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CT ‘red flag’ law is being applied unevenly, analysis shows

Michael Mollow and his girlfriend Caroline Anne Ashworth. Mollow killed Ashworth and himself in 2022, shortly after he was released from a psychiatric institution.
Michael Mollow and his girlfriend Caroline Anne Ashworth. Mollow killed Ashworth and himself in 2022, shortly after he was released from a psychiatric institution.

After Michael Mollow voluntarily committed himself to Midstate Medical Center in Meriden in August 2022, the hospital alerted Branford police that he’d told the staff he had “homicidal ideations” toward his girlfriend and had guns at home to carry them out.

The department was familiar with Mollow. Days before he entered the hospital, his 21-year-old girlfriend, Caroline Anne Ashworth, called 911 because he threatened to shoot her in the head.

Within days of his committal, Midstate Medical officials decided Mollow needed treatment in a secure facility and issued what’s known as a 15-day involuntary physician’s emergency certificate. Mollow was transferred to a psychiatric facility in Westport on Aug. 24, 2022, and was supposed to remain there until Sept. 7, 2022, according to court documents. But he was in the Westport facility for less than 33 hours before he was released.

Just one day after his release, on Aug. 27, 2022, Mollow tracked Ashworth, using GPS he had installed in her truck, to an apartment in Wethersfield. He murdered her there, shooting her three times before killing himself.

The actions of Branford police and St. Vincent’s Medical Center, where Mollow had been committed, are now the subject of a pending lawsuit filed by the young woman’s family. The lawsuit alleges that both the police and the hospital failed to protect her from Mollow despite the warning signs.

But some say the tragedy could have been avoided if the police had simply made use of Connecticut’s “red flag” law, designed to get guns out of the hands of people who pose a risk to themselves or others.

An analysis by The Connecticut Mirror and a team of University of Connecticut journalism students shows its use remains wildly uneven among police departments, even nearly 25 years after it went into effect and a number of modifications. While there are some concerns the law is being overused, some police departments use it rarely if at all.

Steep increase in risk protection orders

An analysis of thousands of court documents submitted by police from October 1999 through December 2023 shows that even as lawmakers over the past few years expanded the circumstances in which police can get a risk protection order, how police departments use them varies widely.

Last year, more than 2,000 risk protection orders were issued, a steep increase.

Bridgeport police did not issue one RPO in 2023, records show, a number the president of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association said was hard to believe.

Meanwhile, University of Connecticut police issued 58 risk protection orders against students from June 2022 through the end of 2023. None of them involved guns, and all but one was dismissed 14 days later when the student appeared before a Superior Court judge.

The law took effect in October 1999, but it wasn’t until 2011 that risk protection orders issued by all police departments surpassed 100 in one year.

The number slowly increased until changes were first made to the law in 2021. Since then, the numbers have increased from 222 orders that year to 830 orders in 2022 to over 2,200 last year.

The majority of the more recent orders involved people who are suicidal and struggling with mental health issues and substance abuse, the analysis shows. Many also involve domestic violence.

And in many of the newer cases, the subject of the order does not have a gun — though the order also prevents them from legally obtaining a firearm by entering their name in a national database that bars them from getting a gun permit.

Former state Rep. Michael Lawlor, who helped craft the law, said he wonders if the changes in the law and the way police now use it could lead to a constitutional challenge from gun rights organizations.

“The essence of the law, which is that as a last resort, if police had no other option, they’ve got this option, has changed,” Lawlor said. “I just worry that maybe the watering down of the procedural requirements to get a risk warrant could open the door to a potential legal challenge.”

“The law existed pretty much unchanged for more than 20 years until they started making some modifications to it, and I don’t really think those were either necessary or a good idea,” Lawlor said.

A typical week

Meriden led the state last year in the number of risk protection orders issued.

Under the law, once an order is issued, the state must hold a hearing within 14 days before a judge to determine if the order should be removed or extended.

In most of Meriden’s cases, the analysis shows, the person under the order showed up without a lawyer — if they showed up at all — and the prosecutor had a police officer testify about the affidavit they had submitted to get the order.

