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Connecticut’s updated 'red flag' law has helped police with mental health calls

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Connecticut’s updated "red flag" law was passed in June. Police say the update has mostly helped with suicidal residents — some of whom do not even own guns.

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s Dave Altemeri to discuss his article, “CT police: Updated ‘red flag’ law used largely for suicide threats,” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

WSHU: Hello, Dave. Connecticut's original "red flag" law was passed in 1998. The updated version came into effect in June. And police say the law is now largely used for suicide threats. How so?

DA: So far what's happened is that the police — when they're called to a potential suicide or someone calls and says a family member is suicidal — when they go to the scene, if they feel that the person is a possible threat, either to themselves or someone else, they are getting what they call risk protection orders, even if they know that the person doesn't have guns. And the reason is that when the law was changed in June, one of the changes was that once a risk protection order is in place, that person's name goes into a national database that is used when it comes to issuing gun permits. So if your name is put into that database, you can't purchase a gun. So the police are saying, we know this person doesn't have a gun right now or doesn't have a gun permit. If we get the RPO, then they won't be able to get a gun permit three weeks from now or a month from now. And so they are using the change in the law to get RPOs for people who don't actually have guns at the moment.

WSHU: And the new law also gives family members and medical professionals the ability to request to the police?

DA: No, to the court. And that's the exact reason why the law was initially changed. The legislature wanted to give family members and certain clinicians the ability to go to court and fill out an application or form that would go before a judge to review. So basically eliminate the police on that part of it. The judge would look at the family's application, if the judge feels that it's a viable situation or concern, he would then send an order to the local police department where the person lived, asking them to investigate. But so far since June, that's only been used once. There was a case out of East Haven where a family member was concerned that a relative had threatened to harm his ex-wife. And he actually went to court in Milford and the judge issued an order and the East Haven police did an investigation and did get a warrant to seize any guns that person had.

WSHU: You know another interesting thing here that I see is the fact that the risk protection orders have been obtained at the University of Connecticut. I mean 12 just since the fall semester. Knowing about how guns have been used on campuses, is this unique? That we had about 12 orders issued at UConn?

DA: I agree it seems like a high number. It's hard to tell if that's been a major change since the law was changed. That number has increased from my discussions with UConn. It's clear that the campus police are using the new law, certainly more than they did previously. They've had 12 cases since September 1, where they responded to a possible suicide threat and got a risk protection order out of court.

WSHU: Social workers as well can make an application to the judge.

DA: Yes, that's true. Social workers, and psychologists, they're among the clinicians that have the ability to do so. Although at this point none have.

WSHU: What type of guns have been seized?

DA: I don't have an overall number, judicial couldn't provide me with that. It's only, you know, looking at specific cases where you can get a sense. There was a case out of New London that is featured in the story, a guy that had like seven guns. He was actually a Navy officer. There was another case in Cromwell that I didn't feature in the story of a guy that had, I believe it was 11 guns. So there is not a database or any indication of how many guns specifically have been seized since June 1. So it's only anecdotal cases. So it's hard to get a real handle on that.

WSHU: How is law enforcement generally feeling about this law?

DA: The Police Chiefs Association is definitely going to go back to the Judiciary Committee this next legislative session to discuss the changes that were made, they have some issues with it, and some of it is logistical. The law requires two officers to submit the affidavit to the court, which is a lot of manpower, especially for smaller or mid-level police departments to have to commit to. There's also a timeframe on when they have to — if they get the order — that they have to go and seize the weapons if there are any. So it's costing them some overtime. There are also other issues. Some of the people live out of state, how do you enforce the order for someone who lives out of state since the law says that the order has to be applied in the jurisdiction where the person lives, not where the incident occurred? So someone from Springfield, Massachusetts comes to Enfield and gets in a fight with their girlfriend, the police would have to send that to Springfield. And right now they don't see how that's going to work.

WSHU: So the bottom line here is that there still needs to be some more tweaks as far as the police are concerned. So we might be seeing some slight changes to the law being considered by the legislature next year.

DA: No question that the police chiefs are gonna need to go back to them and ask them to make some changes. Now that they've had six months to see how it works on the streets, so to speak, they feel that there needs to be some tweaks to the law.

As WSHU Public Radio’s award-winning senior political reporter, Ebong Udoma draws on his extensive tenure to delve deep into state politics during a major election year.
Molly is a reporter covering Fairfield County. She also produces Long Story Short, a podcast exploring public policy issues across Connecticut.