TortsProf Blog

Editor: Christopher J. Robinette
Southwestern Law School

Friday, April 19, 2024

Swan on Public Duties for the New City

Sarah Swan has posted to SSRN Public Duties for the New City.  The abstract provides:

The first job of a government is to protect its people, and, in the United States, the government ostensibly performs this job through the police. But policing in America is deeply dysfunctional, as the police not only provide inadequate protection from violent crime, but simultaneously engage in outright acts of brutality against the citizenry. As awareness of these practices has swept across the nation, legal scholars and policymakers have offered numerous reforms and remedies to help solve policing’s problems. The responses have tended to focus on the top of the legal pyramid, using the big hammers of the federal government, the Constitution of the United States, the federal remedies of Section 1983, and the qualified immunity doctrine of federal courts as the requisite tools for reform. More recently, as these efforts have faltered, scholars and policymakers have begun to explore the possibilities for change at the state and local level.

This Article, too, begins at the bottom. While the proposed fixes to the federal framework are indeed important, this Article argues that changes at the lower, foundational level of cities, local governments, and common law duties of care are equally so. Policing is, after all, a fundamentally local matter, with thousands of municipal and county governments responsible for its administration. And duties of care are the most basic articulation of the norms and obligations flowing between members of our society, shaping not just private relations, but the government-constituent relationship as well. This Article argues that attending to these roots offers an opportunity to reorient the police-citizen relationship and recast the relational norms between local government actors and their constituents more generally. In particular, this Article argues that the “public duty doctrine”—a no-duty rule that immunizes municipalities from civil liability arising from police violence and failures to protect—has contributed to a profoundly unbalanced and perverse local-constituent relationship. To reestablish just relations, localities should bear, and indeed embrace, a legally
enforceable duty of care to protect their constituents.

Such a duty would not open the liability flood gates, nor impose catastrophic expenses on cities, nor expand the already oversized footprint of policing. Such a duty would, however, achieve the usual tort goals of compensation and deterrence, significantly reduce the harms that police and other governmental actors visit on city constituents through both their action and inaction, align with corrective justice principles, enhance democratic accountability, advance the constitutional principle of equal protection, and accord with the thick conception of the city-constituent relationship that cities themselves put forward in the affirmative litigation context.

Further, implementing this duty on the ground would not be difficult. Neither courts nor legislatures need do anything at all; many cities could simply choose to not avail themselves of the public duty defense and instead accept an owed duty. Doing so would not only reorient the city-constituent relationship in a profoundly more positive way; adopting this duty would also serve cities’ broader self-interest. As cities increasingly vie for political recognition and acknowledgement as independently legitimate polities on both the domestic and international stage, this Article draws on the burgeoning sovereignty-as-responsibility literature to argue that by embracing a duty to protect, cities can advance their own status as credible, politically important actors in the wider American democratic project.

Scholarship | Permalink


Post a comment