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Columbine copycat: A case for red flag investigations

A Florida woman traveled to Colorado to possibly carry out a Columbine-inspired attack, which ended in her suicide. Could red flag laws have prevented this?


A town of Surfside, Fla., police officer stands guard in front of the home of Sol Pais, Wednesday, April 17, 2019, in Surfside, Fla.

AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

In April 2019, mere weeks before the 20th anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre, an 18-year-old woman raised awareness on social media and presumably with friends and family, of her fascination with the horrific incident.

News reports indicate that the Florida woman was obsessed with the individuals who idealized, planned and carried out the attack on their fellow high school classmates.

The woman (referred to only by her initials SP in this article) referenced the Columbine shooting, the shooters and an urge to go to Colorado on a “pilgrimage.” She even adopted the clothing style of the killers and referred to the April 20 or “4/20” anniversary.

Suggestions that she may replicate the event were made via social media and in an e-based journal. Reports of entries in the journal described drawings of the original gun-wielding students from 1999, “firearms and a bloody knife.” She had made attempts on chat rooms to inquire how she could purchase a firearm.

As 4/20 loomed closer, SP travelled to Colorado from her home state of Florida, to the vicinity of Jefferson County, Colorado, near Columbine. SP purchased a shotgun and ammunition and dressed in camouflage and clothing like the original shooter killers of Columbine High School.

Federal, state and local authorities launched an intensive search for SP with the intention of a detention and thorough investigation. Area school officials canceled school sessions in anticipation of SP arriving in the area. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people were affected by the alarming threat. Consider the anxiety felt by students and their families, school administrators and faculty, and law enforcement officers involved in the search and area residents. Surely friends and family of SP wished they could have done more.

News of the discovery of the body of SP, dressed in black shirt, camouflage pants and black boots and found in a nearby rural area, indicated that SP apparently ended the anticipated disaster with a self-inflicted shotgun round. The shotgun was found near her body. The investigation and postmortem continue to help understand issues of motivation, the possibility of confederates in planning, how mental illness may have played a role and other factors.

Could a red flag action, initiated at an early juncture of this incident, have prevented the critical crescendo?

The Red Flag Quandary

In recent years, red flag legislation has given law enforcement the ability to investigate, petition the court, detain and evaluate an individual making threats, and seize any weapons.

If during the investigation, it is determined that credible threats were deemed to go beyond those otherwise interpreted as rants, the individual may be criminally charged or detained for a mental health evaluation.

The individual can be arrested and charged with criminal threats in some jurisdictions such as 422 of the California Penal Code. If determined appropriate, the individual may be detained for a 72-hour psychological evaluation and follow-up.

The SP case certainly raised alarm for red flag advocates, while detractors of red flag laws may have condemned any detention or investigation of the individual, citing First, Second, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment protections. Once the journals were discovered, investigators may have been able to detain and interview SP to determine if threats were specific enough to call for a formal detention or arrest. There is certainly room for debate.

Overt threats toward individuals and institutions made to friends, families and coworkers or via social media requires attention. Several mass shootings over the years since Columbine had pre-incident indicators that should have raised suspicions. Once law enforcement is alerted to suspicious behavior, expressions of violence and activity towards the act, there is an obligation to investigate.

The degree of attention may depend on the policies of the affected jurisdictions. Certainly, federal investigative agencies have threat matrix criterion to determine threat levels.

Threat Matrix Considerations

Many law enforcement agencies have created checklists to determine the degree of threat based on several contributing factors. A matrix may be used to determine whether a SWAT team is needed on a high-threat search and arrest warrant service. Checklists are used by courts in place of cash bail, to determine if a defendant will return to a court hearing on his own recognizance. Threat assessment teams may use a matrix checklist to calculate threat risk.

Below is a partial list of some suggested, but certainly not all factors to be considered, when determining next steps in a threat of violence investigation.

  1. Threats made. Is the threat specific or veiled? Are the threats credible? Are they made in general or indicating a specific individual or institution?
  2. Source of the threat. Are threats heard first hand or via a third party? Is the source credible? Is the threat relayed as a “Tarasoff notice” by a medical professional?
  3. Victim considerations. What is the proximity of the potential victim target? Do they live with the suspect? Nearby? Do they go to the same worksite or school?
  4. Suspect history of threats or violence. Has the subject been arrested or named in prior incidents? Is there a history of felony level violence? Prior incarceration?
  5. Mental stability of the suspect. Is there a history of documented mental illness? To what degree? Has the individual been detained for being a danger to themselves or others (5150 W&I)?
  6. Suicide potential. A dimension is added if the suspect has expressed suicidal ideation. Desperate suspects may consider suicide by cop to force the hand of law enforcement.
  7. Access to weapons. Does the individual have a history of owning firearms or have access to them?
  8. Situational awareness. Are there historical connections to the behavior? Is there a looming anniversary of the death of a friend or family member? Dates of significance such as July 4, April 20, 9/11 and others may be triggers to some.
  9. Local red flag law compliance. Do other specific aspects to local ordinances apply to the individual?
  10. Current legal status. Is the individual under the court supervision of probation, parole or monitored release? Are there other open investigations or outstanding warrants? Are there other law enforcement agencies, local, state or federal who may provide intelligence or additional resources?

Although red flag laws are not a panacea to avert all critical incidents and mass shootings, they may indeed be useful to avoid some incidents. Had they been in effect, red flag laws may have been able to be used to intervene before shootings that occurred at Virginia Tech, Virginia; Santa Barbara, California; Parkland, Florida, and others.

Contrary to criticism, the red flag firearms confiscations are not arbitrary or random. Confiscation comes only after a thorough investigation and a petition by a law officer to a judge where probable cause must be articulated (in most states). A follow-up hearing occurs and, if unsubstantiated, the gun owner may petition the court to have them returned.

Law enforcement should consider red flag laws as a valuable tool in the crime prevention toolbox to be used to prevent a possible tragedy.

James Dudley is a 32-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department where he retired as deputy chief of the Patrol Bureau. He has served as the DC of Special Operations and Liaison to the Department of Emergency Management where he served as Event and Incident Commander for a variety of incidents, operations and emergencies. He has a Master’s degree in Criminology and Social Ecology from the University of California at Irvine. He is currently a member of the Criminal Justice faculty at San Francisco State University, consults on organizational assessments for LE agencies and hosts the Policing Matters podcast for Police1.