The week before Easter in April 2023, when Meriden police sought 14 risk protection orders, exemplified the types of cases police investigated and what happens when the person who gets the risk protection order, or RPO, goes to court.

There were cases such as a 19-year-old man who threatened to kill his mother because he didn't like the sneakers she bought him for his birthday, and there was a 59-year-old man who had been drinking with a friend and fired a gun loaded with blanks out the window of his second-floor apartment on Broad Street, according to court records.

Other orders were related to a domestic abuse case where a 37-year-old man assaulted his mother and aunt then tried to kill himself in a jail cell, and an 11-year-old sixth-grader who had a meltdown at school, attacking the school psychologist, screaming at a police officer to shoot him and threatening to shoot up the school and then kill himself, records show.

Of the 14 RPO cases that week, there was only one case where a person actually had a gun. The man who fired the blank also had a loaded .22-caliber revolver in an open drawer near where a young child was playing.

Court records show the week was not an anomaly for the Meriden police department, which issued more RPOs than any police department in 2023.

During that year, police sought RPOs 2,283 times, according to state judicial data.

Meriden led the way with 270 cases.

“We just follow the law,” said Meriden Police Chief Roberto Rosado, who was reluctant to discuss why his department sought so many orders.

Rosado said he didn’t want to appear to be criticizing other police departments that issue fewer orders.

Court records show over that one-year span, smaller departments like Newington, Wolcott and Watertown sought from 50 to 71 RPOs each, while the state’s largest cities — Bridgeport, New Haven, Stamford, Hartford and Waterbury — combined for just 97.

Bridgeport Deputy Police Chief James Baraja said his department recently sent a couple of officers to a seminar on how to deal with calls involving people with mental health issues. The topic of risk protection orders came up.

“I know officers recognize the need, it’s just a matter of us dealing with our workflow issues,” Baraja said.

The deputy chief said the department is shorthanded overall.

“I would love to have a crisis intervention team that would include an officer or officers to handle these cases, but it’s hard to allocate resources,” Baraja said.

Bridgeport's Director of Public Information Tiadora Josef said that as a result of that recent training, "We will be looking to review and modify our practices and issue a training bulletin."

Avon Police Chief Paul J. Melanson, president of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association, said part of the discrepancy in use of the law may just be the size of the department.

“I think the smaller agencies are able to pivot quicker to do these RPOs and create a process, while the larger agencies — they're stacking calls for hours and maybe don't have the capacity,” Melanson said.

But he acknowledged the gap, particularly when it comes to larger cities, is concerning.

“I will have a conversation with them just to make sure that they're aware of what is expected of them,” Melanson said. “Because to your point that Bridgeport has zero — I don't think any of us would believe that they shouldn't have done at least one in this past year.”

Lawlor said that in larger cities, police may be charging people with other crimes that allow them to seize their guns.

For some departments, it may simply be an issue of protecting people’s constitutional rights, he said.

“I think there are definitely some individual police officers and police departments that have strong views about gun rights, and they are reluctant to seize someone's guns because they just think it’s somehow unconstitutional or an invasion of someone’s privacy,” Lawlor said. “So I definitely believe there’s some departments that are kind of conflicted about whether or not this is the right thing to do.”

‘I can’t believe I shot him’

A smaller but notable number of cases involve people who have had multiple RPOs issued against them. Many cases involve people who are distraught and mentally ill and have been drinking or taking drugs.

For example, there’s the case of a Newington woman who had four RPOs issued in six months.

The first order was issued after Newington police received a 911 call in August 2022 from the woman, who said she had cut herself. One of the officers recognized her — she had been committed five times earlier that year for self-harm and suicidal thoughts.

Although the woman had no gun, the officers issued a risk protection order and took her to the hospital for an examination. Five months later, police answered another call after the woman called a suicide hotline.

Even though the first RPO was still pending at that point, police sought a second order, “which may assist in keeping the subject of the RPO and the community safer for longer,” the police affidavit said.

