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Connecticut police: Updated ‘red flag’ law used largely for suicide threats

Tom Def
Unsplash /CT Mirror

A recent change in Connecticut’s “red flag” law — which allows police to seize weapons from someone who is considered a risk to themselves or others — has led to a sharp increase in the number of warrants issued, and documents show police are now using it more often to deal with threats of suicide.

But some police chiefs say their departments dealt with these cases more efficiently before the change and that the new law is placing extra burdens on their investigations.

Legislators, believing that the 1998 law was underused, expanded the “red flag” law this year. The streamlined process, which went into effect June 1, allows family and certain professionals to apply directly to the courts for the order, rather than having to first go through police, to restrict a person’s access to firearms.

In the first five months of 2022, courts issued 96 risk protection warrants through the old, more cumbersome process that took time to implement and automatically returned guns to a person one year after they were seized.

Between June 1, when the new law went into effect, and Nov. 3, there were 418 risk protection warrants approved by Superior Court judges, according to data obtained by the CT Mirror.

Police chiefs say they plan to meet with legislators in January to suggest "tweaking" the law, according to Cheshire Police Chief Neil Dryfe, who also is the current president of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association.

"One of our agenda items for the next legislative session is to meet with the Judiciary Committee to discuss the practical application of the new statute," Dryfe said.

"We are overwhelmingly supportive of the intent of the law. But we're having some difficulties in applying it practically on the street by the working police officers who end up having to do these investigations," he said.

The effectiveness of the newly streamlined law is in its speed: It places a person's name in a national computer database immediately after a judge orders an investigation into a complaint that a person is a danger to themselves or others, flagging them in background checks as ineligible to purchase firearms while their name remains in the database — at least until a hearing is held, required within two weeks.

Dryfe said that change in the law means police now seek risk protection orders, or RPOs, even when they know someone doesn't have a gun permit or owns guns.

"Before (June 1), you'd go to somebody's house, and if they were suicidal, you sent them to the hospital and asked them or their family members are there any guns in the house," Dryfe said. "Then you’d see if they had any guns registered to them or if they had a pistol permit, and if they didn't, you were done."

But now, Drfye said, even if police are aware the person has no guns or a valid gun permit, they must still go to a judge and get a risk protection order, which automatically enters their name into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).

"So even if somebody doesn't have guns, now you have to do the risk protection order so that they can be put into NICS and be precluded from from getting a pistol permit at that point," Dryfe said.

“If you have reasonable cause to send somebody to the hospital for a mental health evaluation because you feel that they are a danger to themselves or others, then you have probable cause to apply for the risk protection order for that same reason, and that's what I think is happening.”

But not all police departments in Connecticut are interpreting the law the same way.

How the law changed

Connecticut was one of the first states to pass a red flag law, following a mass shooting inside the Connecticut Lottery’s offices in Newington in 1998. The shooter, Matthew Beck, was a disgruntled lottery employee who was placed on leave after making threats against some of his supervisors. Beck had a gun permit and owned the 9 mm gun used in the shooting despite a history of mental health issues. He killed four people before killing himself.

The original law allowed officers to ask a judge to take away someone’s weapons when they posed an “extreme risk.” Police would get a warrant from a judge and seize the guns.

Lawmakers said there were other holes in the original law besides the requirement that guns be held no more than one year, so last session, they decided to make more changes.

I would say probably in excess of 90% of the orders are suicide threats where a person is saying they are going to harm themselves.

The new law gives family members or medical professionals the ability to initiate the process of taking away someone's weapons. It eliminated the requirement that police officers need to prove that there are no other "reasonable alternatives" to taking away someone's weapons. And it eliminated a judge's discretion in deciding whether to take someone's weapons away in cases where there is probable cause that the person is in possession of a gun and is a threat to themselves or others.

A "good faith" affidavit from family members or loved ones stating that the person poses an imminent risk requires a judge's order for an investigation, which police must conduct within a day, if reasonable. The beginning of an investigation also requires the person's name to be entered in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, immediately — which should flag them in background checks as ineligible to purchase a firearm. If police in the course of their investigation find probable cause that the person poses an imminent risk, they must tell the court. Then, if the judge issues the protective order — which keeps the person's name on the NICS — and there is probable cause that the person possesses weapons, the judge must also issue a risk warrant to seize the weapons.

