Friday, February 5, 2016

Should Police-Flight Video Shock?

A video shot in Mexico depicts police officers fleeing, despite the pleas of onlookers, shortly before a murder.  The much-watched video has attracted comments, naturally.  But what does American law say?

According to the United States Supreme Court's majority decision in DeShaney v. Winnebago Co. Department of Social Services, law enforcement officials have no duty to rescue members of the public from the violent attacks of third parties, even if they know about it.  Maybe shame would induce police to thwart attackers, but if a citizen's bid to plead for protection fails there's no federal remedy against the government or its officers for electing to leave you to your own devices.  If you think police should have a duty to rescue people from harm, you'll need to agitate for local law to require it:  federal law doesn't.

Since, the news is replete with stories about people killed directly by police with no consequence, there's no point in advising people to trade a fight with local murderers for a fight with the police, on the theory the government will be held to a better standard.  Expecting police to police the police leads to frustration (based on whistleblower-retaliation accounts from California, Georgia, Maryland, New York, Florida, Pennsylvania, etc.;  Kansas legislators went so far as to threaten whistleblowers with special felony charges).  The West Coast is pretty good at offering pro-consumer law, but as of this writing California leads the nation in civilians killed by police during 2016.  It's not a pretty picture.

The police-flight video may be offensive, but it ought not be surprising.  The government message to citizens appears to be: if you want safety, take care of it yourself.

That's not to say police can't send a message of competence, loyalty to the community, and faithful service beyond the call of duty.  But the inconsistent message threatens public confidence and undermines faith in the rule of law and those sworn to uphold it.