In the two years that Maryland’s red flag law has been in effect, it has been applied in Anne Arundel County more than anywhere else in the state.
District Court judges in the county also have granted the special protective orders, which require law enforcement to temporarily confiscate a person’s guns, at among the highest rates in the state.
National experts and local law enforcement officials attribute the high numbers to a proactive approach from county police, who’ve put an emphasis on using extreme risk protective orders to prevent violence, among other factors that have prompted Anne Arundel pace the state. However, nobody is entirely sure why.
They agree the special protective orders have saved lives. They say the county Police Department made the red flag law a priority from the get-go. In addition to being able to take away the most deadly means from someone contemplating suicide, county police view the special protective orders as a way for officers to intervene before dangerous threats are carried out.
“They take these threats very, very seriously and are very proactive,” State’s Attorney Anne Colt Leitess said.
The law took effect the same year five employees were murdered in the Capital Gazette newsroom, and some studies show that similar statutes are utilized more in jurisdictions where mass shootings occurred. One study by the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence found that police in Broward County, Florida, the site of the Parkland school shooting, filed more petitions than other similarly-sized jurisdictions around the country.
Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk, D-College Park, co-sponsored the legislation in the Maryland General Assembly that became law. She attributed its frequent use to publicity and advocacy.
Anne Arundel has featured some highly publicized red flag order cases, and domestic violence advocacy groups do a good job promoting the tool, said Peña-Melnyk, whose district covers part of the county.
Headlines have drawn attention to the case of Gary Willis, who was fatally shot two years ago by Anne Arundel County officers serving a red flag order at his residence — to date, the only known fatality tied to the red flag law. And that of Mark Rutkowski, a 54-year-old from Pasadena who threatened to shoot up his workplace. Police took almost 150 guns from his home with an extreme risk protective order.
Rutkowski has since pleaded guilty to making a threat of mass violence. He was sentenced to almost five years in prison.
Some 347 petitions for extreme risk protective orders were filed in Anne Arundel County over the last two years, according to estimates from the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office. No other jurisdiction eclipsed 300. Baltimore County had the second-most, with 296, and then Prince George’s County, with 175. Montgomery and Harford counties were the only others to top 100 petitions.
Three counties had a higher rate of petitions than Anne Arundel. Some 89 petitions were filed per 100,000 in Somerset, 72 in Garrett — two of the least populated jurisdictions in Maryland — and 66 in Queen Anne’s counties, while 61 petitions per 100,000 were filed in the much larger Anne Arundel. The state’s most populous jurisdictions checked in far lower.
Julia Weber, implementation director at Giffords Law Center, has helped various states and counties implement extreme risk protective order laws. As of January 2020, Maryland is one of 17 states, along with Washington, D.C., that have adopted them. Weber said it’s common to see the laws implemented differently across each state. Some jurisdictions use it frequently, others don’t.
“By enforcing this statute the way that we have, there’s no doubt in my mind that we’ve saved numerous lives... Oftentimes we’re catching people at the worst moment of their life, and it’s like we’re giving them a timeout; you need some time away from those guns. I think it’s a really effective law.”— Kathleen Rogers, Anne Arundel County attorney
The law in Maryland says spouses, roommates, relatives, persons with children in common, dating partners, legal guardians, law enforcement officers or medical professionals who examined the person can seek an extreme risk protective order. Out of 347 petitions filed in Anne Arundel, county police have applied for 200, according to department data. Smaller law enforcement agencies account for far less.
Laws vary state to state. But discrepancy within states can be attributed to “resources, culture, room for discretion and training,” Weber said.
One jurisdiction may not be able to accommodate an officer being tied up in court waiting for an emergency case to be called. Another may prefer to pursue criminal charges, or may not see a restraining order as the appropriate way to handle potential suicides, she added.
It all comes down to one question, Weber said. “How do we view policing?”
In Anne Arundel County, police leadership got behind the idea after the law passed. County police implemented some best practices. The force was trained promptly to evaluate when such an order is appropriate.
“Oftentimes a lot of that just comes down to the verbal language that’s used during the time of the incident and, if guns are mentioned, we certainly have a duty to protect our community..." said Sgt. Kam Cooke, a department spokesman.
If a person poses “immediate and present danger of causing personal injury to themself or others by possessing a firearm, then we should move forward with an extreme risk protective order."
An officer doesn’t have to witness dangerous behavior to file an extreme risk order; they can rely on what someone tells them, said Kathleen Rogers, a county attorney who represents the police department in various legal matters. Police leadership recognized the public safety benefit early, ensuring it was incumbent upon officers to file the paperwork, not someone who’s scared for their life, she added.
“Our officers can’t just walk away and say, ‘You should go get an extreme risk protection order,’ ” Rogers said. “The burden is on our officers.”
And detectives handle extreme risk protective orders. Their schedules are more flexible than patrol officers and they often have more experience in court.
After a person files a petition for an extreme risk protective order, they have to appear in court for a District Court judge or commissioner to decided whether to hand down a temporary or interim order. If a temporary order is granted, a judge usually schedules a hearing for a final order within seven days. At that hearing, witnesses can testify and the person whose guns are at stake may hire an attorney to raise legal issues.
Rogers said the department realized early on an issue with the process. Police are used to testifying in court, not cross-examining witnesses. Within the first month of the law being in effect, she was entering her appearance in every police-filed case where a temporary order was granted.
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A longtime prosecutor, Rogers is no stranger presenting a case. Final extreme risk protective orders were granted in 93% of those applied for by county police, according to police department data.
District Court judges statewide issued the special protective orders in approximately 55% of petitions, sheriff’s office estimates show. But Anne Arundel judges approved the orders at a 73% clip, tied for third highest in the state and first among counties where at least 10 cases were filed between January 2019 and August of this year, the period for which the Maryland Judiciary had publicly available data.
By comparison, extreme risk orders were granted 48% and 25% of the time in Baltimore and Prince George’s counties, which filed the second and third most petitions over the same 20-month period. It’s unclear how law enforcement handled the special protective orders in those jurisdictions. But in Montgomery County, where an attorney presents cases for law enforcement like in Anne Arundel, orders were issued in 70% of the cases.
All District Court judges hear extreme risk protective order cases in Anne Arundel — whether at the courthouse in Annapolis or Glen Burnie. Statewide, judges have been trained on the red flag law. Judge John McKenna, District Court administrative judge in the county, provided further training during a bench meeting, said Terri Charles, a judiciary spokeswoman. McKenna declined to comment on the statistics.
Out on patrol and in the courtroom, there’s only one number that matters to public safety personnel. It’s each life they believe they saved.
Rogers said people whose guns law enforcement confiscated through these red flag officers, because they were suicidal or otherwise in distress, have approached her after court. They wanted to thank the officers.
“By enforcing this statute the way that we have, there’s no doubt in my mind that we’ve saved numerous lives,” Rogers said. “Oftentimes we’re catching people at the worst moment of their life, and it’s like we’re giving them a timeout; you need some time away from those guns. I think it’s a really effective law.”