The Police Are Not Here to Save You

A number of horrifying recent incidents across the U.S. are a grim reminder that cops do not have a constitutional duty to protect people.
A police officer stands near the makeshift memorial for the shooting victims outside Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on May 28, 2022.
A police officer stands near the makeshift memorial for the shooting victims outside Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on May 28, 2022.  (Photo by CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images)

After being shot in the lung and back, Robb Elementary School teacher Arnulfo Reyes pretended to be dead as 11 students in his class were killed by an 18-year-old gunman with an AR-15 rifle. 

Meanwhile, for over an hour, as many as 19 Uvalde, Texas, police officers waited in the hallway as kids pleaded with them and called for help. Nineteen children and two adults were killed. 

Reyes told ABC News the officers are “cowards.” 


“You’re supposed to protect and serve,” he said. “There is no excuse for their actions. And I will never forgive them.”

He noted that police had bulletproof vests. “I had nothing.” 

The Uvalde shooting isn’t the only recent incident that sparked intense criticism about how effective police are at protecting lives, let alone stopping crime. 

Three Tempe, Arizona, police officers are on paid leave after body camera footage and a transcript were released showing them standing by as a man drowned in front of them. The police had been responding to a call on May 28 about a dispute between the man, Sean Bickings, who was Black and unhoused, and his wife. Bickings climbed into the lake and began to say he was drowning, to which one cop replied, “​​OK, I’m not jumping in after you.” 

Bickings’ wife pleaded with officers to help—one officer threatened to detain her. 

Meanwhile, more than 90 women who allege they were abused by former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar are seeking more than $1 billion in damages from the FBI, arguing in lawsuits that the agency failed to adequately investigate complaints against Nassar in 2015. He wasn’t arrested until December the following year.   


The incidents have renewed calls for police reform and defunding the police, with some arguing that even when they’re on site, cops do not stop violent crime from happening. Experts say there’s a huge discrepancy between the public’s perception of what police should do and what they actually do. 

According to a 2005 Supreme Court decision, police have no constitutional duty to protect people who aren’t in custody from harm. It’s a ruling that was reaffirmed by a federal judge in 2018, responding to a lawsuit filed by students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida—the site of a mass shooting that left 17 people dead. 

“The narrative that a good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun is completely overblown. It would be great if it was empirically true, but it doesn't bear out,” said Rashawn Ray, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and sociology professor at the University of Maryland, College Park.

In terms of solving crime, Ray said 40 percent of murders go unsolved every year, along with 60 percent of rapes and 70 percent of robberies. (The murder clearance rate has gotten even worse in recent years, with just less than 50 percent of murders solved in 2020.)


He said there is a perception, bolstered by many procedural cop shows, that police stop crime and that people want to believe it’s true because “we want to feel safe.”

A lot of the time, cops show up after a crime has been committed and take notes. In terms of interrupting violent crime in real time, Ray said the reality is a lot of cops aren’t trained to do that—nor does it make up anything close to the majority of their jobs. Even if every officer took active shooter training, he said that may only be a few hours or a one-day course. 

Former Memphis police officer Thaddeus Johnson, an assistant professor of criminology at Georgia State University, told VICE News most of the time defensive tactical training is “very minimal.” 

“You go shoot at a paper target for eight hours and you’re qualified,” he said. 

Ray said the lack of training, particularly in small police departments, could explain why the officers at Uvalde reacted the way they did—with some of them handcuffing and restraining parents who wanted to save their kids rather than saving the children themselves. 

“It ended up leading to them doing what they do, which is police people. So while these parents were trying to go in to get their kids, they were policing them because they are accustomed to doing that. Whereas going into a school and stopping a mass shooter is not what some of those officers have been trained to do even if they went through a course.” (Many of the officers involved at the Uvalde shooting had received active-shooter training only two months before.)


Ray said officers need more specialized training and to be tasked with doing less—as it stands, most of the calls they pertain to don’t involve crime, he noted. 

Police forces have been repeatedly scrutinized by reform proponents for a lack of oversight. 

Often, when accused of wrongdoing, they’re investigated by other police or former cops. They also benefit from qualified immunity—a legal doctrine that protects cops from being sued for constitutional violations unless they violate "clearly established law,” which has to be proven, usually through previous court decisions.

To have more accountability, Ray said police departments and individual officers should pay for liability insurance. As it stands, he said even if police departments are successfully sued, it’s the taxpayers who will foot the bill. He believes Uvalde police will be sued and that this could be the outcome of those lawsuits. 

“The parents who lost their kids—their money is now going to be used to pay the civil settlement for the wrongful death of their kids,” he said.

He said racism also plays in a role in how police act in many situations. Often, he said Black and Latinx communities are simultaneously racially profiled but under-policed when people actually need help. 

“First responders, and law enforcement and first responders more broadly... respond minutes slower going to predominantly Black and Latino areas than they do white areas,” he said. 


Ray suggested ensuring that officers actually live in the communities they serve could help bridge some of the gaps between cops and the communities. 

Johnson believes overall police do more good than harm. While more cops on the streets may not actually reduce crime, he said it can reduce the “fear of crime” and that fear can lead to bad policy, including the 1994 crime bill that led to mass incarceration among Black people. However, he conceded that many racialized people don’t actually feel safe around cops.

“I'm a Black guy. I got dreads and I talk about how I walk this paradox every day. Even as a Black police captain, I got pulled over and my heart would race,” he said.

But he said if police weren’t rewarded for arresting people and focused more on community building, they could have a much more positive impact.

As for Uvalde, Ray said he could see the officers who responded to the mass shooting leaving or retiring. He also said the department could also be dissolved or find itself in financial peril fighting off lawsuits.

“In a small community like that, everybody’s going to be looking at you like, ‘You let these kids die.’”

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