Two weeks later, the suicide hotline operator called the police again. This time, the woman told officers that during her recent hospital stay, she was given new medication that was causing her to have suicidal thoughts, including voices telling her to get a gun and kill other people.

But she couldn’t get a gun even if she wanted to, she told police, because of an RPO issued two weeks earlier; in fact, she had a court hearing that day on the order. Nevertheless, police issued a third RPO and, after she called again two days later to report similar hallucinations, the fourth order was issued.

While that case didn’t involve guns, many of them do. Sometimes many weapons are seized and ultimately returned to the person.

In at least one instance, that had deadly consequences.

In August 2012, Bristol police arrived at Sam’s Food Store on West Washington Street to investigate a report of an intoxicated man threatening people with a shotgun.

Police interviewed Chad Couture, who admitted he had several firearms in his nearby house. When police entered his house, Couture grabbed a loaded shotgun in the kitchen. After a struggle, Couture was arrested, and police found a total of six guns in the home. They got a risk protection order and a warrant to seize them.

Four years later, Bristol police were calledto a shooting on Woodland Street. When they arrived, they found Daniel Caron bleeding from a gunshot wound to the chest. He died at the hospital.

Couture was standing there and told police, “I shot him. It was an accident. I can’t believe I shot him,” court documents show.

Couture said he was at his parents’ house and, while locking up several weapons, placed a handgun in his waistband. Couture didn’t explain to police why he pulled out the handgun or how he came to shoot Caron.

He was charged with first-degree manslaughter and eventually sentenced to 15 years in prison. When police obtained an RPO that allowed him to search his parents’ house, they found 21 guns, including several that had been seized years earlier.

Melanson said while police may be familiar with someone who gets multiple orders, each case is handled separately, because police don’t know what happens when cases go to court.

“So each police department wants to make sure that they cover each incident that happened, because maybe if you have another incident with the same person where before a prosecutor or a judge were going to remove the RPO, they may now take a look at it again and say, ‘Wait a second,’” Melanson said.

Trying to find their way

Connecticut became the first state in the nation to pass a red flag law in 1999, the year after disgruntled employee Matthew Beck, 35, stabbed and gunned down four of his bosses at the Connecticut Lottery headquarters before turning the gun on himself.

There had been warning signs, or red flags, in the months leading up to the shootings. Beck had been on leave and angry at being passed over for a promotion, moved back in with his parents, attempted suicide and began acquiring firearms. His family had gone to the police, who said there was nothing they could do because Beck hadn’t broken any laws.

The circumstances raised a question for Lawlor: “Could we create a constitutional mechanism to use when presented with credible evidence that a person poses a credible risk to themselves or others and has access to firearms?” he said.

Lawlor assumed that the law would be used a handful of times a year, and that was true at first. But over time, as public awareness, and shootings, rose, so did the number of risk protection orders — spiking after mass shootings such as Virginia Tech in 2007 and again after the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting in Newtown in 2012.

In 2021, believing that the law was underused, Connecticut lawmakers updated it.

The new law expanded usage to cases involving juveniles and where no gun is present. It also allows health care professionals, social workers and family members to appeal directly to the courts if they feel the police aren’t being responsive.

The changes, which took effect June 1, 2022, led to a surge in cases.

From 96 RPOs in the first five months of the year, before the changes, the number of cases soared to 734 in the last seven months of 2022, according to state data obtained by the CT Mirror.

Most cases are still initiated by the police; the CT Mirror found only one case, a man in New Haven who reported his brother, where someone bypassed the police — the ones who ultimately have to seize the weapon.

But while the law was designed to prevent mass shootings, the CT Mirror found that many of the recent cases where risk protection orders were issued were for people deemed a threat to themselves. In many instances, the person does not have a gun, but an order is sought anyway as a precaution to prevent the person from being able to legally obtain a gun.

Lawlor understands the intent of the law, but worries that it goes too far by leading to RPOs in cases where it is unnecessary.

For instance, it’s already illegal for someone under the age of 21 to buy a gun. If someone waves a gun at a spouse, or around a child, or under the influence of drugs or alcohol, the police have probable cause to obtain a warrant or make an arrest to seize the gun or prevent them from being able to obtain a permit in the future.

