Guest Post: High Courts Force Officers To Individually Decide Their Duties


It was March 16, 1975 when one of the most terrifying stories of violence occurred. Most would not believe happened in America.

Roommates Carolyn Warren and Joan Taliaferro heard intruders break into the apartment of their neighbor Miriam Douglas. The two intruder forced Douglas to perform oral sex on them and raped her repeatedly. When Warren heard Douglas' screams for help, she called police. The Washington, D.C. dispatcher told her police were on the way to help.

The two women, believing police were on their way, yelled down to the apartment, which alerted the two intruders of their presence. Warren and Taliaferro were then forced into the apartment of Marvin Kent, one of the intruders. The next fourteen hours can only be described as torture, as the three women were raped repeatedly, forced to perform sex acts on one another and beaten nearly to death.

The women survived the ordeal and sued the Washington, D.C. Police Department and the individual officers involved for negligence. But the Federal District of Columbia Court of Appeals dismissed the action in 1981, ruling there is "a fundamental principle of American law that a government and its agents are under no general duty to provide public services, such as police protection, to any individual citizen.''

What The U.S. Supreme Court Says

The Supreme Court denied certiorari in the Warren case (making the decision final), but took up a very similar case a few years later. The case of DeShaney v. Winnebago County put both police and the Department of Social Services (DSS) on trial. Randy DeShaney won custody of his then one-year-old son Joshua in a 1980 divorce case. Joshua was admitted to a Winnebago County, Wisc. hospital in January 1983 and a police report indicating child abuse was filed. Despite this, the child was returned to his father. Several subsequent visits to the home by DSS caseworkers resulted in reports of "suspected child abuse," but no further action was taken.

Joshua was admitted to the hospital again in March 1984, this time with "life-threatening brain hemorrhaging." Randy DeShaney was arrested and convicted of child abuse. He served less than two years in prison, according to Time magazine. Joshua's mother filed a lawsuit under the Civil Rights Act of 1871 (42 U.S.C. § 1983), claiming her son was denied with right to life and liberty without due process pursuant to the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Seventh Circuit Federal Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court summary dismissal, and the Supreme Court affirmed that decision in 1989. The majority ruled that no "special relationship" exists between state authorities and citizens that mandates protection. But the dissenting opinion by Justice Harry Blackmun, spoken of by President Bill Clinton when Blackmun retired, remains an oft-cited proclaimation in U.S. jurisprudence:

"Poor Joshua...It is a sad commentary upon American life, and constitutional principles — so full of late of patriotic fervor and proud proclamations about 'liberty and justice for all' — that this child, Joshua DeShaney, now is assigned to live out the remainder of his life profoundly retarded."

Conundrum For Police Officers

The job of police officers is one of the most difficult in the country. There aren't many studies to determine why men and women join the police force. But the most common reasons are to give back to the community, to make a difference, and/or for job security. Regardless of the reasons why you're a police officer, its up to the individual to decide what the purpose is.

Ivan Romero was a 24-year-old Minneapolis resident who loved to ride his motorcycle and dress it up with motorcycle accessories. He is now dead after an officer responding to a call, struck him while riding this past May. The officer will likely not be held responsible due to court precedent. But will the individual officer reach out to the family of Romero and offer genuine condolences once all judicial proceeding are complete?

Police officers cannot magically bring people back to life or stop every single criminal act that occurs. But officers have the power to enrich the lives of those in their communities, all while enforcing the laws. There's no right or wrong answer; which only adds to an already difficult occupation.

Cassie Jacobs is a blogger and public speaker on public relations, branding and identity.