In the aftermath of the murder of 19 kids and two teachers at a Uvalde, Texas elementary school, the reports about what, exactly, the cops did that day are conflicting, to say the least. Initial reports claimed the police engaged in a firefight with the shooter before he entered the school, but now reports are that the gunman actually wandered around outside without challenge for 12 whole minutes. The story may very well change again by the time you're reading this, but one detail does seem to be coming into clear view: The shooter had about an hour inside the school with his victims before police finally shot him. Video and testimony show that parents were not only begging cops to do something but that when parents themselves tried to charge in, the cops held them back. At least one parent was handcuffed to keep him from charging into the school. On Friday afternoon, the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) confirmed that at least 19 law enforcement officers stood in the hallway outside of the classroom at Robb Elementary for over 45 minutes as the gunman slaughtered students inside.
Police, it appears, were not keen on confronting a teenager armed with an AR-15. That's understandable from a human perspective but in direct conflict with the image that law enforcement likes to portray of themselves as brave public servants who put their life on the line for ordinary citizens. This image has been bandied about even harder in recent years, in response to the ongoing debate over how much public money is spent on policing in lieu of other social services. It's safe to say that the widespread support for robust police funding is entirely due to the assumption that cops have a duty to rush in and protect people, especially children, in such situations.
On social media, people were understandably recommending that the parents sue the police for their failure to act swiftly. It seems like common sense: We hire police to protect us, and if they don't, we can sue them, right?
Well, one certainly can try to sue! But here's the sad, dark truth: Such a lawsuit is almost certainly doomed from the get-go. In 2005, the Supreme Court settled whether or not citizens are entitled to protection from violence from the police with a resounding "nope, see you later." This case also involves the murder of three small children, so readers be forewarned. In 1999, Colorado resident Jessica Lenahan (then Gonzales) obtained a restraining order against her ex-husband, Simon Gonzales, who was stalking her and her four children. A few days later, he showed up at her house and kidnapped her three daughters. She frantically called the police for hours, over and over, and they did nothing. It was only when Simon Gonzales showed up at the police station, gun in hand, that they reacted, by killing him. They found the three little girls murdered at their father's hand in the car.
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Lenahan sued the police, arguing that by ignoring her pleas for help, they had violated her 14th amendment rights to equal protection. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where she lost in a 7-2 decision in 2005. The opinion's author, Antonin Scalia, argued that the police's right to discretion prevailed, and there is no "'entitlement' to receive protective services." That the cops were bad at their job didn't change the fact that the right to discretion over the right call lay with them, not Lenahan.
There is a "traditional belief that police are there to proactively prevent and deescalate dangerous situations," as Ramenda Cyrus wrote for the American Prospect just last month, but, in reality, "the cops do not have a duty to protect you, or anyone."
Since Scalia's 2005 Supreme Court decision, another case that reiterated this legal reality came to the public's attention, initially because of, believe it or not, the comedy website Cracked.com. In 2011, Joseph Lozito was on his way to work in New York City when he got attacked, right in front of two police officers, by a serial killer the cops were already on the lookout for. The killer, Maksim Gelman, had already murdered four people when he pulled out a knife on the train and just started stabbing Lozito at random. Lozito fought back, while the two police watched but did not intervene. Lozito, even though he had been stabbed in the head multiple times, managed to disarm Gelman. It was only then that the cops swooped in and arrested the killer. Lozito sued the police and lost, because, you guessed it, the cops had no "special duty" to act.
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To be clear there are real legal issues with trying to create an affirmative duty to act for the police, starting with the danger of mass arrests for every petty crime. The 2020 episode of Radiolab that covers both of these cases digs into some of the complications and is well worth listening to. Still, the false assumption that police do have a legal obligation to protect the public is the source of much of the support for not just basic funding, but often sprawling police budgets that detract from a community's ability to pay for other services, such as the kinds of mental health services that might prevent some of these shootings.
As NBC News reported, the "Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District had doubled its security budget in recent years," militarizing the safety plan in ways that are all too familiar in our modern era. The money went to "its own police force, threat assessment teams at each school, a threat reporting system, social media monitoring software," among other things. Uvalde police are also equipped with expensive firepower, body armor, and other militarized equipment that the public buys cops, under the assumption that they are obliged to use it to protect us. But this reliance on the fancy bells and whistles appears to have contributed to the delay in response. Authorities said on Friday that the commanding officer on the scene decided to wait for his officers to be fully equipped while children were being executed steps away from them.
"They don't make entry initially because of the gunfire they're receiving," Victor Escalon, the South Texas regional director for DPS, told the press. "But we have officers calling for additional resources, everybody that's in the area, tactical teams: We need equipment, we need specialty equipment, we need body armor, we need precision riflemen, negotiators."
As political commentator Julian Sanchez noted on Twitter, "I suspect this is an underappreciated harm of police militarization: Now cops think it's not their job to protect people if it involves some risk & they don't have a tank and a SWAT team."
I suspect this is an underappreciated harm of police militarization: Now cops think it's not their job to protect people if it involves some risk & they don't have a tank and a SWAT team. https://t.co/AP71tx5IE6
— Julian Sanchez (@normative) May 27, 2022
The debate over police funding is a frustrating one because it demands nuance, and we do not live in nuanced times. So it gets reduced to this childish pissing match over whether we "fund" or "defund" the police — as if the question is whether or not there should be any police force at all. In truth, there will always be some need for law enforcement, since it's childish to believe everyone will just obey the law out of communal duty without it. But it is also and equally true that the cops are overfunded and all too often ineffective, often due to being spoiled rotten by both the public and politicians who are caught up in the myth of the hero cop. We need to de-romanticize law enforcement, bring police budgets to heel, and hold cops accountable for doing their jobs, like everyone else is expected to do.
Ironically, if we start treating cops like the public servants they actually are, instead of like they're untouchable superheroes, it might incentivize more courage under fire. Consider the two adult victims of the Uvalde shooting: Eva Mireles and Irma Garcia. These two women were schoolteachers, one of those underpaid and under-appreciated public service jobs that never gets the glory the cops routinely receive. A child survivor of the shooting reports that they "went in front of my classmates to help. To save them." Garcia's nephew told the New York Times the cops "found her body there, embracing children in her arms pretty much until her last breath."
If our cops can't be as brave as our 4th-grade teachers, why are we giving the cops so much more money?