NYPD: Officers Not Liable for Failure to Act in Subway Stabbing Spree

February 13th, 2013

Around two years ago, on February 11th, 2011, maniac killer Maksim Gelman began a two-day killing spree, leaving four innocent victims dead. However, his fateful encounter with Joe Lozito on a New York City subway would put an end to the carnage.

Lozito’s heroism was not the only noteworthy aspect of this incident. While Joe Lozito endured stab wounds to the head in the process of disarming the knife-wielding maniac, armed NYPD officers hid behind a locked door in an adjacent motorman’s compartment. When Lozito realized his harrowing experience could have been prevented if the armed officers had stepped up and taken action, he filed suit. NYPD’s lawyers offered a standard legal defense that police officers have no special duty to protect a specific individual. Cases like these highlight the reality that self-defense is not only a fundamental human right, but an individual responsibility. Check out We Are Change’s interview with Joe Lozito in the video player below, and let’s talk specifics after the jump.

Lozito’s Shocking Experience

First of all, it’s worth stating that most police officers would not have let this stabbing go on without intervening. It’s obvious that the specific officers in Lozito’s case showed extraordinary cowardice. Despite being armed with firearms, the officers confused Gelman’s knife for a gun and decided to stay behind a locked door until the situation de-escalated. Even if Gelman had a gun, most citizens would have expected the armed officers to intercede using their guns. After all, New York City has strict gun control laws preventing citizens from doing it themselves.

Unluckily for Gelman, Joe Lozito was an avid fan of mixed martial arts, and a maneuver he saw on television enabled him to trip and disarm the attacker, but not before Gelman stabbed him in the head multiple times. Two bystanders, Alfred Douglas and off-duty police officer Marcelo Rozzo, helped subdue the disarmed perpetrator, and Douglas attended to Lozito’s wounds. After Gelman was down, the two uniformed officers emerged from behind the locked door to make the arrest.

The Complex Issues Surrounding Police Protection

In this particular case, the NYPD should have taken some sort of action from a policy standpoint to assure the community that this wouldn’t happen again, given the facts that it collects taxpayer dollars for police protection and the officers dispatched to that location were clearly not up to the task. However, there is a somewhat reasonable legal rationale that typically prevents courts from finding officers liable in situations like these. It’s often hard for courts to tell the difference between a situation in which an officer has a realistic chance of saving a life and one in which too hasty an attempt to act might needlessly risk more lives. Creating a precedent by which officers could be sued if they did or didn’t do particular things in hindsight could have some serious unintended consequences. On almost a daily basis, police officers are put into situations in which no action could have been taken to save a victim, and such a precedent opens each and every case of that type to potential litigation.

Police officers have an extraordinarily dangerous job. They shouldn’t be expected to needlessly commit suicide in all violent situations, and such liability could lead to that type of a legal environment. On the other hand, NYPD put officers on the street that knowingly let Gelman, whom they had just caught impersonating an officer, stab Joe Lozito before their eyes while guns lay cold in their holster. That was a specific act of cowardice that could have led to Lozito’s death. Despite the fact that courts will likely never find a police officer liable for failing to protect a citizen, the NYPD should have taken some type of distinct action to send the signal that this was not acceptable behavior by officers. Also, Lozito paid via taxes for police protection and did not receive that service when it really mattered. Whether via the courts or not, the NYPD should also compensate Lozito for his experience. Instead, the NYPD spiked the football, claiming the cowardly on-duty officers were heroes for arresting Gelman. During a press conference by NYPD, Lozito’s role as the hero that took down a serial killer was omitted. Gelman now claims he has killed as many as ten people. How lucky we all are that his would-be eleventh victim was the unstoppable Joe Lozito.

This situation highlights the reality that self defense is an individual responsibility. Sometimes violence happens when the police are nowhere nearby. Even if officers are on the scene, they’re not legally required to protect you. Pete Eyre’s write-up on the subject demonstrates several cases in which courts held that officers have no special duty to protect citizens in imminent danger.

For exposing the public to the reality that self-defense is an individual responsibility, Joe Lozito is our Rebel of the Week. To the unknown number of victims that could have been killed had Lozito not stopped Maksim Gelman’s killing spree, he is an old-fashioned, regular-style hero.

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About the Author: Barry Donegan

Barry Donegan is a singer for the experimental mathcore band Look What I Did, a writer, a self-described "veteran lifer in the counterculture", a political activist/consultant, and a believer in the non-aggression principle.