This question is related to Are police legally required to stop a crime they see being committed?, but IMHO there is a twist.

Although SCOTUS decided multiple times, as in Town of Castle Rock v. Gonzales and in Warren v. District of Columbia, that, generally speaking, police officers are not required to protect the citizens, I'm not sure whether that applies to a situation when the officer was specifically assigned to protect that particular school. As we all have heard by now, Deputy Scot Peterson was outside building rather than confronting the shooter.

The question is: does accepting the assignment to protect the school legally obligate the officer to interfere? By accepting the specific assignment to protect the school he prevented the school from hiring a guard and therefore his withdrawal of protection put the kids in worse position than they would be w/out him - that would be my reasoning around the above SCOTUS decisions. Is that enough to make him legally obligated to protect the school against the intruder?


2 Answers 2


Florida has statutorily waived sovereign immunity to some extent via Fla. Stat. 768.28, so maybe. This article outlines the convoluted history of Florida case law surrounding public duty doctrine, noting that "Lower appellate courts are struggling to apply the incomprehensible law in this area", and notes that in most cases reaching them, the Supreme Court has not found a lack of government liability. Florida has not applied the public duty doctrine, and has specifically found a duty of care in a number of cases, typified by Kaisner v. Kolb, 543 So. 2d 732 (involving a traffic stop) where

petitioner was owed a duty of care by the police officers when he was directed to stop and thus was deprived of his normal opportunity for protection. Under our case law, our courts have found liability or entertained suits after law enforcement officers took persons into custody, otherwise detained them, deprived them of liberty or placed them in danger

In the case of Wallace v. Dean, 3 So. 3d 1035, plaintiff's mother died after deputies responded to a 911 call and would not summon an ambulance to aid a woman in a diabetic coma. The Supreme Court observed that

the Sheriff's deputies did not attempt to enforce any law and certainly were not engaged in the protection of the general public; instead, they affirmatively sought to provide a service (a 911 safety check) to a specific individual

The court reiterates their longstanding adherence to the doctrine that

[i]n every situation where a man undertakes to act, or to pursue a particular course, he is under an implied legal obligation or duty to act with reasonable care, to the end that the person or property of others may not be injured by any force which he sets in operation, or by any agent for which he is responsible. If he fails to exercise the degree of caution which the law requires in a particular situation, he is held liable for any damage that results to another

and particularly apt to the current question (as well as Wallace)

One who undertakes... to render services to another which he should recognize as necessary for the protection of a third person ...is subject to liability... if...the harm is suffered because of reliance of the other or the third person upon the undertaking.

Since the officer in question is only described as a "school resource officer" and there has been no public release of a memorandum of understanding between the school district and the county sheriff, which would be material in determining whether there was a duty of care.


To be determined.

Warren Decision

[t]he duty to provide public services is owed to the public at large, and, absent a special relationship between the police and an individual, no specific legal duty exists [emphasis added]

Castle Rock and Warren denied the existence of a legal duty to specific individuals of performance of law enforcement activity given the specific fact pattern in those cases. These rulings have been generalized into what's been called the No Duty to Rescue Doctrine (NDRD). It's possible a future court could uphold those principles and apply the NDRD to the Parkland case. Or not. Depends on the arguments of fact and law made in court to that effect. The primary argument against applying the NDRD might be as you described, i.e., the specific nature of Peterson's duty assignment to Parkland.

One interesting angle on this question is if Peterson owed a duty to act, then who rightfully owned the debt of his obligation? One could argue the Sherrif's department that employed Peterson was the sole lawful holder of his duty to perform and not the school or the victims. In short, it's all very complex and the specific facts at play (which are still surfacing) will be determinative as no applicable statutes or case law yet exist that extend beyond the cited references.

  • Could Peterson's contract require him to intervene? Or would that clause be unenforceable because he couldn't be forced to intervene and risk his life? Feb 24, 2018 at 2:51
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    @BlueDogRanch: The terms of Peterson's employment contract could bind Peterson to intervene. Likely enforceable if so. That would be one of the principle articles of evidence for a court to study to assess Peterson's degree of liability. Feb 24, 2018 at 4:24

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