What is Public Safety?

66 Pages Posted: 19 Mar 2021 Last revised: 19 Sep 2022

See all articles by Barry Friedman

Barry Friedman

New York University School of Law

Date Written: February 8, 2021


For literally hundreds of years, political leaders and thinkers have deemed public safety the first duty of government. But they have defined public safety largely in terms of the “protection” function – protecting individuals from violent harm to person or property, from third parties, but also from natural elements. As the first duty, the protection function is privileged. Witness today how we valorize police and other first responders, defer to their decisions without sufficient scrutiny, and even immunize their mistakes.

Yet, is protection really all there is to public safety? For most people, being safe depends on much more: food, clean water and air, housing, a basic income and the means to obtain it, meaning education and a job. It might include health care, health insurance to obtain it, or the freedom from discrimination.

This Article argues that if individual safety includes some or all of these additional elements, then public safety—the government’s obligation to ensure people are safe—should be understood far more capaciously than the protection function. At its analytic core, it shows that there is nothing particularly different about the protection function that justifies treating it as government’s first job, while the other vital functions of government are relegated to second-class status. And it explores the many reasons that despite the fact that protection is not special, we nonetheless neglect all the other elements of individual safety.

Today, many argue that funding needs to be reallocated from policing to the other needs that challenged communities face. This Article provides a theoretical basis for those claims, establishing that we over-privilege the protection function, and under-support much else government should be doing. It demonstrates the very tangible harms people face because we definite public safety narrowly. On the one hand, people starve, go without shelter, die from air and water that is not clean, from the travails of living in poverty, and from the lack of health care. On the other hand, people are harmed at the hands of the police, because we do not scrutinize the protection function sufficiently to change this, we need to think more broadly about what safety—and public safety—means.

Suggested Citation

Friedman, Barry, What is Public Safety? (February 8, 2021). 102 B. U. L. Rev. (2022), NYU Law and Economics Research Paper No. 21-05, NYU School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 21-14, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3808187

Barry Friedman (Contact Author)

New York University School of Law ( email )

40 Washington Square South
Room 317
New York, NY 10012-1099
United States
212-998-6293 (Phone)
212-995-4030 (Fax)

HOME PAGE: http://rb.gy/crghq1

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics