The Department of Justice said Sunday that it will investigate the botched law enforcement response to the mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, last week as public outrage over the incident continues to simmer.
The precise details underlying authorities’ extraordinarily delayed efforts to take out the shooter have been tough to pin down, and local officials have been misleading and contradictory as they’ve relayed information to the news media. But what we know already depicts local police as seemingly too scared to face off with the gunman, who allegedly spent over an hour killing kids and teachers as multiple students inside the school called 911 for help.
DOJ investigations into police protocol have become a sordid routine following mass shootings in the United States. For example, they were held after a 2015 massacre in San Bernardino, California, and after a 2016 shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
Like those investigations, the Uvalde probe will end with policy recommendations and a report, but Americans hoping for individual officers or the police department to be held criminally or even civilly liable for their reported refusal to immediately engage the gunman should temper their expectations.
Why? Because the Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that police departments don’t actually have a constitutional obligation to protect people. In Castle Rock v. Gonzales, Jessica Lenahan (formerly Gonzales) sued city of Castle Rock, Colorado, alleging that the police department’s failure to enforce a restraining order against her estranged husband enabled him to kill their three daughters.
On June 22, 1999, Lenahan reportedly tried for hours to get police to find and arrest her estranged husband, who had taken possession of the three children hours earlier. But the police did not take action, even though Lenahan had obtained a restraining order against him weeks earlier.
Lenahan’s legal team argued that the police were derelict in their duty, but after several failed appeals in lower courts, the Supreme Court eventually ruled against her. For the majority, conservative Justice Antonin Scalia wrote: “We do not believe that these provisions of Colorado law truly made enforcement of restraining orders mandatory. A well established tradition of police discretion has long coexisted with apparently mandatory arrest statutes.”
In other words: Just because police say they’ll help doesn’t mean they must.
That may be helpful for officers who responded in Uvalde to avoid accountability, but it’s harmful to the folklore we’re often sold about police, both in pop culture and from lawmakers. Over the past two weeks, Republicans in particular have responded to high-profile mass shootings in Uvalde and Buffalo, New York, with calls for more police and more guns — essentially, anything but gun control. But that’s clearly not an adequate fix. Uvalde is proof that many officers simply won’t do the work conservatives suggest they will — especially under duress. And courts don’t think that should be required of them.