“The law was designed for when police have no other options,” Lawlor said. “I understand the rationale for changing the law, but I worry that they’ve made it more complicated than it needs to be. If I’m a police officer reading this law, I might be confused — what am I supposed to do here?”

Manchester police spokesman Lt. Neil Reinhart said the changes in the law do make it difficult at times for police departments.

“I think with these new laws, all the updates, everyone's just trying to find their way, and I think that's probably a good reason why you see some discrepancies,” Rienart said.

For Manchester police, every case that involves a possible mental health issue or a possible suicide risk gets evaluated on a case-by-case basis. They have issued just over 40 RPOs in the past two years, records show.

“Not every mental health committal that we do requires an RPO, and not every RPO we issue comes from a committal,” Sgt. Neil Rodman said. “So there's different situations that permit us to do it, and that’s ultimately at the discretion of the officer.”

Rodman is the department's court liaison who talks with prosecutors about cases, including whether to seek a risk protection order.

“For our mental health evaluations, sometimes they might just not be medication compliant,” Rodman said. “You know, not making any type of suicidal thoughts, gestures, homicidal thoughts, behaviors, anything like that. We had a situation where we find a person in the middle of winter outside in next to no clothes standing in below-zero weather, and that would require a mental health evaluation but not a RPO.”

Worst nightmare: Cracks in the system

Once police issue a risk protection order, the subject of the order — whether they had a gun or not — is entitled to a hearing within 14 days, at which time the judge decides if the order should be upheld.

When the change first went into effect in 2022, judges were dismissing many of the RPOs after the initial court hearing if there were no guns involved. But in 2023, the data shows, judges upheld the order 1,960 times, while terminating just 234 orders.

Cheshire Police Chief Neil Dryfe said because police know the person’s name will get entered into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), they are seeking the RPOs — even if they know someone doesn't have a gun permit or own guns.

When police get the RPO, that person’s name must automatically be entered immediately into a national computer database, flagging them in background checks as ineligible to purchase firearms while their name remains in the database.

"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 Dryfe said police issue the RPO anyway, even if somebody doesn't have guns so that they can be put into NCIS and precluded from getting a pistol permit at that point.

Melanson said his worst nightmare is to have a tragedy because someone slips through the cracks in the system.

“Those are the things that keep you up at night, the things you’re not aware of,” said Melanson. “I have told the officers who work for me, if there’s a question, we should be doing these. If we have somebody who’s a threat to themselves or others, we need to be doing the orders, because we do not want to find out later.”

Caroline Ashworth and Michael Mollow
Caroline Ashworth and Michael Mollow

Homicidal thoughts

Following Ashworth’s murder, Branford Police Chief Jon Mulhern ordered an internal affairs investigation that partly looked at why none of the officers involved in the case sought a risk protection order against Mollow.

The internal affairs investigation revealed that when Mollow voluntarily committed himself to Midstate Medical Center in Meriden on Aug. 23, he told the staff that he had “homicidal thoughts” towards Ashworth, who had broken up with him.

Carol Szymaszek, a crisis clinician at Midstate, notified Branford police the same day that Mollow was in their facility, that he had made threats towards Ashworth, and that he owned guns.

The case was assigned to Officer Robert Iovanna, who contacted Mollow’s ex-wife, who had driven Mollow to the hospital. But Iovanna never made contact with Ashworth or checked to see whether Mollow owned guns, according to the lawsuit.

A quick check with the state police would have revealed that Mollow had 20 guns registered in his name.

Iovanna did contact Szymaszek that day, who told him that Mollow was in a secure facility and that the average stay was four to seven days. She said that Ashworth was in Alabama helping a relative move, according to the internal affairs report.

During his internal affairs interview, Iovanna said he didn’t check if Mollow owned guns because “he was in a secure location, she was in Alabama, and I didn’t think there was an immediate threat at that time.”

Iovanna acknowledged in hindsight “he should have checked with his supervisor about pursuing a risk protection order.”

