that "no constitutional violation [occurred] when the most that can be said of the police is that they stood by and did nothing..." 
Do the police really harbor such indifference to the plight of certain victims? To answer that, let's leave the somewhat aloof and dispassionate world of legal precedent and move into the more easily understood "real world." I can state from considerable personal experience, unequivocally, that these things do happen. As to why they occur, I can offer only my opinion based on that experience and on additional research into the dark and murky areas of criminal sociopathy and police abuse.
One client of my partner's and mine had a restraining order against her violently abusive estranged husband. He had recently beaten her so savagely a metal plate had to be implanted in her jaw. Over and over he violated the court order, sometimes thirty times daily. He repeatedly threatened to kill her and those of use helping her. But the cops refused to arrest him for violating the order, even though they'd witnessed him doing so more than once. They danced around all over the place trying to explain why they wouldn't enforce the order, including inventing numerous absurd excuses about having lost her file (a common tactic in these cases). It finally came to light that there was a departmental order to not arrest anyone in that county for violating a protective order because the county had recently been sued by an irate (and wealthy) domestic violence arrestee.
In another of our cases, when Peggi and I served the man with restraining orders (something we're often required to do because various law enforcement agencies can't or won't do it), he threatened there and then to kill our client. Due to the vigorous nature of the threat, we went immediately to the police department to get it on file in case he attempted to carry it out during the few days before the upcoming court appearance. We spent hours filing the report, but two days later when our client went to the police department for a copy to take to court, she was told there was no record of her, her restraining order, her case, or our report.
She called in a panic. Without that report it would be more difficult securing a permanent restraining order against him. I paid an immediate visit to the chief of that department. We discussed the situation and I suggested various options, including dragging the officer to whom Peggi and I had given the detailed death threat report into court to explain under oath how it had gotten lost. In mere moments, an internal affairs officer was assigned to investigate and, while I waited, they miraculously produced the file and our report. I was even telephoned later and offered an effusive apology by various members of the department.
It is true that in the real world, law enforcement authorities very often do perpetuate the victimization. It is also true that each of us is the only person upon whom we can absolutely rely to avoid victimization. If our client in the last anecdote hadn't taken responsibility for her own fate, she might never have survived the ordeal. But she had sufficient resolve to fend for herself. Realizing the police couldn't or wouldn't help her, she contacted us. Then, when the police tried their bureaucratic shuffle on her, she called me. But for her determination to be a victim no more, and to take responsibility for her own destiny, she might have joined the countless others victimized first by criminals, then by the very system they expect will protect them.
Remember, even if the police were obligated to protect us (which they aren't), or even if they tried to protect us (which they often don't, a fact brought home to millions nationwide as they watched in horror the recent events in Los Angeles), most often there wouldn't be time enough for them to do it. It's about time that we came to grips with that, and resolved never to abdicate responsibility for our personal safety, and that of our loved ones, to anyone else.
1. Guns, Murders, and the Constitution (Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, 1990).
2. A "dropped" call in police dispatcher parlance is one that isn't handled for a variety of reasons, such as because it goes unanswered. Calls from people who get tired of waiting on hold and hang up are classified as "drops" as well.
3. KGO Radio (Newstalk 810), 6:00 PM report, 09-26-91, and a subsequent personal interview with the reporter, Bernie Ward.
4. Warren v. District of Columbia, 444 A.2d 1 (D.C. Ct. of Ap., 1981).
5. See, for example, Riss v. City of New York, 22 N.Y.2d 579, 293 NYS2d 897, 240 N.E.2d 860 (N.Y. Ct. of Ap. 1958); Keane v. City of Chicago, 98 Ill. App.2d 460, 240 N.E.2d 321 (1968); Morgan v. District of Columbia, 468 A.2d 1306 (D.C. Ct. of Ap. 1983); Calogrides v. City of Mobile, 475 So.2d 560 (S.Ct. A;a. 1985); Morris v. Musser, 478 A.2d 937 (1984); Davidson v. City of Westminster, 32 C.3d 197, 185 Cal.Rptr. 252, 649 P.2d 894 (S.Ct. Cal. 1982); Chapman v. City of Philadelphia, 434 A.2d 753 (Sup.Ct. Penn. 1981); Weutrich v. Delia, 155 N.J. Super 324, 326, 382 A.2d 929, 930 (1978); Sapp v. City of Tallahassee, 348 So.2d 363 (Fla.Ct. of Ap. 1977); Simpson's Food Fair v. Evansville, 272 N.E. 2d 871 (Ind.Ct. of Ap.); Silver v. City of Minneapolis, 170 N.W.2d 206 (S.Ct. Minn. 1969) and Bowers v. DeVito, 686 F.2d 61 (7th Cir. 1982).
6. 109 S.Ct. 998 (1989).
7. "Domestic Violence -- When Do Police Have a Constitutional Duty to Protect?" Special Agent Daniel L. Schofield, S.J.D., FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin January, 1991.
8. DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services, 109 S.Ct. 998 (1989) at 1006.
9. 901 F.2d 696 (9th Cir. 1990).
10. 110 S.Ct. 975, 984 (1990).
11. Riss v. City of New York, 22 N.Y.2d 579, 293 NYS2d 897, 240 N.E.2d 860 (N.Y. Ct. of Ap. 1958).
12. Riss, Ibid.
13. 911 F.2d52 (8th Cir. 1990).
14. Thurman v. City of Torrington, 595 F.Supp.1521 (D.Conn. 1984).
15. "Domestic Violence -- When Do Police Have a Constitutional Duty to Protect?" Special Agent Daniel L. Schofield, S.J.D., FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin January, 1991.
16. McKee v. City of Rockwall, Texas, 877 F.2d409 (5th Cir. 1989), cert. denied, 110 S.Ct.727 (1990).
17. McKee v. City of Rockwall, Texas, Id. at 413.
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