A Massachusetts statute spells out the rule there: the government has no legal duty “to provide adequate police protection, prevent the commission of crimes, investigate, detect or solve crimes, identify or apprehend criminals or suspects, arrest or detain suspects, or enforce any law.”[Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. Ch. 258 § 10(h).] That “no-duty” rule brings tragedy, as one Massachusetts woman learned in the worst way.

James Davidson had been abusing and harassing his wife, Catherine Ford, after their separation.[Ford v. Town of Grafion, 693 N.E.2d 1047 (Mass. App. 1998)] Catherine got a court order against James to stop his misconduct. The Grafton police knew about James, and told her that they couldn’t provide protection around the clock. One officer frankly advised her to “buy a gun because the only way to deal with violence is violence.”

Catherine did not take that advice. Over the next 15 months James continued to harass and stalk Catherine, and he repeatedly threatened to kill her and her family. James terrorized Catherine and her family at their homes. He attacked her at her workplace. James’s own psychiatrist warned Catherine that James had plans to kill her. Despite all of his vicious and unlawful behavior, the police never arrested James for violating the court order.

James issued his final death threat on January 16, 1986. Catherine reported this threat to the police. At about 6 o’clock the next evening, James started kicking down Catherine’s back door. When she ran out the front door, James spotted her and chased her even as she charged through moving traffic on the street. She pounded on a neighbor’s door, but no one would let her inside. As she ran to the next house, James caught her and shot her three times in the face and neck. He then shot himself. Miraculously Catherine survived, but was totally paralyzed for life.

Catherine sued the town of Grafton for failing to protect her. Her lawyers argued that the police owed a legal duty to stop James, and thus the police owed a legal duty to protect Catherine. A Massachusetts statute required the police to arrest James for his repeated violations of the court order, but the police had failed to arrest him.

The Massachusetts court in Ford v. Town of Grafion held the city was not liable. The court order that was supposed to restrain James and protect Catherine did not amount to an “assurance of safety or assistance” from the police department. According to the court, when the police advised Catherine “to get a gun for protection,” that was a warning to her that the police were unable to assure her safety or protect her. Because she got no assurances of safety from the police, she had no legal right to rely on the police to protect her. Case dismissed. Read More