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COVER STORY | Denver's deadly crime wave swells amid a 'perfect storm of circumstances.'

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Crime scene of cold blood murder

Denver has reached a boiling point. 

Gripped by a global pandemic, soaring unemployment, unrest from racial injustice and an unending homeless crisis, residents are scared. They’re angry. They’re stressed and uneasy. 

Increasingly, they are also dying, as the city faces yet another setback: a surge in shootings and killings. 

Meanwhile, an embattled police department is caught between demands that they crack down harder on every crime and the cries to defund the police. Some worry law enforcement’s pandemic-era policies — curbing low-level arrests, allowing early release of certain prisoners and breaking up fewer homeless encampments — could be behind the bloodshed. Others point to the pandemic and the systemic issues — poverty, racial disparities, distrust of police and the prevalence of firearms — that have come to a head as a result. 

It’s too soon to draw conclusions. Criminologists estimate it could take years to explain the trends. What is known, however, is that “a perfect storm” is upon us and no one can tell when clearer skies will emerge.

“We have not faced these types of challenges,” Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen said in an interview with Colorado Politics. “We’ve had a pandemic with the flu of 1918; we’ve had economic strife with the Great Recession and the Great Depression; we’ve had civil unrest in the late 60s, early 70s. But we haven’t had them all at the same time,” he said.  “All of this divide that just keeps compounding on one another has really, I believe, contributed to the types of challenges that we are seeing in town.” 

Virus Outbreak Colorado

From left, Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen, special operations division commander Patrick Phelan and Greggory LaBerge, head of the department's crime laboratory, at a city event in May 2020.

Troublesome trends

This year is ominously positioned to be the city’s bloodiest in years. 

Shootings and killings were up 50% between January and mid-July compared with the same period last year, data from the Denver Police Department shows. At least 48 homicides have occurred as of Aug. 3, and by that time in 2018 — Denver’s deadliest year in a decade — the city had recorded 36. 

Those numbers were down in Denver in the first three months of the year. But starting in April, nearly two months prior to protests, Pazen said there were “dramatic increases” in shootings compared to a three-year baseline, and killings have continued to climb since.

Often caught in the crossfire are the city’s “most vulnerable,” Pazen said, people of color living in underserved neighborhoods, including East Colfax, Elyria-Swansea, Green Valley Ranch and Montbello. 

What’s worse, they’re also young: At least nine kids have died by homicide this year, DPD reports.

“The rise in crime, particularly youth violent crime, is unacceptable,” Denver Mayor Michael Hancock said July 27 during the annual State of the City address. “I will never allow it to be normalized in our city.”

“We are seeing some pretty heavy violence and some pretty heavy crimes being committed,” said Murphy Robinson, executive director of the Denver Department of Public Safety, during a briefing in front of the Denver City Council’s Safety, Housing, Education and Homelessness Committee. “It is quite scary.”

Too frequently as of late, Pazen said, “people are resorting to the highest levels of violence” over some “pretty minor issues,” a pattern he said is “never OK in a civil society.” 

Denver is far from facing these issues alone, however. Major cities across the country are also in distress.

Violent crime in Dallas increased more than 14% from April to June, the Associated Press reports, and homicides in Philadelphia jumped 20% for the week ending July 5 over the same period last year. In Chicago, homicides were up nearly 40% in the last week of June and the first week of July compared with last year, according to CNN, and in Los Angeles, there were 19 homicides between June 21 and July 5, compared to nine the year prior, the LA Times reports.

Some smaller cities aren’t immune, either, including Colorado Springs and Aurora. Twenty-two people were killed in Colorado Springs during the first seven months of 2020, a 57% spike compared to the same time period last year. In Aurora, at least 23 people were killed from January through July, a surge of 53% compared with the same time period last year, according to The Denver Post.

Still, the increases don't detract from the country's decades-long improvements in violent crime, which has fallen sharply since the 1990s. Cities seeing spikes today are still relatively safer than they were several years ago.

For countless reasons, 2020 is proving to be an "anomaly," experts say.

The COVID-19 pandemic has ignited a “different set of emotions,” Pazen explained. “Not just here in Denver, not just in Colorado, but throughout the country," cities are withering under “fear, stress, anxiety, anger — related to the political divide, related to the global pandemic, related to the economic challenges and certainly related to the social issues we are grappling with.”

‘Over the economic edge’

This year has dealt a “perfect storm of circumstances,” one of the strongest factors being joblessness from the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, said Paul Taylor, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Colorado Denver’s School of Public Affairs.

Joblessness is a factor correlated across time with an increase in gang crime, he said, including violent crime, and is “disproportionately impacting younger and minority communities.”

