Police Did Not Treat 911 Call About Colorado Gunman as “Highest Priority”

When an alarmed resident called just before the rampage, the dispatcher told her it’s legal to carry a rifle in public.

A crime scene in Colorado Springs on October 31.Christian Murdock/The Gazette via AP

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As I first reported late Monday, questions are hanging over how the Colorado Springs Police Department handled a 911 call on Saturday morning, when a resident saw a man carrying a rifle on her residential block prior to a deadly gun rampage. The caller, Naomi Bettis, was alarmed about 33-year-old Noah Harpham—who soon went on to shoot three people to death in the area before being killed by police. But when Bettis made the 911 call, her first of two, the police dispatcher apparently reacted without urgency, telling Bettis about Colorado’s law allowing firearms to be carried openly in public. Bettis hung up, and when she called back it was because the killing was underway.

Did Colorado’s open carry law in effect hinder a police response to Harpham before he struck?

The first time Bettis dialed 911 and spoke with a dispatcher, “a call for service was built for officers to respond,” Lt. Catherine Buckley of the Colorado Springs PD told Mother Jones. “But it wasn’t the highest priority call for service.”

Buckley declined to provide any further details about the timing or substance of the two 911 calls by Bettis, or about how they were handled, citing an ongoing investigation into the shooting.

Contacted by Mother Jones, Bettis declined via her daughter to comment further, but on Tuesday the Washington Post reported that Bettis was surprised by the tepid response from the police dispatcher. “I don’t remember what they call it—open arms…and she said, you know, we have that law here. And it just kind of blew me away, like she didn’t believe me or something.” Bettis also told the Post she was “angry” that she had to call 911 twice. “I don’t think she probably thought it was an emergency until I made the second call,” Bettis said, “and that’s when I said, ‘That guy I just called you about, he just shot somebody.'” According to one witness, Harpham attacked using an AR-15.

There are additional questions about how details of the gun rampage have emerged. Local law enforcement authorities did not identify the shooter or any of the victims until Monday afternoon—more than 48 hours after the attack—according to Joanna Bean, the editor of The Gazette, a local news outlet that has covered the attack extensively. That’s an unusually long time in the face of intense public interest, including a flurry of comments on social media over the weekend lamenting the lack of information. In a column about The Gazette‘s coverage, including on its decision to publish the shooter’s name late Sunday, Bean wrote:

From the time of the shooting until Monday afternoon, authorities remained tight lipped. “Pending completion of the autopsies and notification of the next of kin the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office does not have any updates on the investigation regarding the officer involved shooting yesterday and the ensuing investigation,” the office said on Facebook on Sunday. Colorado Springs police said they wouldn’t discuss the shootings until autopsies were completed.

Meanwhile, The Gazette apparently removed a key line from an in-depth report it published on Sunday—concerning Bettis’ eyewitness account and first 911 call. On Facebook on Sunday night, several gun reform advocates referred to the Gazette story and directly quoted the line highlighted in bold below; they later pointed out that the line had been removed.

Across the street, neighbor Naomi Bettis was shaken by what she saw on a sunny Saturday morning.

Bettis said she called police twice on Saturday morning – once to report her neighbor walking around with a rifle. She took issue with the first dispatcher, who told her that Colorado has an open carry law.

She saw Harpham walk into the house with a rifle and a can or two of gasoline. Then, he went up an outside staircase and came out with a rifle and a pistol.

He walked down the street and took aim at a passing bicyclist, she said.

Bettis recalled the bicyclist’s last words. “Don’t shoot me! Don’t shoot me!”

“But he was already being shot,” Bettis said.

She called 911 again the second time.

“I said, ‘The guy I just called you about that had the gun, he just shot somebody three times,'” Bettis said.

It remains unclear why The Gazette apparently removed the line about Bettis’ interaction with the dispatcher regarding Colorado’s open carry law. Reached by email early Tuesday morning, Bean said she would look into the matter. If she responds further we will update the story.

Update, November 4: Bean further responded that the line in question was removed as part of The Gazette‘s “ongoing, updated coverage throughout the weekend,” which involved frequent changes to their print and online copy. “We continue to pursue a variety of angles on this shooting story,” she added, “including the open carry angle and what information police have about that call to dispatch.” Their latest reporting on that angle is here.

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