As I’ve previously discussed, it is a long since settled principle of American law that the police are not liable for failing to protect a citizen – even when the police are grossly negligent. However a particularly tragic case in North Carolina has the potential to change this rule of law:
How the Police Failed Vernetta Cockerham-Ellerbee
Vernetta and her daughter Candice lived in Jonesville, NC, about 150 feet from the police station. Vernetta was divorced from her ex husband Richard Ellerbee, and had an order of protection that required him to stay 250 feet away her. However the order of protection was just a piece of paper for Richard Ellerbee to ignore, and he ignored it numerous times in order to threaten Vernetta. On one occasion Richard Ellerbee violated the order of protection, and showed up in Vernetta’s front yard. He began to dig ditches, which he later called and explained were graves for her and Candice. Despite Vernetta’s reports of these and other threats, and his violations of the order of protection, Ellerbee remained a free man, spending not a single night in jail. In November of 2002, he broke in to Vernetta’s house and fatally stabbed 17-year-old Candice. Next, Ellerbee used a piece of broken glass to slash Vernetta’s throat, and left her for dead. Vernetta ended up surviving, with physical scars on her neck and the emotional scars of having her daughter murdered in her own home. Richard Ellerbee fled to New Jersey, and then burned himself to death with gasoline.
The potential to change the law and hold the police responsible for a failure to protect a citizen
In 2004, Vernetta sued the town of Jonesville, NC and its police department for negligence in failing to enforce the protective order against Richard Ellerbee. Following the long established rule of law that the police’s negligence in protecting a citizen does not give rise to liability, the Yadkin County Superior Court ruled against Vernetta in 2007. However in May of this year, the N.C. Court of Appeals unanimously reversed the trial court’s ruling, and decided to allow the lawsuit to proceed. Vernetta hopes that the lawsuit will punish those who failed to protect her and her daughter, and will deter police departments from failing to enforce orders of protection in the future.
I, for one, hope that her lawsuit is successful. Across the country, domestic violence victims go unprotected when their abusive ex partners violate orders of protection, and the police face no consequences. While I understand that the police can’t be everywhere at once, I do believe that they should be held accountable when they are grossly negligent and consistently fail to enforce orders of protection, or don’t show up for 14 hours after being called multiple times.
The need for self defense
This tragic case also highlights the need for self defense. Here, a woman had gone to court to get an order of protection, and lived 150 feet from the police station. She called the police numerous times to report that her ex husband was violating the order of protection. Yet these steps did not stop her ex husband from breaking in to her home, murdering her daughter, and trying to murder her. The fact is that an order of protection is just one more law for a murderer to break, and someone who is bent on committing murder won’t be deterred by a piece of paper telling them where they can or cannot go. However murderers can be and are stopped by armed citizens. Plenty of women have been able to save their lives when attacked by violent ex-partners. Sadly, there were no armed citizens here, and a physically stronger male was able to overpower and murder a 17 year old girl, and nearly kill her mother.
My thanks to Anders for pointing out the news story about Vernetta Cockerham-Ellerbee.