Urban Peak, a Denver-based nonprofit serving youth experiencing homelessness, was funding about 65% of young people's rent at the start of the outbreak; that number had shot up to 95% by early August due to the loss of jobs, according to Urban Peak CEO Christina Carlson.

Across Denver, nearly 554,000 unemployment claims were filed between March 7 and July 20, according to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

“Research has shown a great deal of correlation and causation between economic conditions and crime, especially violent crime. As the economy turns down, crime turns up,” said Andre Adeli, a former public defender in Denver and a criminal justice professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

The “overwhelming majority” of those typically charged with crimes, Adeli noted, are poor and are eligible or may already be receiving public assistance.

“Economic downturns send folks over the economic edge,” he explained, “and they turn to criminal behavior to either get back to where they were or become violent in their inability to redirect their anger and frustration at the unfortunate turn in their lives.”

Denver has been gripped by a homeless crisis that started well before the pandemic, but the loss of jobs and looming rents means the desperation could get worse.

On July 23, one man was killed and two were injured during a shooting at a homeless encampment near the Colorado Capitol. A month earlier, a man experiencing homelessness was stabbed to death at the National Western Complex, which has been converted into a large emergency homeless shelter for men during the coronavirus pandemic.  

Meanwhile, the city is conducting encampment sweeps that send people into residential neighborhoods to find somewhere else to sleep as officials scramble to find a stopgap solution. 

“Just like we saw with the shooting, those that prey on vulnerable populations and crime issues surrounding the vulnerable populations are something that we are very concerned with and also impacts on neighborhoods as well,” including break-ins and burglaries, Pazen said. “We have to work together to try to address these social harms that often lead to crime issues.” 

“Joblessness has an impact on services that are being provided as well,” Taylor said, with some care facilities being short-staffed or even closed due to the fallout from COVID-19. 

Libraries, which have historically served as safe havens rich with resources for unhoused populations, have also closed their doors out of pandemic precautions. 

It’s true for the homeless population, Taylor said, but it’s also true for young people, many of whom were involved in school programs that were cut short or ended altogether. 

‘Kids killing kids’

LaKeshia Hodge is the executive director of Struggle of Love, a nonprofit based in Montbello that serves disadvantaged youth and families. Her organization, a recent recipient of the city’s microgrants to reduce youth violence, beefed up its staff to help with enormous community needs, from running a food pantry to keeping kids safe. 

Hodge described a phone call her organization received just a day earlier.

Kids who lived five or six blocks away from the Boys and Girls Club of Metro Denver in Park Hill were afraid to walk there, so they called Struggle of Love to pick them up and give them a ride. 

“They are that afraid that they don’t even want to walk the streets in their neighborhood because of all of the violence,” Hodge said. “We don’t know if people are being targeted, if it’s an isolated incident, if it’s gang-related … it’s just crazy.” 

When Adeli was a public defender, he often represented young people charged with violent crimes, including murder.

“The sentiment that I heard consistently from them was: It’s hard not to look guilty when everyone is watching you, and it’s hard not to get sick, tired and angry about everyone watching you,” he said. “As a result, there is always a simmer ready to boil over.”

Adolescence itself is “already a simmer,” he said, but for people of color, especially young men, “the heat seems to be always on, and without protective factors, sometimes they catch on fire and it spreads.”

A lack of supervision and guidance from family and mentors, he said, can act as gasoline. 

"Surges in hostility among youth can become exacerbated when the adults in their lives," such as parents, teachers and counselors, "become distracted by economic downturns," he said. "The more severe the downturn, the less supervision and opportunities to notice changes that need interventions. Gang affiliations increase, turf battles emerge, gun sales go up, and the next thing you know you have kids killing kids."

There's also a desperate need to feel safe, a teenager named Maria explained to Hancock in a taped discussion about youth violence. 

"A lot of young people go out and get weapons or guns because they feel like that's the only way to protect themselves. If they have a gun, then you need one, too," she said. "You gotta protect yourself and your people."

The latest data for Denver shows that there has been a nearly 50% increase, or about 80,000 more firearm background checks conducted through June this year compared with last year, Pazen said, signifying record levels of gun sales during the pandemic. 

Those guns are also getting snatched. 

In the first six months of this year, 327 guns were reported stolen, DPD data shows, representing a nearly 27% increase in gun thefts compared to the three-year average. Many of those guns were stolen by kids.

In February, the city handed out 1,200 free gun locks to help fight the issue. 

Denver gun locks 2 020120

A portion of the 1,200 gun locks supplied by Project ChildSafe and the Denver Police Department. The locks will be handed out across multiple locations in Denver as part of the city's multipronged plan to help curb youth gun violence. 

