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LEO’s death propels effort to change Colo. laws on mentally ill, gun ownership

The debate reignited after two reports laid out a step-by-step account of Deputy Zackari Parrish’s killer’s mental state and the arsenal he had


This undated photo provided by the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office shows Sheriff’s Deputy Zackari Parrish.

Photo/Douglas County Sheriff’s Office

By Noelle Phillips
The Denver Post

DOUGLAS COUNTY, Colo. — The New Year’s Eve shooting death of a Douglas County sheriff’s deputy has reignited the debate over the mentally ill and gun ownership in Colorado after two reports released last week laid out a step-by-step account of the killer’s mental state and the arsenal he kept in his apartment.

Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock and 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler, who is the Republican candidate for state attorney general, said they want to renew efforts to create a “red flag” law in Colorado that would allow guns to be confiscated from the severely mentally ill. And they want to use the case of Deputy Zackari Parrish in a second legislative effort to change the state’s mental health hold laws to make it easier for law enforcement to take a person having a mental health crisis into custody.

“The status quo is not working,” Brauchler said. “Should we change the status quo to accommodate this reality that we have an increasing number of people who are in this mental health crisis who have access to weapons who can hurt themselves or hurt others? The answer is yes, and we must take the steps.”

Matthew Riehl, the man who shot and killed Parrish, owned 19 firearms, including semi-automatic rifles, even though he once had been placed on a mental health hold and, in the weeks leading up to the shooting, posted incoherent rants online, threatening his former law school, sending vile emails to his mother and harassing a police officer who had written him a speeding ticket.

Riehl used those weapons to overpower Parrish and four of his colleagues when they entered his apartment to take him into custody on a mental health hold. Then Riehl, clad in a gas mask and broadcasting a live video of himself shooting, ranting and praying, used those guns to hold off a rescue attempt of Parrish for an hour and a half until a SWAT unit powered into Riehl’s apartment and killed him.

It was too late to save Parrish.

Looking back, Spurlock and Brauchler believe Parrish would be alive and four other deputies would have avoided injury had they been able to take Riehl into custody earlier in the night when they were first called to Riehl’s home or if a judge had been able to order Riehl’s weapons to be confiscated until his mental health crisis was treated.

Challenges, however, lie ahead.

Already, a “red flag” bill that would have allowed guns to be seized from the mentally ill was killed in a Republican-controlled Senate committee in May. That bill was supported by Spurlock, Brauchler and Gracie Parrish, Zackari Parrish’s widow, but was opposed by staunch gun-ownership rights supporters.

The NRA, which supports laws that allow firearms to be temporarily removed from the mentally ill under certain circumstances, ultimately opposed the Colorado bill over the issue of requiring courts to hold hearings regarding removing weapons without gun owners’ knowledge. The NRA opposed those hearings while law enforcement and the bill’s backers supported them to give officers a better chance at confiscating guns, said state Rep. Alec Garnett, D-Denver, a sponsor of the bill.

Thirteen states have similar laws, with more than half of them passed this spring after a deadly high school shooting in Parkland, Fla., according to Everytown for Gun Safety, an advocacy group that searches for ways to reduce gun violence.

In the weeks leading up to the shootout between Riehl and law enforcement, it was clear Riehl’s mental stability was in decline. He posted videos online where he delivered incoherent rants against police, particularly a Lone Tree Police Department officer who had given him a ticket. He posted threats on Facebook toward the University of Wyoming law school, where he had earned a law degree.

On Dec. 5, a Douglas County sheriff’s deputy and a mental health clinician visited Riehl to offer services. He declined. On Dec. 12, he posted a series of videos ranting about Spurlock and the Lone Tree Police Department. Also that month, he sent a series of explicit emails to his mother, insulting her and sarcastically wishing her a Merry Christmas.

But even on New Year’s Eve when deputies responded to the first 911 call from Riehl, they did not have legal grounds to take him into custody. While it was clear Riehl had a mental health problem, he did not seem to be dangerous, a report on the shooting said.

On the second call, however, Riehl’s agitation had escalated, and Parrish decided he needed to be taken into custody.

Under the current law, law enforcement can take someone into custody for 72 hours when they are considered an imminent threat to themselves or others. Too often, a person needs treatment sooner than that, Spurlock said.

“It is ineffective,” Spurlock said. “It doesn’t work. It does not help the person who is ill. It does not help the community. It doesn’t help anyone.”

The word “imminent” needs to be removed, he said, to give law enforcement the ability to take someone into custody sooner. Brauchler agreed.

“By the time that person reaches imminence we miss a lot of other off-ramps that might have led to safer outcomes,” Brauchler said. “So we miss it all together or you end up with the situation we have here where you have these five good men and women in uniform standing outside a door not realizing that the extremely mentally ill and dangerous guy behind the door has two big rifles aimed at the door ready to kill them.”

The issue over when someone in crisis can be taken into custody has come up before. James Holmes, convicted in the 2012 Aurora theater shooting, told a psychiatrist that he wanted to kill people but she never reported him to authorities after determining the threats were not specific enough to order hospitalization.

The mental health hold law alone won’t do much good, advocates say, if the state doesn’t allocate money so those taken into custody can be treated.

“We need more investment in therapeutic alternatives if we’re going to take the word (imminent) out,” Moe Keller, advocacy director for Mental Health Colorado, said/

Mental Health Colorado would be willing to work with law enforcement to figure out a workable change to state law.

Meanwhile, the red flag effort continues to have bi-partisan support, including from key Republicans who have faced heavy criticism for backing any effort to curb gun ownership.

Walker Stapleton, the Republican candidate for governor, and Jared Polis, the Democratic candidate, said they support the idea. Both said the key is having proper due process procedures to protect people’s constitutional rights.

The legislature needs to find a way to restrict the acutely mentally ill from buying and possessing weapons while respecting those rights, Spurlock said. The bill should contain provisions that allow people to get their weapons back once they are proven to be mentally stable, Spurlock said.

“Mentally ill people who cannot make rational decisions about their own health and welfare should not have access to weapons they can use against themselves and others because they don’t have the rational capability to do that,” Spurlock said.

Staff writer Anna Staver contributed to this report.

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