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Huntsville, AL -- Residents of Huntsville, Alabama who declined to intervene to help a police officer subdue a suspect could face criminal prosecution under a state statute requiring them to assist an officer in trouble. Had the situation been reversed, however, police officers would face neither criminal nor civil prosecution for declining to aid a citizen under assault by a suspect.

A man named Devonte Conerly who was suspected in a hit and run incident, allegedly tried to disarm the police officer who stopped him. Several officers responded to a call for assistance and eventually subdued and handcuffed Conerly. They then rebuked several bystanders who had declined to intervene.

“I wouldn't ask anybody in the public [sic] sector to get involved in a shootout or anything like that,” commented police union official Bill Davis. However, he continued, “if it's just an altercation where someone is wrestling with the officer and it looks like they're getting the best of the officer, yes you need to help.”

In fact, under the Alabama state legal code (Section 13A-10-5), “A person commits the crime of refusing to aid a peace officer if, upon command by a peace officer identified to him as such, he fails or refuses to aid” the officer in effecting a “lawful arrest” or preventing “the commission by another person of any offense.” This dereliction of a supposed duty is described as a Class C misdemeanor.

This verbal conscription by law enforcement, while sheer lunacy, is written into law in 44 of the 50 states in the U.S.

Bystanders are not liable to prosecution if the failure to render aid “was reasonable under the circumstances,” but the burden of demonstrating that this is the case is placed upon the accused.

Of course, in the event that a citizen obeys a police officer's command to intervene, and is unable to help subdue the suspect, he could conceivably find himself charged with obstruction, which is a Class A misdemeanor. This means that a police officer can charge an onlooker who declines to participate in an arrest, or – conceivably – one who makes an unsuccessful bid to help.

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In either case, residents of Alabama have a legal duty to come to the aid of an embattled police officer – but police in that state, as elsewhere, have no reciprocal duty to intervene on behalf of a citizen.

It is a well-established legal principle that police officers are not criminally nor civilly liable when they fail to protect individual citizens from specific acts of criminal violence. The 1981 decision Warren v. District of Columbia, to cite one example, held that it is a “fundamental principle of American law that a government and its agents are under no general duty to provide public services, such as police protection, to any individual citizen.” (Emphasis added.)

In that case, two women reported an assault on a friend to the police. Officers were dispatched to the scene of the crime, but declined to enter the building. The desperate women called again, and this time the department didn't even bother to respond. The attackers overheard the second call, and punished the women who had sought police assistance by detaining and assaulting them for 14 hours.

joe lozito

Joe Lozito after the attack.

Police have “no special duty” to aid a citizen facing an immediate lethal threat, contended David Santoro, City Attorney for New York, in a successful bid to dismiss a lawsuit filed by Philadelphia native Joe Lozito. Lozito was nearly killed while subduing a slasher-killer named Maxim Gelman during a 2011 subway attack. Lozito, an unarmed man trained in mixed martial arts, tackled and subdued Gelman, who was being sought for the murder of three people.

As Lozito desperately sank a chokehold on Gelman, the maniac cleaved open the back of Lozito's head. Bleeding and struggling to retain consciousness, Lozito pleaded for help from NYPD Officer Terrance Howell, who was cowering behind a locked partition and refusing to get involved. It wasn't until Lozito managed to pin Gelman down and disarm him that Howell emerged from his secure location, officiously telling Lozito, “You can get up now.”

Howell did nothing to detain or subdue the murderer, but he was the one photographed triumphantly escorting Gelman away from the scene in handcuffs, and was hailed as a “hero cop” in the media. He later admitted to a member of a grand jury that he hid from the suspect out of fear for his safety -- and no moral or policy consideration is more important than the sacred principle of "officer safety."

"Next time you hear people call cops trigger-happy or complain about their overtime and pensions,” pontificated a New York Daily News editorial following Gelman's arrest, “think of Police Officer Terrance Howell.” That is an ironically worthy suggestion, once the facts of that case are fully understood. A complimentary one would be to remember Joseph Lozito's experience whenever the discussion turns to the supposed role played by the police in protecting innocent people from violent crime.