“Youth are getting access to unsecured guns, and incidents are escalating with tragic results," Hancock said at the time. “We want to empower every resident to make a difference. Grabbing a free gun lock and securing a weapon is one action we can all take right now to keep young people safe.”

Chris Jandro, who owns Hammer Down Firearms in Wheat Ridge, said in February that Denver’s “feel-good” initiative is “not going to make any impact.”

Instead, Jandro said, Hancock should talk to gun dealers and try to put forward laws “that would actually have an effect on gun violence.”  

Fewer incarcerations 

The city is locking up fewer people.

The Denver Police Department reports about 30% of recent violent crime was committed by people who had come in contact with the city or state's criminal justice system and were released not long after.

The number of arrests and people behind bars has been reduced, primarily to curb the spread of the coronavirus within jails and prisons, which have proven to be hotspots in Colorado and across the nation. 

Arrests this year are down by 45% year over year, and the number of people in custody is down by 42% year over year as well. People of color, however, are still disproportionately represented in a city that is overwhelmingly white.

Denver's law enforcement has conducted “a lot more cite and release” of lower-level offenders than in the past, newly appointed Sheriff Elias Diggins told the Denver City Council safety committee. Officials have also prioritized their early release, as well as the early release of those with less than two months on their sentence, prisoners over 60, immunocompromised offenders and pregnant inmates. 

Robinson has repeatedly expressed his commitment to keep inmate populations low post-pandemic.

“If I had the ability to decrease the jail that quickly and there were people in jail that can go out into society that quickly,” Robinson said, “my question is this, and I continue to ask this question every day: Why did we have them in jail in the first place?”

Robinson, who was appointed to lead the safety department in May, said he is challenging Diggins and other leaders in the criminal justice system to focus on that question as well.

More than a decade ago, under former Mayor John Hickenlooper’s leadership, the city adopted what is called "broken windows" policing, the notion that cracking down on minor criminal activity, like a broken window, will prevent more serious crimes down the line. 

Hickenlooper told CPR in June that it was a “brief experiment” following the 2003 police shooting of Paul Childs, a Black 15-year-old developmentally disabled boy. “I don’t think it was successful,” he said. 

Researchers at the time were skeptical, but now the consensus tends to be that the policing strategy is fruitless at best and had deepened disparities at worst.

“We did not see it as being effective back then,” Pazen said, “nor do we try to emulate any of that.” 

Republican state Sen. John Cooke from Greeley, a retired sheriff for Weld County, said the spike in deadly crime is not the failure of law enforcement. 

"The police are doing their job," he said. "I think the legislature is to blame largely for the increase because of sentencing reform, of letting criminals out early, of reducing bonds. It's a joke. 

"I don't know when Democrats are going to start to realize that when you let people out of prison, you let violent criminals out early or you don't sentence them like they should be, they are going to commit crimes when they get out," Cooke told Colorado Politics in a phone interview. 

Residents concerned that a long-term strategy to jail fewer people could threaten their community are correct, Adeli said. “Their communities are in danger, and now can be an excellent opportunity for them to step up and partner with the youth, particularly the males, to create constructive opportunities and safer communities." 

"We have to understand that the place for violent offenders is in jail," Robinson told Colorado Politics. But for people who commit nonviolent crimes, "I'm looking for an alternative response from the judicial system and an alternative response by, frankly, my law enforcement officers that will allow for us to think of things a little differently."

A search for solutions

Virus Outbreak No Crime

In this April 9, 2020, photo, a Tesla police car sits in front of the City/County Building after red and white lights were illuminated to show support and gratitude for first responders and medical personnel during the outbreak of the new coronavirus in Denver.

Since Pazen was appointed by Hancock to police chief in 2018, his focus has been on “precision policing,” using Census tract data on poverty, public health, education and more to understand specific neighborhood needs.

The needs of the city’s affluent Cherry Creek neighborhood, for example, are vastly different than the challenges faced in low-income neighborhoods, like Sun Valley. As those needs are better understood, it becomes clearer, he said, how best to connect residents with city services, nonprofits and faith-based groups to help meet those needs.

Robinson is also reimagining the connection between law enforcement and community.

After racial justice protests gripped the city, Robinson began working to address the public outcries for systemic change, including creating the Office of Criminal Justice Transformation and Policy. His goal for the new division is to “spearhead some of the community-led efforts” that come out of task forces set up to re-envision policing and draft and implement those new policies. 

Robinson's boss is, too. Last year, Hancock convened the Youth Violence Action Prevention Table, led by City Attorney Kristin Bronson and members of his administration, to work with youth to address gaps and opportunities in youth violence prevention and intervention efforts and come up with a “community-driven strategy” to address the problem from “a public health perspective, not just a law enforcement perspective.”

