The D.C. Court of Appeals yesterday ruled that citizens can sue the D.C. Police Department for negligence if police officers do not show up to investigate a crime after a victim has reported it and been assured of police assistance.
The appellate court's 2-to-1 ruling stemmed from a 1975 rape case in which two housemates of a Mount Pleasant woman called police after hearing her screams as she was being assaulted elsewhere in the home. Although a police dispatcher assured the two women that an officer would immediately be sent out, the two women watched helplessly as a police cruiser passed their house without stopping.
The ruling, the first of its kind involving police in the District, was called "tremendously significant" by attorney Stephen A. Friedman, who represented the three women. "It's the first step in holding government employes responsible for their actions," he said. "It may encourage police to do their duty when someone calls and says they are in dire danger."
The ruling does not mean that police are liable for damages in the case, but rather says that citizens are entitled to sue.
The majority opinion by Judge Catherine B. Kelly and Judge Julia Cooper Mack may open the door to lawsuits by other citizens who believe police did not respond quickly enough to a call for help or adequately investigate their cases, Friedman said.
In a strongly written dissent, Judge Frank Q. Nebeker called the majority opinion "astounding and unwarranted." He said it might result in a police department that is less responsive to the public out of fear that it might be sued.
The opinion "strikes me as insensitive to the crisis in crime this city is experiencing," Nebeker wrote. "Surely the police personnel who answer telephone emergency calls will be forced to respond with sterile acknowledgements rather than reassuring responses or helpful advice."
A spokesman for the D.C. police department declined to comment on the ruling. The D.C. Corporation Counsel's office said the decision is being reviewed.
The rape occurred on March 16, 1975, at a rooming house where the three women were awakened by the sound of two intruders entering their home. The intruders then entered the second-floor room of one of the women and raped her.
Hearing the woman's screams, the other two women on the floor above telephoned police, said the house was being burglarized and requested immediate assistance. The police officer on duty told the women to remain quiet and assured them that police would be promptly dispatched. Several police officers were sent to the scene.
The two women then crawled from their window to an adjoining roof and waited for the police to arrive. From their perch, they saw one policeman drive through the alley behind their house and proceed to the front of the residence without stopping. A second officer apparently knocked on the door in front, but left when he received no answer. According to the opinion, the officers departed five minutes after they arrived.
The two women re-entered the house from the roof and again heard the screams of the third woman. They telephoned police once more, again requesting immediate assistance. Once again, they were assured help was on the way. But according to the opinion, no officers were dispatched the second time.
The two women, now believing that the police might be in the house, called down to the rape victim. Hearing the calls, the intruders abducted all three women at knifepoint. They were held captive for the next 14 hours, raped, robbed, beaten and sexually abused.
The three women later sued the D.C. police on grounds that the police had not properly responded to their calls or investigated the case. A D.C. Superior Court judge dismissed the case, ruling that police had no secial duty or legal obligation to individual citizens.
The Court of Appeals, however, ruled that citizens can sue when they have specifically relied on promised police protection.
"When a police department employe tells frantic callers that help is on the way," Kelly said, "it is reasonably forseeable that the persons so assured may forego, to their detriment, other avenues of help."
Still, the majority opinion said that only the friends of the initial rape victim could sue police because the first rape victim "was unaware of either the telephone calls to the police, or the police's assurances to the other women." The friends of the first rape victim can now reinstitute their suit in Superior Court.