In police work, “to do the right thing according to duty” means an officer's duty is to the public and not to individuals. This “public duty doctrine” protect officers from potential legal liabilities, according to police training specialist Sgt. Steve Papenfuhs of PoliceOne and Karen Kruger of The Police Chief magazine.
Officers are not legally obligated to protect specific individuals, states Papenfuhs. The moral concept of duty — honor, integrity and selflessness — drives some officers to take actions that result in liabilities. Their legal duty is to support and defend the Constitution and maintain character, integrity and public trust, which doesn't compel them to take action and protect any one individual. This doesn't mean neglecting individuals who are in immediate danger. Alternatively, it means officers aren't legally liable for failing to protect individuals because they are not legally obligated to protect specific persons.
There are exceptions to the public duty doctrine that mandate duty to an individual, states Kruger in The Police Chief. The “danger creation exception” means officers are liable for actions they take that place individuals in danger. For example, a Massachusetts court case found a police sergeant caused a “state-created danger” when he ordered a woman to move her car off the road but refused to help her due to department policy. The woman was injured from pushing her car manually. A “special-relationship exception” imposes a duty to protect individuals when state laws compel officers to offer assistance to a limited class of persons because the individuals are unable to care for themselves.