Now someone whose guns were seized can petition the court, after 180 days, to have them returned and prove to the court that they are no longer a risk to get them back. There is no longer a time limit on how long the state can hold the seized weapons.

A safeguard in suicide cases

Police are increasingly using the new law in cases where there is a threat of suicide.

“Anecdotally, from across the state, we've had some homicidal threats, like somebody says they're going to kill somebody else. But I would say probably in excess of 90% of the orders are suicide threats where a person is saying they are going to harm themselves," Dryfe said.

A review of the 28 RPOs issued at Middlesex Judicial District court since June 1 shows that in 24 of those cases, the police were responding to a possible suicide. In 18 of those cases, there were no weapons involved, according to police affidavits.

It has always been an important tool for preventing suicides.

University of Connecticut police at Storrs have obtained 12 risk protection orders from September to early November after responding to calls of students threatening to kill themselves, according to police affidavits filed in Rockville Superior Court.

UConn spokeswoman Stephanie Reitz said most of their cases have been students who experienced mental health challenges that required immediate intervention and for which they were transported by ambulance to off-campus care.

"Our interpretation of the public act’s provisions led us to enact the risk protection order request processes as an additional attempt to safeguard their health and well being," Reitz said.

She said UConn police have acted "based on what the department believes is required under the public act."

"We have not received feedback from the Connecticut Judicial Department or Rockville Superior Court that suggests they have concerns about the numbers of cases originating from UCPD or questions on our interpretation of the statute," she said.

“The expansion of applying for a protective order was developed as a way to possibly prevent mass shootings, but it has always been an important tool for preventing suicides,” said Jeremy Stein, executive director of CT Against Gun Violence.

Stein said research has shown nationally that for every 10 protective orders issued, one life is saved.

“So, by that measure, we’ve saved over 40 lives since June,” Stein said.

Only one case brought by a family member

Data from the Judicial Department show that only one of the 418 protection orders issued since June 1 was sought by a family member. That was in early September, when the brother of an East Haven man made threats against his ex-wife.

In his application to Judge Peter Brown, the East Haven man's brother said he had talked with him the night before, and he had told him his ex-wife was filing for sole custody of their child and that “if I had a gun, I would shoot her.”

The judge signed the risk protection order investigation and notified East Haven police, who went to the man's home. The officers got the man to agree to go to the Hospital of St. Raphael for a psychiatric evaluation.

Police charged the man with threatening and also completed a risk protection order that was submitted to New Haven court. A judge kept the order in place at a hearing that was held 14 days later.

Intent of the law

Several people who testified in favor of expanding the red flag law at a legislative hearing last March said they were pleased to see the numbers increasing so much but questioned whether what is occurring matches the original purpose.

Stephen Wanczyk-Karp, executive director of the Connecticut chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, said the intent was to make sure there were no weapons in a house that someone could use against themselves or others.

“That is not what the changes in the law were intended to do,” Wanczyk-Karp said. “I don’t think the intent was for these cases to end up in court with open cases for at least 14 days if there were no weapons found.”

He said the expanded law wasn’t supposed to make police determine the state of someone’s mental health.

“We’d really better off sending a social worker or some combination of the two, because police officers aren’t trained in mental health analysis,” Wanczyk-Karp said.

The intent of the change to the law was to make the process more user-friendly and to expand the eligibility of who could file these.

The new law does allow social workers to make an application to a judge to get a protection order for a client, but none have done so yet, according to judicial department data.

State Rep. Steve Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, the chair of the legislature's Judiciary Committee, said the lack of family members and medical professionals requesting risk protection orders is likely due to the lack of public awareness about how the law has changed.

He said more promotion of the red flag law should help inform people about how they can seek such an order.

"The intent of the change to the law was to make the process more user-friendly and to expand the eligibility of who could file these," Stafstrom said.

