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This story is part of an occasional KUNC investigative series this year exploring the power of Colorado sheriffs. Robyn Vincent is a reporter with KUNC’s Northern Colorado Center for Investigative Reporting.

Red flag reckoning reflects the sweeping power of Colorado sheriffs

Former Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock in uniform posing near a table and poster on the wall featuring the American flag in black and white with a blue line as one of the stripes.
Robyn Vincent
/
KUNC
Former Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock on January 6, 2023, a few days before he retired. Spurlock deviated from fellow conservatives when he lobbied for Colorado's red flag gun law. Other sheriffs have not only decried the law but have also said they will not implement it — a move that highlights sheriffs' broad authority.

Former Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock received death threats when he lobbied for the passage of Colorado’s red flag gun law. It was a tense time in the Spurlock house. When the sheriff was out of town, he had security details following his wife around “because threats were made by known individuals — credible threats,” he said.

Spurlock, who retired in January, is a Republican. His choice to support the red flag law broke ranks with local conservatives who sharply denounced the legislation, including sheriffs across the state. In response to the law, many Colorado counties declared themselves “Second Amendment sanctuary cities,”including commissioners in Spurlock’s Douglas County. Some Colorado sheriffs said they would not implement the law, a move that highlights their sweeping authority and unique power as elected leaders.

Looking back, Spurlock said he has no regrets. “I can tell you right now, I know for a fact that it has saved lives. And I also know that no one’s constitutional rights under the Second Amendment were harmed. No one had their guns taken away by SWAT teams.”

That is a sticking point for conservative sheriffs and other opponents of the law — that it could violate a person’s constitutional rights. Supporters say people do receive due process, especially in comparison to other laws. For example, recent research cites measures such as removing children from unfit parents or laws that involuntarily commit people during a mental health crisis.

Under the red flag law, police or family members can petition to disarm a person who poses a threat to themselves or others. Ultimately, a judge makes the final call which could result in the removal of a person’s firearms temporarily or for one year.

Court documents show Spurlock’s department filed seven red flag orders, four of which a judge approved, since the law was enacted in 2020. “Those individuals are still alive today,” Spurlock said. “Their family members are still alive and they're contributing members of our society.”

Among the state’s 64 counties, Douglas County is ranked 22 for firearm deaths per capita between 2018 and 2021. It lost 122 people to either suicide or homicide firearm deaths during that four-year period.

Before the law went into effect, Spurlock said he can draw a straight line between people who died because law enforcement “had no way of intervening.” That includes the death of one of Spurlock’s own deputies.

On New Year's Eve in 2017, sheriff's deputies responded to a man suffering a mental health crisis. It wasn’t his first encounter with sheriff’s deputies.

“His parents removed his guns from him,” Spurlock said. “He was hospitalized. He was diagnosed as having a mental health crisis. But he demanded to get his guns back.”

The man ultimately used those guns to ambush police, killing 29-year-old Deputy Zack Parrish and injuring six others.

“It was my responsibility to step up and say, wait a second, there is a solution. There is another way,” Spurlock said.

Following the killing of Parrish, Spurlock was approached by then-state legislator Alec Garnett. The first draft of the “Deputy Zackari Parrish III Violence Prevention Act” failed in 2018. A year later it passed amid conservative pushback.

Who is watching?

Sheriffs “alone can determine if they're going to set policy as well as enforce policy,” said Emily Farris, a political science professor at Texas Christian University and an expert on sheriffs. She points out sheriffs are typically elected, not appointed like police chiefs. "So they don't feel the same kind of accountability that a police chief would to a mayor, to a county, to a city manager," she said.

Farris’ forthcoming book with co-author Mirya Holman unravels the history of sheriffs and examines their roles today.

She sees a historical parallel when it comes to the way sheriffs interact with the red flag law. The right-wing extremist Posse Comitatus movement of the 1970s encouraged sheriffs to use their authority to interpret the Constitution. "And so from there, really, up until today, we see sheriffs doing that with movements like the Second Amendment sanctuary counties, where sheriffs decide if they're going to be the ones to enforce laws like the red flag laws or not."

Turning back the pages of history even further, Farris said in the American West sheriffs were some of the first government officials enforcing so-called law and order. They were also closely associated with vigilantes.

“There was this kind of organized, unlawful, ‘violence.’ And so, numerous sheriffs, including those in Colorado, were either tolerating it or even collaborating with it,” Farris said.

Today, some of that Wild West ethos persists. Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams once said he would rather go to jail than implement the red flag law. He declined an interview for this story. Court records show his department has filed zero red flag orders from the date the law went into effect through January of this year.

Weld County ranked 17 for firearm deaths per capita between 2018 and 2021. It lost 170 people to either suicide or homicide firearm deaths during that four-year period.

Sheriffs “alone can determine if they're going to set policy as well as enforce policy."
- Emily Farris, Texas Christian University

“There's always going to be law enforcement in communities that say, ‘We won't enforce these laws.’ You know, the Second Amendment sanctuary cities, the Second Amendment sheriffs,” said Lisa Geller, director of state affairs at Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions.

Geller said reluctant sheriffs underscore the need to strengthen the law. “I think it's important for that reason, but also because of the very real issues with some communities, particularly communities of color and law enforcement.”

A new bill in the Colorado statehouse would help address this. It would allow people such as therapists, physicians, school nurses and school counselors, educators, and district attorneys to file red flag orders. It would also fund efforts to raise awareness about the law.