Iovanna closed his case two hours after opening it and submitted his report to Sgt. Stanley Konesky, who approved it, effectively closing the investigation.

In his interview, Konesky said, “The report was not adequate as written and that he would have demanded the seizure of firearms; if he knew Mollow owned them and that Mollow had homicidal ideations towards Ashworth.”

The next day, Szymaszek, the clinician, called Branford police back to inform them that Mollow was being transferred to St. Vincent’s Behavioral Health services in Westport.

Branford police were not aware that Mollow was released by St. Vincent's less than two days later. They were unaware Mollow was not in a secure facility until Wethersfield police called the department the day Ashworth was murdered.

Mulhern suspended Iovanna for 30 days without pay and Konesky for three days without pay.

Two days after Ashworth’s murder, the Branford Police Department issued an RPO on a man who lived in Parkside Village.

Residents had complained numerous times about the strange behavior exhibited by Arthur Roberts, alleging he had smeared jelly on neighbors’ windows and wrote threatening letters. When police determined Roberts owned guns, theyissued the RPO and obtained a search warrant to seize guns from his mother’s home.

The Roberts RPO was one of 147 that Branford police have issued since Ashworth’s murder — the second-most of any department, surpassed only by Meriden police.

Mulhern said he couldn’t comment directly about the Ashworth case because of the pending lawsuit. He added the internal affairs investigation, which acknowledged the department should have gotten an RPO for Mollow, speaks for itself, as does the discipline for the officers.

But Mulhern said while it may appear that the murder and the department’s increased usage of RPOs are linked, they are not.

Mulhern said Branford historically has a very high number of mental health calls, and because of that, it was one of the first departments to hire a full-time social worker. In the last two years alone, the department has responded to more than 900 mental health calls, records show.

“Our increase in orders is strictly a byproduct of the number of mental health calls and domestic violence calls that we get,” Mulhern said.

The department has created a centralized office to handle all risk protection order cases, including dealing with prosecutors, but that wasn’t established until after Ashworth’s murder.

Good to pause

In 2023, the legislature tweaked the red flag law so that the police no longer have to seek RPOs against people who don’t have a gun and would be otherwise ineligible to legally obtain one — for instance, convicted felons and juveniles.

Melanson said the newest “tweak” should make “some of those high numbers come down.”

“What you should be seeing in the future is some of those agencies that had high numbers should be coming down a little bit, because they now don't have to do an RPO if someone is already a convicted felon or a juvenile,” Melanson said.

The second update to the law by legislators went into effect last Oct. 1, and so far the number of orders are not subsiding. In the first two months of 2024, there were 338 risk protection orders issued, according to court records.

That puts the state on pace for about the same number of risk protection orders that were issued last year, even after the changes.

One department that hasn’t been impacted by the updated law is the University of Connecticut police department.

Records show that UConn police have sought far more RPOs than any other college police department and more than many municipal police departments.

Even after the updated law went into effect on Oct. 1 that states RPOs do not have to be issued for anyone under 21 years old — the legal age to buy a gun in Connecticut — UConn police have continued to issue them.

From Oct. 1 through the end of the year, UConn police issued 15 risk protection orders, court records show. All of them were for students under 21, records show.

Every case was dismissed by a judge when the students made their first appearance in Rockville Superior Court. None of them had guns.

Lawlor said the law was never intended to be used on 18-year-old students who legally can’t own a gun, although he understands why police are doing it: to cover themselves.

“You can now see the police saying, ‘OK, just to protect ourselves, let's also do this, just in case this kid down the road somehow got access to a firearm and uses it, because we wouldn't get accused of having dropped the ball,’” Lawlor said.

UConn Police Capt. Justin Gilbert said the department sees the RPOs as a way to diffuse potential crisis situations with students.

“It’s good to take a pause, when someone has been considered a threat to themselves or others. To at least take a period of time to have someone else look at it in the court, to evaluate whether they should have weapons moving forward, is still a good process,” Gilbert said.

He added campus police are well aware “there's not too many people with gun safes in their room, for obvious reasons. It's against the law to have those here on campus.”

