Friday, November 25, 2022

Law enforcement in Colorado Springs under scrutiny for failing to enforce 'Red Flag" Law

Last week a gunman killed five people an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs, Colorado. For some lawmakers, the early facts raised questions about whether local police and sheriff’s deputies could have used the state’s “red flag” law to prevent the attack, reported Colorado Public Radio.

Last year, the suspect in the Club Q shooting was involved in an earlier incident in which he allegedly made bomb threats and confronted law-enforcement officers. It appears that authorities did not attempt to file a “red flag” petition after the incident, which could have barred him from possessing or buying guns.

Now, that decision is coming under scrutiny.

“I’m hearing reports that perhaps the red flag law wasn’t enforced on this young man,” said state Sen. Rhonda Fields, a Democrat. 

The state’s red flag law, passed in 2019, allows local authorities to request permission to temporarily confiscate firearms from people they believe may be a danger to themselves or others. 

A “red flag” order, also known as an Extreme Risk Protection Order (ERPO), could have allowed authorities to seize any guns the Club Q suspect had, and it would have barred him from purchasing other weapons. A search of public records found no indication that the sheriff’s office or other authorities filed such a petition. The charges in the case were dropped and the case was sealed.

But local law enforcement are not required to file red flag petitions. And leaders in conservative areas like El Paso County — where the nightclub shooting and the 2021 incident happened — have criticized the idea that the government should seize weapons from people who haven’t been convicted of a crime.

For example, in 2019, local district attorney Michael Allen derided the red flag law as “unconstitutional,” tweeting that it was “[n]othing more than a way to justify seizing people’s firearms under the color of law.”

After the law was implemented, he tweeted: “This law is a poor excuse to take people’s guns and is not designed in any way to address real concrete mental health concerns.”

In the 2021 incident, the Club Q suspect was arrested after allegedly threatening his mother with a “homemade bomb, multiple weapons and ammunition,” the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office reported at the time

He was also wearing body armor and had live-streamed himself in a standoff with law enforcement. It’s unclear whether he was armed at the time. 

Rep. Meg Froelich, a Democrat, said the legislature should examine how local authorities are using — or failing to use — the red flag law.

“Is it being applied and enforced? That’s something we want to look at,” Froelich said. She added that she wants to know whether a red flag order could have been applied in the case of the gunman who last year killed five people in a rampage that struck several tattoo shops in Denver and Lakewood.

Colorado is one of 19 states, plus Washington, D.C., that have red flag laws. The concept first became law in Connecticut more than 20 years ago, but the laws have become more widespread since the 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

The red flag orders in Colorado must be initiated by law enforcement or family members of the person in question. Judges review the evidence and decide whether to authorize law enforcement to seize a person’s firearms. A temporary order lasts two weeks and it can be extended into a year-long order, which can then be renewed.

But the use of the law in Colorado has remained relatively low, and authorities in El Paso County have used the orders even less often.

In 2019, county commissioners declared El Paso a “Second Amendment preservation county” and pledged that county leaders would not “appropriate funds, resources, employees or agencies to initiate unconstitutional seizures in unincorporated El Paso County,” as The Gazette reported.

(The 2021 incident took place in unincorporated El Paso County, according to property records.)

Similarly, in a 2020 statement, the El Paso County Sheriff's said that deputies would only request removal orders and search for guns in “exigent circumstances” and when they could find “probable cause” of a crime. That’s a stricter standard than what’s required by the law, which is focused on the possibility of violence — and not whether someone has committed a crime.

The policy was meant to “ensure that the rights of people to be free from unreasonable search and seizures, and to receive due process of law,” according to the sheriff’s office statement.

Sheriff Bill Elder has not commented on whether that policy stopped his deputies from pursuing a removal order after arresting the Club Q suspect in 2021 for making bomb threats. The sheriff’s office declined to comment for this story, saying the state’s law about criminal justice records prevented them from talking about the earlier case.

Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers said that people shouldn’t assume that the earlier case qualified for a red flag petition.

“I would caution against an assumption that the circumstance of this case would lead to application of the red flag law. We don't know that,” he said at a press conference Monday. “Hopefully there'll be a time when there can be a specific discussion about any prior interaction with law enforcement … But I think it's premature to do so now.”

Colorado Springs Police Chief Adrian Vasquez said he supports use of the red flag law when appropriate. “If law enforcement has credible information that fits within the parameters of the red flag law, then we should take action on that,” he said at the press conference.

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