Whenever anybody engages me on the issue of self-defense, my mind always wanders to the case of Warren v. District of Columbia.
That case began on the morning of March 16, 1975, when two men broke down the back door of a rooming house on Lamont Street in Washington, D.C. The intruders soon encountered Miriam Douglas, a woman who lived on the second floor with her four-year-old daughter.
The men then seized Douglas, who was forced to perform oral sex on one of the men while the other raped her.
On the third floor above, two roommates — Carolyn Warren and Joan Taliaferro – heard screams coming from below. Warren called the police to request immediate assistance. The dispatcher told Warren that help was on the way.
Three squad cars went to the rooming house. At least one simply drove by without stopping. Another knocked on the door and left after receiving no answer. Within five minutes, all the responding officers had left the scene without performing any meaningful investigation.
Warren and Taliaferro continued to hear screams from downstairs and called the police again. This time they specifically reported that intruders were present in the building and once again requested immediate assistance. This time, no officers were dispatched.
Time passed. Believing police had responded, Warren and Taliaferro called out to Douglas. This alerted the intruders to their presence. The men held all three women at knifepoint, then beat and raped them repeatedly over the course of 14 hours. The victims were also forced to perform sexual acts on one another for the amusement of their captors.
In the aftermath, all three women sued the District of Columbia and the Metropolitan Police Department, as well as the individual officers who responded to the initial call. Their complaint was dismissed, and the ruling of the trial court was upheld on appeal.
The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeal relied on the “public duty doctrine,” which is “the well-established rule that official police personnel and the government employing them are not generally liable to victims of criminal acts for failure to provide adequate police protection.” The only exception to the rule are cases where there is direct contact between the officer and the victim, and specific assurances of protection are made to which the victim relies to their detriment.
Under this doctrine, the Court reasoned, none of the three women had a legitimate claim against the officers or the department. They were basically complaining of general police incompetence.
So why does my mind always turn to this terrible case when discussing self-defense? It’s because Warren stands for the proposition that the police have virtually no legally-enforceable obligation to protect you. Police are supposed to work hard to protect citizens and the majority certainly do, but in the event they drop the ball entirely, there’s little recourse.
This is especially relevant here in New Orleans, where we have a police department with obscenely sluggish response times that lacks a wellspring of public trust. We also are in the midst of a high-profile spate of violent crime.
Under these circumstances, we should jealously guard our well-established right to effectively defend ourselves. It isn’t enough to say that people should just “call 911” in response to a violent attack or a suspected intruder, because the police aren’t legally responsible for protecting you. They have a generally obligation to the public at large, but nothing that creates actual liability. Ultimately, we’re all on our own.
For the same reason, we should also be wary of claims that we ought to emulate European perspectives on self-defense. First off, Europe is no stranger to violent crime. Violent victimization rates in the United Kingdom, for example, are even higher than they are in the US.
Secondly, citizens overseas often have little right to defend themselves. One recalls the well-publicized conviction of British farmer Tony Martin who, in 1999, shot two males who were burglarizing his home. Unlike in the US, in subjects of the British Crown are effectively expected to submit to home invasions. One of the men Martin shot was actually given public assistance to sue Martin in court, although his case failed after evidence emerged that tended to indicate he was exaggerating his residual injuries.
We could have a system, like in the UK, where the same government that can’t be sued for failing to protect you will actually pay the legal fees of your “victim” if you attempt to defend yourself and your home. That madness does exist.
However, none of this is to say that the police are irrelevant. There shouldn’t be any respite from the steady drumbeat of demands for reform in the NOPD. We should expect better protection. However, when civil authorities fail and you’re left to your own devices to defend yourself against a specific threat, it’s good to know that ultimately the law will back you up. Self-defense laws should remain both broad and deferential.
After all, at the end of the day, nobody has a legal obligation to protect you. The only person you can truly rely on is yourself.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.