Taylor, the assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Colorado Denver, echoed the importance of prioritizing mental health, particularly during the pandemic, which requires people to be distanced from each other to prevent further spread. Isolation is a trigger for many struggles, including depression and loneliness.

Researchers put together national models using data collected after major events, such as natural disasters, terrorist attacks and economic downturns, and found a likely increase in suicides, overdose deaths and substance use disorders.

Denver is experiencing a surge in overdose deaths from fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that’s 50 times more potent than heroin.

Between January and May, the city withered under a 282% increase in fentanyl-related overdose fatalities compared with the same time period last year, the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment reports.

The city’s four-year-old co-responder program and newly created Support Team Assisted Response pilot program are funded by the Caring for Denver Foundation and dispatch mental health professionals and paramedics, respectively, to non-threatening 911 calls alongside or in place of an armed officer.

The overarching goal of the programs is to shift the city toward treating people more like patients than prisoners. 

In late July, the Caring for Denver Foundation announced $1.7 million in grants for the Denver Department of Public Safety, the Denver Sheriff Department, the Denver County Court and the District Attorney’s Office.

Denver’s safety department received a three-year grant totaling $539,000. Most of that money will go toward a full-time and part-time social worker in Denver Public Schools to provide “universal and targeted” interventions for youth struggling with substance misuse, as well as a part-time trauma specialist who will work with partner schools to implement trauma-informed practices within the schools, according to DOS spokesperson Kelli Christensen.

The remaining $46,325 will fund Denver Health’s Substance Abuse Treatment Education and Prevention Program, which Christensen said will be available to youth in schools or in the community. 

The Denver Sheriff Department received a one-year $340,000 grant, which Diggins told Colorado Politics will “enhance and support” programs for those in custody through case management services.

“As we strive to return our fellow residents back to our communities better than how they arrived, we will continue to look for funding and partnerships that have the same goal,” he said in a statement.

The Denver County Court will receive a two-year grant for a total of $600,000, and the District Attorney’s Office will receive a one-year grant for $300,000.

With that money, the DA’s office plans to double the number of accepted diversion cases from 60 to 120 and to expand services to clients, including referrals to mental health and substance treatment services, as well as offering linkages to sustainable employment opportunities. 

“Our Adult Diversion Program has been very successful in keeping people charged with nonviolent crimes out of the criminal justice system,” Denver DA Beth McCann told Colorado Politics in a statement. “That program is providing an alternative to incarceration and as one recent graduate said, helping people ‘grow to see their own light.’ ” 

Democratic state Rep. Leslie Herod of Denver, who spearheaded the Caring for Denver ballot initiative in 2018 and now serves as the foundation's board chair, said, “When we don’t adequately fund mental health and substance misuse, we pay for it in the criminal justice system. These funded programs focus on care rather than incarceration.”

Answers in community

Caring for Denver also granted $5 million to 13 local nonprofit organizations, the majority of whom are run by people of color, that are working to address racial and ethnic disparities within the criminal justice system "by reflecting the community they serve and using community authored solutions," Caring for Denver’s executive director Lorez Meinhold told Colorado Politics in an email.

All grantees will be working toward and reporting on impacts made around lowering entry into the justice system, reducing recidivism, and improving mental health and substance misuse supports post-release. 

Community is key to solving crime, criminal justice experts agree. 

Small programs can carry "a lot of currency in the community with young people, which law enforcement doesn't have," said Christie Donner, the executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, "but it just needs to get to scale and it needs to be separate from a criminal justice response, because it can be very dangerous for community people if they're seen to be aligned with police when they try to do these kinds of street-level interventions." 

Without major investments in strategies rooted in community, Donner said, the city will never see change. A number of strategies were tried to stem the so-called "Summer of Violence" of 1993, she said, when youths involved in gang activity caused numerous crimes in the city.

"It feels like we're just kind of trying to repeat the s*** that we did 20 years ago that didn't work, you know, putting a task force together, increasing surveillance and suppression on young people — predominantly young men of color — routing them through the criminal justice system and trying to deal with it that way," she said. "We have never really deployed community-based strategies in any way to scale." 

"If people want to reduce crime, we need to invest broadly in communities by creating positive and constructive opportunities for people through community centers, nonprofits to help with job training and placement, community gardens, volunteers, and I could go on," Adeli echoed. “Community policing is not only about a change in the police but also a change in the community. Sometimes the police lead, but that doesn’t mean that the community cannot.”

“The police department can’t do this alone, and the community can’t do this alone,” Pazen agreed. “We have to work together."

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