WHAT IS A “DUTY TO ACT” LAW, REGARDING LAW INFORCEMENT?
WHAT IS A “DUTY TO ACT” LAW, REGARDING LAW INFORCEMENT?
Call them norms, or traditions, or customs… in a world that is changing faster and faster, we’re finding that behaviors and rules mean different things than they did when they were first introduced. Apparently it’s now becoming important for us as a society to legislate every aspect of public service. Common sense, morals and ethical behavior are no longer dependable guidelines of everyday conduct, for our citizens or our first responders. It’s unfortunate, but the reality is, no longer can we assume that “Protect and Serve” actually means to protect, or to serve. Before I go further, I want to explain that I am not criticizing the first responders or police in any way. They have a tough job, and do the best they can in difficult circumstances. I’m looking at a new set of legal findings that had not been a problem until the last decade or so.
Contrary to what the general public believes, police are not necessarily required to provide protection for citizens. This was news to me, but according to the Duty to Act Law, police only have a real commitment to protect people in their custody. Does this mean that if you have a court order of protection, the police may not come to assist you if the person the order is against has broken the terms of the order? Or might they just make him walk across the street, then drive off, leaving him there to taunt and threaten you? (I feel that most police officers will accept that it is their obligation to check on your welfare, and to see that you’re safe before leaving. But the law, as it stands, is up for interpretation.) These questions and others are being tested in our judicial system. So far, the courts are agreeing that the police have no legal responsibility to any individual not in their custody unless there is a specific Duty to Act law on the books of the State, or in some cases, the books of larger cities.
Duty to Act: Legal Obligations vs. Community Expectations, by Anthony S. Mangeri, Sr.
One part of this law states: “In 1981, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals ruled in Warren vs. District of Columbia (444 A.2d. 1. D.C. Ct of Ap., 1981). The Court stated it 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.”
A quick review of state statutes found that very few states actually have laws that mandate a duty to act. Such statutes, which require an individual to respond to another being harmed, are relatively new.”
I grew up in an age where our parents told us that policemen were there to help us, and if we ever got lost or scared of someone to run to a policeman. Police held neighborhood meetings, gave talks at schools, and ran holiday drives for the poor. Of course, they often walked a “beat” back then, and knew many of the people in the neighborhood they were assigned to. I didn’t live in an area that had a “beat cop,” but I did see them downtown. Walking a beat is less common today. Law enforcement officers don’t generally know most of the people in their districts unless they have had police related interactions a few times in the past.
Regardless, most communities expect emergency personnel to be capable and ready to deliver common sense assistance in any situation. It seems that the courts, however, don’t agree with the expectations of the community. Many courts, as I stated earlier, have ruled that there is no “Duty to Act” unless explicitly stated in a law or statute.
So far, firefighters and first responders (EMTs, ambulances, etc.) are still required to provide aid and assistance. Frequently, the “Duty to Act” is part of the Mission statement for their services. It seems that sometimes, the Police Department doesn’t share that requirement when performing a first response action. More and more, police are reluctant to provide protection or perform a rescue. Possibly this is, in part, due to the fear of being sued – in other cases, fear of self-contamination. Mouth-to-mouth CPR, staunching blood flow and other medical techniques are not required. Police and other first responders are given latex gloves, and taught actions to take for their own safety. But it’s important that every member of a department be trained in the proper guidelines and techniques to administer aid, and to recognize the proper procedures for each type of emergency.
What states have laws that help the police and other first responders?
Vermont and Minnesota are two states that have added statutes requiring police to assist in first response services. Part of Vermont’s Statute, states: “A person who knows that another is exposed to grave physical harm shall, to the extent the same can be rendered without danger or peril to himself or without interference with important duties owed to others, give reasonable assistance to the exposed person unless that assistance or care is being provided by others.”
It also provides assurance that someone providing aid won’t be prosecuted or held responsible for civil damages unless they are expecting payment for said services.
Minnesota’s law is similar. Both states have Good Samaritan statues with these same precautions, as well. Where states have added these statutes, it becomes necessary to include specific training on how and when to provide needed aid.
Narcan® is a good example of an emergency service some police are reluctant to give. Narcan is the nasal spray developed to bring someone out of a potentially life-threatening overdose of opioids. It requires no medical training to administer. Unfortunately, police often don’t like the responsibility of having to carry the medication, or the task of attempting the life-saving technique. Police forces around the nation have now been giving short classes on how it works and how to use it, and how to recognize overdose from other unconscious states, but some police still fear they could be sued. This is one reason it’s becoming increasingly necessary for states and cities to write statutes that cover this possible threat, and to make sure their Good Samaritan laws cover all first responders.
Arizona has a Good Samaritan Statute, but it doesn’t directly address police Duty to Act issues. Across the nation, most states don’t have a real Duty to Act Statute. Pima County Sheriff’s Department in Arizona announced on January 3, 2019 that their officers will undergo training on opioid overdose recognition and began carrying Narcan in their emergency kits. In Tucson, I spoke with Officer Magos who very helpfully explained how Tucson police respond to emergencies and trouble calls. They follow a protocol called General Orders, which covers all their rules of conduct, including drug policy, code of ethics, firearms related orders of protection and a multitude of on-the-job issues, as well as regulations pertaining to working outside the police department, and other police related policies. They do carry Narcan and have first aid training, but no specific medical training. For an example of their general orders, I looked up Incident Scenes. Here is an excerpt:
“The responsibilities of members assigned to respond to incidents include, but are not limited to the safe response to the incident and the deployment of additional units as necessary. Members arriving on the scene of a crime or other police incident are responsible for:
_ Identification, security and protection of the scene;
_ Prevention of further injury or loss of life, to include the application of first-aid/CPR as appropriate;
_ Apprehension of suspects;
_ Completion of a thorough investigation;
_ Location and interview complainant and witnesses;
_ Collection of evidence; and
_ Completion of all required reports”
I attempted to find a list of states or cities that had laws and statutes that applied to police officers specifically, but was unsuccessful. All states now have some form of a Good Samaritan law, including protecting anyone from being sued or held liable for providing aid in life-threatening situations, but this does not necessarily require the police to instigate rescue or treatment. Each reader should look up the laws as they pertain to their state, county or town. If you think your state should develop clearer language regarding Good Samaritan and Police protection ethics and procedures, you might want to contact your State Legislative Representatives, usually found by going to your state legislative site. For example, a search for California legislature brought up http://www.legislature.ca.gov/ . You can also call your City Manager’s Office, or even your local Police Department or Sheriff’s Office. – THE END