Do the Police Have an Obligation to Protect You?

To Protect and Serve” – these words symbolize the mission of the U.S. police force. Their vehicle’s side doors are also typically adorned with the slogan. But what do the words mean? Are the police obligated to protect you?

Let’s digress a wee bit – The Clark Law Office is a personal injury firm committed to serving Michigan residents. The firm’s attorneys have earned a reputation for being knowledgeable and experienced in representing claimants for over 30 years. They also liaise with the police in cases involving car, truck, or motorcycle accidents, dog bites, wrongful death, and more. As such, they are aware of the legal obligations of police officers.

Okay, truth be told, the police don’t have a duty to protect you. Their duty is to protect the communities they serve, that is, the general public. But, they should protect you from harm in specific situations. Even so, they can’t merely risk their lives to save yours. Thus, if they face a dangerous situation, they may choose to retreat.

No Specific Duty

According to a ruling by the Supreme Court, the police’s duty is to the public. And unless they have a specific relationship with the individual facing danger or harm, they have no obligation to protect you.

For instance, if a police officer’s spouse is in danger, the officer has a duty to protect them. Similarly, a relationship between the officer and a person in custody or confinement puts the officer in a position of responsibility. As such, the police have no obligation to protect an individual who is not in a special relationship with them.


To show that the police don’t owe you a duty to protect, let’s look at a precedent. In the case of Castle Rock vs. Gonzales, a man killed his three children after violating a restraining order.

Afterward, his wife pursued a claim against the police department. She argued that by not arresting her husband, the officers had failed to uphold their obligation to protect her and her children. In the ruling, the court stated that the police had no special duty to protect the family.

Likewise, in 2018 the Court of Appeals ruled, in agreement with a ruling by a lower court, that it wasn’t the police’s duty to protect the 17 students killed at Stoneman Douglas High School, Fl. Based on such a precedent, it’s clear that we’re not entitled to police protection as individuals.


Although the police generally owe no duty to protect you, we must consider certain exceptions. For instance, when officers are on patrol and come across a crime in progress, they’re expected to act.

Similarly, a police officer can’t ignore an imminent danger posed to the public. Furthermore, if you’re assaulted, the police have a responsibility to keep you safe and help you get medical assistance.

Even so, they can only help you to a certain extent, as is humanly possible and within the confines of the law. Besides, the proportion of police officers to potential victims is too small for them to protect everyone. Would it make sense to expect 38,000 police officers to protect 8 million people in New York?

Obligation to Act Reasonably

Even though the police are not obligated to protect you, they should act reasonably and take appropriate steps to protect the public. Such reasonable measures include responding to emergency calls and attempting to apprehend a suspect. Also, they must take reasonable steps to prevent injury if they’re aware of a dangerous situation.

But what happens if they don’t? Usually, families or groups can sue their police departments for violating an individual’s constitutional rights. However, they rarely win because the court always looks at what a reasonable person would have done under the same circumstances. And did you know that the law protects the police? Here’s how:

Qualified Immunity

Under this doctrine, police officers are protected from civil liability. This means if an officer violates an individual’s rights but proves that their action was reasonable, they can’t be held personally liable for damages.

This explains why it is extremely difficult to win a case against the police department in such instances – as the precedents we’ve outlined clearly show. The doctrine endeavors to balance individual rights and the need to protect officers from frivolous and costly lawsuits. Hence, criminal charges against them will mostly fall through. And as a result, even if we feel they fail to protect our communities or the general public, it’s extremely difficult to hold them accountable.

The constitution does not obligate the police to protect you. The best you can do if you’re in harm’s way or need protection is to hope your 911 call leads the police to respond appropriately and quickly. If they don’t, you might have to swallow the bitter pill – that’s the sobering reality. This also means it’s your responsibility to take the necessary precautions to protect yourself.

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