As for the 2023 changes in the law, Gilbert said, “It is my understanding that the latest 2023 adjustments to the statute were to exclude individuals under 18 years of age from having an RPO issued for them.”

Court records show only 28 other RPOs issued for college students in 2022-23 at other schools, including SCSU, CCSU, WCSU, Yale, CSCU, and ECSU. None of them involved guns either.

For UConn officials, police using the risk protection orders is another piece of a concerted effort to address concerns about students' mental health. There have been three suicides on the Storrs campus since December 2019, the most recent just a few months ago, when a student fell from a parking garage.

After the COVID pandemic, former UConn President Thomas Katsouleas created a Task Force on Mental Health and Wellness to study what the university was or wasn’t doing to assist students.

Among the changes that came from that task force was the creation of a new office with an emphasis on student mental health called the Student Office of Care and Concern, run by John Armstrong.

Armstrong said the risk protection orders can alert school officials to a situation with a student they may not have known about.

“Someone always says it came out of nowhere. The reality is these do not come out of nowhere. The reality is there are always clues,” Armstrong said. “There are always indications, there are always things that someone says, does or has communicated to a friend, acquaintance, parent, family members, someone to give a clue to their level of concern.”

In addition to Armstrong’s office, there’s also UConn’s Student Health and Wellness (SHAW) office. Both Armstrong and SHAW’s executive director Kristina Stevens said ultimately “it is up to the individual student to seek out the help.”

“We look at the full picture of a student. And sometimes we reach out to faculty ... look at their academic grades, we were looking at mid-semester, semester grade warnings, all of these things help us develop a picture of ‘are they OK?’” Stevens said. “And it doesn't always mean that we're putting eyes on them and communicating with them. But we're seeing a student's snapshot in time and developing a picture to say, ‘I think they're OK now.”

'Why are we doing them?'

For Melanson, of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association, the fact that nearly all the orders are getting dropped almost immediately by the courts should make a police department review how they are using the law.

“If judges aren't upholding them and we're doing 50 and they've dismissed 50 after two weeks, then why are we doing them?” Melanson said. “There's a disconnect between what the legislators believe is happening and what is happening in the real world.”

Most of the changes in the law were done at the request of the police chiefs association.

No bills related to the red flag law went before the Judiciary Committee this session, and there are no plans to revisit the red flag law this year, according to the committee’s co-chairman Rep. Steven Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport.

Stafstrom said the changes over the past few years have undoubtedly saved lives by identifying people who were possibly suicidal, removing their weapons if they had any, or getting them help.

"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 said.

There has been discussion at the federal level of a national red flag law, particularly after a mass shooting in Lewiston, Me., last October when a 40-year-old Army Reservist killed 18 people at a bowling alley.

Maine has what is referred to as a yellow flag law, which does not give law enforcement as quick an avenue to go to court and get an order to remove a person’s guns.

In the Lewiston case, the shooter Robert Card’s son and ex-wife expressed concerns he was becoming paranoid and erratic in May, and a fellow reservist warned in September that Card was “going to snap and do a mass shooting.”

Stafstrom said other states still reach out to Connecticut about the state’s red flag law.

Melanson said if the orders continue to rise, the police chiefs association would revisit the 2022 tweaks to the law.

“What we're trying to do is not punish people but protect them. I think that is the greatest thing with this law that we're really focused on,” Melanson said.

“You should see those numbers ... drastically reduced for anyone under the age of 21, and if they don’t, then I think we need to have a different conversation. Because then something's not working.”

About this story

The Connecticut Mirror teamed up with a University of Connecticut investigative journalism class taught by Mike Stanton for this story. The class of 11 students analyzed data from the state judiciary, pulled court records, attended court hearings and conducted interviews.

The students are: Jalen Allen, Amanda Ameral, Coral Aponte, Izetta Asikainen, Sophia Dover, Luke Feeney, Emma Knuckey, Jonathan Kopeliovich, Ally LeMaster, Amanda McCard and Nell Srinath.

It was originally published by The Connecticut Mirror April 14, 2024.

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