A Reminder that the Police have No Obligation to Protect You
The Broward County Sheriff's office announced this afternoon that Deputy Scot Peterson resigned after being suspended for not engaging the shooter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. He had been making over $75,000 a year as the school's Student Resource Office, a position he had held since 2009.
While the report of Deputy Peterson's inaction has understandable resulted in public outrage and disgust, it's important to note that the Supreme Court has found that government police officers are under no obligation to actually protect the public.
This is why, as Chris Calton noted in an article earlier this year, it's useful to recognize that "law enforcement" is really not synonymous with "security:"
The problems we find in the institution of the police, then, stem from two different areas. The first is the one that typically gets acknowledged, and that’s the government policies in running the police. The negative incentives that attract dangerous people, the lack of consequences for mistakes and abuses of authority, and the low criteria for earning a badge. Many libertarians argue for the privatization of the police as a way of reversing these incentives so that they have a positive effect. The recent string of sexual harassment allegations demonstrates the different levels of accountability between private individuals and those in government positions.
But when libertarians advocate privatizing the police – a position I’ll admit that I share – they are usually advocating the privatization of security. The motto of the police is “To Protect and Serve.” This is the motto of a security industry. But despite continuing to fly this banner, the police today hardly constitute a “security” service. In fact, the security industry is already privatized, and there are more private security guards employed in the United States and other countries than there are police officers.
The synonymous term for “police” is “law enforcement,” and this is a distinction worth remembering. The role of police is not, and has never been, to keep people safe; it has always only been to enforce the law.
When a public police force was first created, the idea of “law enforcement” and “public safety” almost went hand-in-hand. Most laws were actually designed to protect the person and property of private citizens (with exceptions, of course). So even if a public police force was less efficient than a private alternative, its job was still, for the most part, to keep people safe by enforcing the laws designed to protect them from violent criminals.
But as government has grown into the leviathan we know today, the law has expanded well beyond a small criminal code designed to protect life, liberty, and property. But the police, true to their role as law enforcement officers, are just as obligated to enforce these laws – the ones prohibiting marijuana use, lemonade stands, and collecting rainwater, to name only a few oft-cited legal absurdities – as they are to enforce laws protecting people from violent criminals. In fact, if we factor in the negative incentives police departments have guiding the allocation of their resources, it’s reasonable to conclude that an officer is more obligated to enforce the laws against non-violent criminals than the laws against violent ones.