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Changes to Connecticut’s ‘red flag’ law could ease the process for police

Tom Def
Unsplash /CT Mirror

The Judiciary Committee on Thursday approved modifications to Connecticut’s “red flag” law to make it easier for police to begin the process of seizing weapons from a person who could be a danger to themselves or others.

The main change to the law is that it will no longer require two police officers to get an emergency risk protection order from a judge. It will still require two officers to get a search warrant to seize someone’s weapons.

Connecticut passed one of the first red flag laws in the country in 1998, but last year, the legislature decided to update it to streamline the process and allow 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.

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.

But police departments have been issuing risk protection orders and having people taken to the hospital even when they know they have no guns in their possession or in their home — just to insure the person’s name gets entered into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

Nearly 90% of the risk protection orders issued by police departments in the first year of the updated law involved people who were suicidal.

In 2022, the CT Mirror reviewed 28 such orders issued at Middlesex Judicial District court after the law went into effect on June 1, and 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.

And only in one case did a family member seek a protection order directly, a key provision of the new law.

Even without any applications from family members or other non-law enforcement parties, there has been a large increase in the number of orders issued. Judicial officials submitted written testimony at a public hearing on the bill earlier this month that noted the year before the law changed, 224 risk warrants were filed for the entire year.

Since Jan. 1, 2023, there have been a total of 541 risk protection orders filed, and if the numbers remain consistent for the remainder of the year, the state could be looking at 3,000 risk protection orders filed in 2023, which would represent an increase of 1,239% since the law changed last year.

The chief burden on police was not only the increased numbers of orders but the resources required to secure them.

“This two-affiant requirement is burdensome and is creating significant staffing issues for our police departments in cases where there is no reason to believe that a search and seizure warrant is necessary,” Cheshire Police Chief Neil Dryfe said during his testimony at the public hearing. Dryfe is the president of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association.

“Specifically, minimum staffing levels in many municipalities, especially on the overnight or midnight shift, only require that a few officers be on duty. Requiring two affiants to appear before a judge to obtain an RPO, even if a search and seizure warrant will not be sought, strains the public safety mission of our police departments and leaves responding officers with a difficult choice of ensuring adequate coverage of the municipality from a public safety perspective, or tying up two officers with the process of obtaining an RPO.”

The bill will go to the House for debate.

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.