"As prevalent as mass shootings have become, suicide deaths by gun violence remains an even bigger cause of death in our state and around the nation," Stafstrom added.

Michael Lawlor, a University of New Haven professor and former state legislator, said he isn't surprised there's been an increase in orders since the changes went into effect.

Lawlor said with all of the mass shootings that have occurred and the mental health crisis, people are much more likely now to reach out to police if they feel someone they know is struggling.

"We all know people whose lives are falling apart or who are really struggling that may have access to guns," Lawlor said. "Often times, suicides are not solo acts, and a person will kill their spouse or their children before killing themselves."

How police departments deal with the law

During the first three months the new law was in effect, there were 109 risk protection orders issued. In the next two months — September and October — there were 295 issued.

The Newington police department has requested the most risk protection orders of any municipal department, with 39, far more than Southington, which has issued 26, the second-most, records show.

Southington Police Chief Jack Daly said his department is "doing exactly what is supposed to be done under the law."

"It's putting a lot of work and overtime costs onto the police departments," Daly said. "If it saves one life, it's worth it, but it needs to be tweaked to remove some of the burden from police departments."

Daly's complaint is one of the issues that the police chiefs want to address with the legislature, Dryfe said: the requirement that two officers sign affidavits seeking an RPO. If the judge orders an investigation based on the affidavit, police have to act on it quickly.

“If I have one of these cases where an 18-year-old kid who just broke up with his first ever girlfriend and is feeling despondent and tells his mother that he's thinking about harming himself, that's a call that could have been handled by one officer in the past," Dryfe said. "Now, I have to have two officers go to that call, because if they do a risk protection order, that paperwork has to have two police officers attached to it."

Several chiefs also have raised the issue of access to whether a person has an RPO on file already. Dryfe said police don't have access to the NICS data unless they contact the State Police Firearms Unit and ask them to check.

Dryfe said there are other concerns, such as cases where people live out of state, since the statute requires that their hearing is scheduled in the court of jurisdiction where they reside, not where the incident happened.

Dryfe mentioned an example where a defendant had gone to New York and was actually in prison on Riker's Island when the order was issued in Connecticut and another case where the person was from Springfield, Mass., and the incident occurred in Connecticut.

In another instance, there was a delay in serving the order because the person was in the Navy and out of state.

There are 24 departments that haven’t used the new law at all, including three of the state’s largest cities: Bridgeport, New Haven and Stamford.

Stamford Police Captain Robert Conklin acknowledged his department hasn't applied for any RPOs since the law changed but called it "an anomaly."

"We use a lot of different methods when it comes to gun seizures, and this is one of the tools we use. I just don't think that the situation has presented itself," Conklin said. "We're very versed in the law, and we've it used before. We're not doing it in the cases where there's not any guns."

'Just want my guns back'

Briijon Gibbs appeared before Judge Eric Green in November after New London police had obtained a risk protection warrant to remove his weapons from his house on Gov. Winthrop Boulevard in July.

Police had been called to the house by a 911 call on July 11 from a friend of Gibbs who told police that he was “acting crazy” and had a loaded gun that he was holding to his head, according to the police affidavit.

When police arrived, Gibbs came out of the house unarmed and told police that he had an argument with his ex-wife about seeing his children but denied holding a loaded gun to his head. During a sweep of the house, police found a loaded gun under a bed. They sent Gibbs to Lawrence + Memorial Hospital and obtained a risk protection warrant to search the house.

They seized a total of eight guns, including a Sig Sauer 9 mm, a shotgun and more than 200 rounds of ammunition for the various guns, according to court documents.

Gibbs, who is in the Navy, sat in full uniform on Nov. 7 in the New London courtroom with his commanding officer. When his case was called, Gibbs asked the judge to continue the case so “that he could try and get a better understanding of the law and his rights.” The hearing was continued until Dec. 16.

Outside the courtroom, Gibbs declined to address the specifics of the case.

“I just want to try and get my guns back,” Gibbs said.

Launched in 2010, The Connecticut Mirror specializes in in-depth news and reporting on public policy, government and politics. CT Mirror is nonprofit, non-partisan, and digital only.