The public duty doctrine is a legal principle that states that government officials, including police officers, absent a special relationship, do not owe a specific duty of care to individual members of the public. Instead, their duty is to protect the public as a whole. This doctrine has significant implications for police officers and their interactions with members of the public.
One of the earliest cases to discuss the public duty doctrine is South v. Maryland (1856). In that case, the Supreme Court held that police officers did not have a duty to protect an individual from harm unless they had a special relationship with that individual. This special relationship could be established through actions such as making an arrest, placing someone in custody, or making promises of protection.
Another notable case that discussed the public duty doctrine is Warren v. District of Columbia (1981). In that case, the D.C. Court of Appeals held that the police did not have a specific duty to protect individuals from harm. The case involved a situation where the police had been called to a woman’s home multiple times to investigate reports of a break-in, but they did not take any significant action. The woman was later assaulted by the intruder, and she sued the police for negligence. However, the court held that the police did not have a duty to protect her specifically, as their duty was to protect the public as a whole.
The public duty doctrine has been criticized by some as leaving individuals vulnerable to harm. Critics argue that the doctrine can also lead to police officers neglecting their duties to protect individuals and prevent harm, as they are not legally obligated to do so. This has led to calls for reform and the adoption of new legal standards that place greater emphasis on police officers’ duties to protect individual members of the public. However, the public duty doctrine has also been supported as a way to prevent government officials from being held liable for every harm that occurs in society. Courts have recognized that there are limits to the resources and abilities of public officials, and that they cannot be expected to prevent every harm that might occur.
The public duty doctrine has also been applied in cases involving other government officials, such as social workers and mental health professionals. In DeShaney v. Winnebago County Dep’t of Social Servs. (1989), the Supreme Court held that social workers did not have a duty to protect a child from harm by his father, even though they had been aware of the father’s abusive behavior. Similarly, in Castle Rock v. Gonzales (2005), the Supreme Court held that the police did not have a duty to enforce a restraining order against a woman’s ex-husband, even though she had repeatedly asked for their help.
However, some courts have recognized exceptions to the public duty doctrine. For example, in Warren ex rel. Warren v. District of Columbia (1991), the D.C. Circuit Court held that the police could be liable for harm to an individual if they created a danger that did not previously exist. Similarly, in Bowers v. DeVito (1982), the Seventh Circuit Court held that the police could be liable for harm to an individual if they acted with deliberate indifference to that individual’s safety.
It is vital that officers understand when and how “special relationships” are created. For example, a police officer who takes a person into custody has established a special relationship with them. An officer who induces a person into a relationship of reliance through promises or representations may have also created a special relationship. That officer therefore has created a duty to protect the person from foreseeable harm.
Despite the limitations of the public duty doctrine, police officers must still be mindful of its implications for their duties and responsibilities. Even where no legal duty exists, police officers may be bound by policy and moral obligations. Equally important for officers to remember is that there are exceptions to this doctrine, and police officers can be held liable for harm to individuals under certain circumstances. Therefore, it is important officers consult their legal advisors and develop a thorough understanding of the laws in their jurisdiction.
For more information about this topic, consider attending the training course entitled Response to the Non-Criminal Barricade: Disengagement and Special Relationships® either in-person or online.
Bowers v. DeVito, 686 F.2d 616 (7th Cir. 1982).
Castle Rock v. Gonzales, 545 U.S. 748 (2005).
DeShaney v. Winnebago County Dep’t of Social Servs., 489 U.S. 189 (1989).
Martinez v. State of California, 444 U.S. 277 (1980)