If a local police officer knows that a law exists and is familiar with its details, and they observe or otherwise become aware that said law is being broken, and they have the resources, means, jurisdiction, and opportunity to enforce said law, do they have any legal obligation to enforce that law (and/or are there established criteria for making a decision to enforce it)? And, if they do or do not, are there any exceptions either way?

In particular, I'm asking about NYPD local precinct general patrol, traffic patrol, and investigators, (as opposed to e.g. school / housing, parking, crossing guards, auxiliary, etc.) but I'm also wondering about local / municipal police in general in the USA (although I presume if such an obligation exists, it would be on a state level or lower).

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    I think a quick answer to this would be everyone who speeds on the roads across the country on a daily basis without getting stopped by law enforcement would be a good example of this not being the case.
    – Joe W
    Commented Jul 8, 2021 at 0:48
  • @JoeW Well, assuming you mean when a cop sees that happen and chooses not to enforce, that's an example of a law not being enforced. But it doesn't speak to whether or not an officer who ignored it was allowed to ignore it.
    – Jason C
    Commented Jul 8, 2021 at 14:44
  • @DaleM re: dupe ... I'll try to clarify this question later. I was thinking more of situations where lives were not in immediate danger. Eg petty theft, noise codes, traffic laws, vandalism, etc. Although I suspect the linked dupe applies there too. I'll do some research before I try to reopen this since it might be the same. Ty for that link.
    – Jason C
    Commented Jul 8, 2021 at 14:47
  • In my example it is very common knowledge that cops will not pull you over unless you are going a decent amount over the speed limit. This is not counting special cases such as school zones, residential areas, construction zones and other such areas. With how common knowledge it is there is no reason at all to suspect that they are not allowed to ignore this type of legal infraction which suggests there are other legal infractions that they can ignore depending on what they are.
    – Joe W
    Commented Jul 8, 2021 at 17:18

1 Answer 1


No such obligation exists, at least at the federal level. See DeShaney v Winnebago or Town of Castle Rock v Gonzales. SCOTUS has repeatedly ruled that law enforcement officers are under no legal obligation to prevent a crime in progress, merely that they have the power to intervene if they so choose. Obviously as a society we expect police officers to, you know, do their job, but there is little legal recourse if they don’t.

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    Isn’t there on the state level or a contractual duty at least?
    – kisspuska
    Commented Jul 8, 2021 at 3:46
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    While there doesn’t seem to be any rulings outlawing this kind of policy, I find it difficult to imagine any state or local governments opening themselves up to liability in this way. In my (admittedly brief) research, I struggled to find examples of such a policy in the United States, but if anyone else knows of an example please share! It appears that the police may have this obligation in some EU jurisdictions under Article 3 of the ECHR, but only for serious crimes. Commented Jul 8, 2021 at 15:24
  • It is a bit surprising that there isn't a contractual obligation if only because you'd expect any employee to be contractually obligated to do their job in general. I'm going to call around to various city agencies today and see if that's the case. I feel like NYPD Internal Affairs would have details on that in the NYPD case. Otoh yeah, I guess the liability is pretty significant.
    – Jason C
    Commented Jul 8, 2021 at 16:40

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