During a recent committee hearing, the bill’s co-sponsor Senate President Steve Fenberg noted red flag laws are proliferating nationwide. Colorado is among 19 states with such a law on the books. Last year, Congress passed a measure that earmarks funding to help more states pass red flag laws.

“Since we put this law in place in Colorado, it has undoubtedly saved lives,” Fenberg said. “It has saved the lives of people that maybe we never knew were at risk. But it also saved the lives of many people who were in the middle of a crisis and were considering taking their own lives.”

Still, Fenberg said the law is underutilized. “We have some communities around our state that either can’t or won’t file extreme risk protection [red flag] orders.”

Some sheriffs showed up to the hearing to testify against the bill, including Sheriff Tony Spurlock’s successor, Douglas County Sheriff Darren Weekly. He was sworn in on January 10 and his testimony suggests an ideological shift is underway at the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office.

Weekly pointed to what he sees as several flaws in the current law. For example, he said in his experience, judges deny orders if a person is on a mental health hold or incarcerated. Expanding the list of people who can file petitions, as the new bill proposes, would be harmful to those in crisis, he added.

“The very people who need help will be reluctant to seek it if they believe those who can help them the most will result in a search warrant on their homes and removal of their firearms,” Weekly said.

“We have some communities around our state that either can’t or won’t file extreme risk protection [red flag] orders.”
- Colorado Senate President Steve Fenberg

El Paso County Sheriff Joe Roybal also spoke against the bill.

“Let’s get people the help they need and not remove nearly one weapon at their disposal,” Roybal said in his testimony.

This legislation comes after a mass shooting in El Paso County last November at Club Q, an LGBTQ nightclub where five people were killed and many more injured. Some argue a red flag order could have prevented the massacre. That’s because police arrested the suspected shooter back in 2021 in a bomb threat case. They did not file a red flag order.

In Roybal’s testimony at the statehouse, he alluded to the notion that the red flag law would not have applied because the shooter’s weapons may have been obtained illegally.

Court documents show the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office initiated zero red flag orders from the time the law was enacted to January of this year in a county that ranks ninth in the state for per capita firearm deaths. From 2018 to 2021, 643 residents died by firearm suicide or homicide.

Roybal is El Paso County’s former undersheriff and was elected last November. He ran on a platform that included combating “assaults on our constitutional rights.”

'A certain ideological slant'

Experts say it is difficult for new candidates to unseat an incumbent or insider in a sheriff's department and subsequently challenge problematic protocols and more broadly change the culture.

Retired army lieutenant colonel John Foley ran against Roybal in the November 2022 election. He supports the red flag law and worries about the ongoing opposition at the sheriff’s department. “It shows a certain ideological slant that should be taken out of our law enforcement organizations,” Foley said.

Sheriffs' races often go uncontested because deputies are hesitant to go against their bosses and risk losing their jobs, said Farris of Texas Christian University. This tracks with Foley’s experience on the campaign trail. He said multiple deputies worked on his campaign in secret because they feared retaliation from the department.

These are some of the dynamics that contribute to the homogenous makeup of sheriffs nationwide. “The majority of sheriffs remain white, male and are conservative today,” Farris said.

In the realm of red flag orders, conservative politics have shaped how many sheriffs handle the law. It is a messy concoction of policing and politics that Boulder County Sheriff Curtis Johnson said he is trying to avoid.

Boulder County Sheriff Curtis Johnson just weeks into the job on February 16, 2023. His predecessor Joe Pelle pushed for the passage of Colorado's red flag law and Curtis said he will continue to initiate red flag orders, simply because "it's the law" — and the will of Boulder residents.
Robyn Vincent
/
KUNC
Boulder County Sheriff Curtis Johnson just weeks into the job on February 16, 2023. His predecessor Joe Pelle pushed for the passage of Colorado's red flag law. Johnson said he will continue to initiate red flag orders simply because "it's the law" — and the will of Boulder residents.

“The challenge for me is not letting politics interfere with good progressive public safety and policing in our community,” he told KUNC.

Johnson’s predecessor, Joe Pelle, pushed hard for the passage of Colorado’s red flag gun law. Pelle’s son was among the Douglas County deputies injured during that fateful New Year’s Eve in 2017.

From the time the law was enacted to January of this year, Bould County Sheriff's Department filed four red flag orders. All were granted.

For his part, Johnson said he will implement red flag orders because, simply, it’s the law. But it is also the will of the people, he said. “There’s a very low tolerance for gun violence and a very high expectation that law enforcement in Boulder County should follow the law.”

Boulder County ranked 19 among the state’s 64 counties for firearm deaths per capita from 2018 to 2021. The county lost 146 people to suicide or homicide firearm deaths.

Boulder residents are still reeling from a tragedy that contributed to that statistic — the 2021 mass shooting at a King Soopers grocery store where 10 people were killed. Many of Johnson’s deputies were directly involved in the shooting and the response to it.

Since then, community appetite to enforce stricter gun measures continues to intensify. Boulder City Council passed expansive gun control measures in the wake of the shooting – and Johnson said he is paying attention. In other parts of Colorado, though, sheriffs continue to push back against new measures aimed at curbing gun violence.

This story is part of an occasional KUNC investigative series this year exploring the power of Colorado sheriffs. Robyn Vincent is a reporter with KUNC’s Northern Colorado Center for Investigative Reporting.

I wear many hats in KUNC's newsroom as an executive producer, editor and reporter. My work focuses on inequality, the systems of power that entrench it, and the people who are disproportionately affected. I help reporters in my newsroom to also uncover these angles and elevate unheard voices in the process.