If a governmental institution, either police or a court, has information of an intention of a person who intends to commit a crime, is it their job description to prevent it from happening?

  • 1
    Please state the jurisdiction as this varies significantly across the world.
    – jwh20
    Mar 5 at 13:30
  • What are we talking about here? Preventing someone who actively plans a terrorism attack from doing that or to prevent a kid from stealing someone's lunch money?
    – Trish
    Mar 5 at 14:24
  • 1
    @jwh20 with no jurisdiction stated, answers are welcome for any and all jurisdictions. Indeed that is true even if a specific jurisdiction is mentioned in the question. Mar 6 at 4:44
  • What does "in their job description" mean? Are you referring to a literal job description of the sort police officers may be issued by their personnel department; to written orders; to the body of statute and case law governing behavior; or would you include oaths of office, mission statements, badge slogans, public pronouncements by senior officers, or other statements of purpose?
    – Stuart F
    Mar 6 at 15:58

3 Answers 3


Per Warren v. District of Columbia, in the United States, there is no duty on the part of any police to protect any individual citizen. In that case, the police were actually told of a crime in progress, showed up at the crime scene, and left again without stopping it. They would certainly not have the duty to prevent a future crime.

  • "Is it their job description" is a different question from "is it their legal duty". Mar 6 at 2:07
  • It's not clear whether "Is it their job description" is meant to be taken literally, so I think this is a reasonable answer.
    – Stuart F
    Mar 6 at 15:59

This depends on which institution has the information and in what role it is acting. I will just provide a few examples.

  • A court, when considering whether to declare a person to be a "dangerous offender" (Criminal Code, s. 753) should take into account evidence of the likelihood of recidivism. To declare somebody a dangerous offender, there must be a "high likelihood of harmful recidivism" (R. v. Boutilier, 2017 SCC 64 at para. 26).
  • A court, when considering whether to order someone to be detained in custody prior to trial, must consider whether the detention is "necessary for the protection or safety of the public... including any substantial likelihood that the accused will, if released from custody, commit a criminal offence..." (Criminal Code, s. 515(10)(b)).
  • In British Columbia, one of the duties of a municipal police department is to "prevent crime" (Police Act, s. 26(2)(c)).
  • Members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who are peace officers have the duty to prevent crime, subject to the orders of the Commissioner (Royal Canadian Mounted Police Act, s. 18).
  • "The police are statutorily obligated to prevent crime, and, at common law, they owe a duty to protect life and property." Doe v. Metropolitan Toronto (Municipality) Commissioners of Police, 1998 CanLII 14826 (Ont. Sup. Ct.) (only in extraordinary circumstances does this result in a specific duty of care to specific individuals or groups).
  • Other government agencies are not tasked with a duty to prevent crime. For example, the Civil Rules Committee of Ontario is not tasked with the prevention of crime. The University of Guelph Board of Governors is not tasked with the prevention of crime.

That depends on the job. This is an opening for an intake clerk in the US federal courts. The job description part says

Intake clerks assist the public and counsel with filing procedures, case information and other court services. Related duties include opening civil and miscellaneous cases, processing appeals, posting court orders, managing prisoner and immigration cases, responding to archive requests, overseeing attorney admission and discipline orders, receipting payments, creating and maintaining procedural documentation, mail sorting and reviewing documents to ensure compliance with the Court’s quality control standards

Crime prevention is not part of the job description.

There is a different and much longer job description for State Trooper which includes.

Conduct proactive patrol of assigned area and respond to calls for service during day and/or night shifts, to ensure assigned area has patrol coverage up to an including 24 hours/day, 7 days/week.

However, the state patrol does not normally investigate graffiti rings, which would be the job of municipal law enforcement. This is an even longer job description for a county sheriff patrol/detective position, which includes more investigative duties.

There may also be implicit "code of conduct" job requirements to the effect that you can't turn a blind eye to a plan to commit a crime. However, law enforcement agents are strongly limited in what they can do to prevent a crime. I might report to the police that I think Smith is planning to rob a bank, but that would not suffice to justify a search warrant. If I add more details e.g. attest that I heard concrete planning, the police might get a warrant on that basis, but they would need a warrant. However, if there is strong evidence (e.g. from screams) that Smith is about to murder Jones, under the exigent circumstances rule, police could enter and stop the crime.

There are basically two underlying questions here: duty, and power. Legally-enforceable duties are relatively few and generally the result of a specific law. The general rule is that a law enforcement agent has discretionary power to chose what enforcement actions to take, but there may be cases where "may" is replaced with "shall" in the law.

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