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Colorado Springs police questioned over response before deadly shooting spree

November 3, 2015 Updated: November 4, 2015 at 12:11 pm
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The rear window of a Colorado Springs Police car is shattered by gun fire in front of the Wendy's restaurant on Wahsatch Avenue in Colorado Springs as police investigate the one of the scenes from a shooting rampage that left three victims dead Saturday morning, Oct. 31, 2015, in Colorado Springs. The shooting began on Prospect Street near Platte Avenue and ended at Wahsatch and Platte avenues where police exchanged gun fire, killing the suspected shooter. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

Naomi Bettis first called 911 when she saw her neighbor carrying a rifle and a gas can outside his house.

But with no police in sight, she called again.

"'The guy I just called you about that had the gun, he just shot somebody three times,'" Bettis recalled saying.

The Colorado Springs Police Department's handling of Bettis' first call fell under a national spotlight Tuesday, three days after the gunman killed a man near Bettis' house and then two women in a half-mile long shooting rampage in downtown Colorado Springs.

Specifically, the department faced questions on social media and in numerous publications about its response to the call Saturday in which the dispatcher reportedly cited a law allowing people to openly carry guns in public.

"I didn't like the first dispatcher," Bettis said. "Because she says 'You know in Colorado, they do have an open/concealed weapon" law.

Bettis said the time between her 911 calls was "not very long, but it seemed like forever."

The Gazette's attempts to discuss Bettis' calls and the ensuing police response with Police Department officials - including the priority her call was given, the time it was received and whether any officers were assigned to it - garnered a two-sentence statement in an email.

The 911 call taker entered Bettis' call for service into the dispatch system the first time she phoned police, according to Lt. Catherine Buckley, a police spokeswoman.

"The call taker did not deviate from policy therefore there is no need to put her on administrative leave," Buckley wrote.

The publication Mother Jones quoted Buckley saying Bettis' first call "wasn't the highest priority call for service."

The Police Department denied The Gazette's open records request for the 911 tapes, citing the ongoing investigation of the shootings. The department also did not acknowledge Gazette requests for a phone interview.

Police chiefs contacted by The Gazette declined to comment specifically on Saturday's shooting spree, because it remains under investigation. But they said calls related to weapons being carried openly are steeped in nuance - often leaving dispatchers and officers in a difficult spot.

"The problem that we all face is that we never have all the information," said Fountain Police Department Chief Chris Heberer.

Evans Police Department Chief Rich Brandt, who also serves as president of the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police, said he was unaware of a uniform system for handling those calls, such as where to prioritize them against the myriad other 911 calls received daily.

Heberer said 911 call takers generally try to gauge callers' level of panic, and whether or not someone openly carrying a gun appears out of place.

Dispatchers' challenges are similar to those of officers on the street, who have increasingly met people carrying guns - both openly and concealed.

Heberer stressed the need to respect gun holders' constitutional right to have guns, and their ability to carry them in public. And he said officers must approach calls more carefully as a result.

"Situational awareness is that much more important," Heberer said.

Colorado Springs officials have previously weighed in on the importance of recognizing that people have the right to carry guns openly in public.

In June, the City Attorney's Office issued an advisory to organizers of a motorcycle event underscoring the need to protect people's constitutional rights.

It came after a man with a high-capacity 9mm pistol acted belligerent, agitated and apparently unstable during a motorcycle gathering in 2013, police said. Event organizers wanted to be proactive, and escort gun-toting people from future events, but the city said they couldn't do that.

Police Cmdr. Pat Rigdon lamented the challenges his officers face.

"It's just a really tough balance for us: constitutional rights vs. public safety," Rigdon told The Gazette in June. "It's something we take very seriously. And we have to; we're sworn to uphold the Constitution for everyone."

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