Denver’s homicide rate remains elevated as violent crimes continue to increase

For the fifth year in a row, Denver in 2019 saw an elevated number of homicides, driven by an increase in teenagers and women being killed.

Sixty-three people died in homicides in Denver last year, the second-highest number recorded in the city since 2004. The per-capita rate of 8.6 killings per 100,000 residents last year was also the second highest in more than a decade, second only to 2018.

The city’s homicide rate has steadily increased since 2015, and while 2019’s numbers are a decrease from the year prior, they are still far higher than those seen in the past 15 years. Police and others who follow crime trends cannot pin the increase on a single issue, but constantly are analyzing the data to find trends and solutions for them.

“We as a police department are not going to allow this to become the new norm,” said Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen.

Over the past five years, police officials have pointed to varying causes of the increased homicides, including domestic violence and gang activity. Last year, a tragic series of teenagers killing other teens as well as a high number of domestic violence homicides contributed to the elevated numbers, Pazen said.

“We’re always trying to identify what the root cause of this is and how we could interrupt that, how we could prevent that from happening in the first place,” Pazen said.

It’s difficult to pin down exactly what is driving changes in crime in any given city, said Andrea Borrego, assistant professor of Metropolitan State University of Denver’s department of criminal justice and criminology. Gentrification, rapid growth and shifting economic structures could play a part, she said.

“I think it’s safe to say we’re seeing somewhat of an upward trend, but there could be other factors than just Denver is becoming more violent,” Borrego said.

The rate of violent crime overall also continues to rise in the city, even as the national rate continues to fall. Violent crime includes homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated assault.

The rising violent crime and homicide numbers buck nationwide trends. Nationally, crime rates have fallen sharply since the 1990s and many of the country’s largest cities have seen murders decline.

Pazen said he is keenly aware of the uptick in crime and is working with his department and other groups to find solutions.

“A city can be safe if we just flood it with cops,” he said. “But that creates a different set of problems. We’re doing this in the most equitable way possible to make sure that we’re not unduly burdening young people or vulnerable populations.”

Homicide details

The situations that escalated to killings varied widely. In one case, a gun sale gone wrong led to the death of a 16-year-old. In another, a mother is suspected of killing her 7-month-old boy. In December, a man allegedly shot and killed another man because he didn’t want to pay a $300 impound fee for a towed car.

But many of the cases had a few factors in common. Most of the victims and suspected killers knew each other. Nearly all of the killings were committed with guns. And most of the victims were men, though an unusually high number of women were killed last year.

Fourteen women were killed last year, eight of them by a current or former romantic partner and three by a family member. Overall, Denver had 10 domestic violence homicides, the second-highest number seen in the past five years.

The homicides occurred during the first full year of the Denver Police Department’s new domestic violence prevention initiative. Overall, domestic violence incidents in the city are down from last year and the new programs have proven effective despite the high number of homicides, Pazen said.

“I know four people who are not on that list because of the domestic violence program,” he said.

In its analysis, The Denver Post also found:

  • Thirteen of the homicide cases remain open, which means that Denver police cleared 79% of cases. The national average clearance rate for homicide is 62%.
  • About half of Denver’s 78 neighborhoods had at least one killing last year. The neighborhoods of Northeast Park Hill and East Colfax each had five homicides last year, the highest numbers in a single neighborhood.
  • Black people comprised a disproportionate percent of homicide victims compared to their population in the city. Black people represented 46% of all homicide victims last year, while they make up about 10% of the city’s population. Twenty-nine of the 63 victims were black, 20 were white, 13 were Hispanic and one was Asian, according to Denver Police Department data.
  • Six of the killings occurred along Colfax Avenue.

Assaults climbing

In Denver, the rise in the violent crime rate is driven almost entirely by a rise in aggravated assaults, which include nonfatal shootings, nonfatal stabbings and other attacks with a deadly weapon.

The per-capita rate rose to 737 violent crimes per 100,000 residents in 2019 from 670 in 2015. Though high, the 2019 rate remains less than half those of the country’s most violent cities such Baltimore and Detroit.

The number of aggravated assaults has grown more than 25% in the past five years to 3,427 in 2019.

To address the rising homicide and aggravated assault numbers, the Denver Police Department is changing how it investigates nonfatal shootings.The department is forming a new detective unit based at headquarters that will investigate all of the nonfatal shootings in the city. Previously, such investigations were handled by the districts in which they occurred.

Pazen hopes that the change will give the cases to investigators with lighter workloads who can also look for citywide trends.

“We want to make sure that a miss — an almost homicide — is handled just like a homicide,” Pazen said.

Last year, 145 people were shot and wounded in Denver, down from 168 in 2018. It’s unclear how many people were shot and survived in the previous three years because Denver police did not track that number.

A department spokesman estimated it would cost The Denver Post approximately $750 in public records fees for the department to generate that data by sifting through the aggravated assault incidents to determine which were shootings.

Broader context

Denver is not the only place where violent crime rates rose. The statewide rate also went up in the five-year period between 2014 and 2018, the most recent year for which complete data is available. That year, Colorado’s per-capita violent crime rate exceeded the national rate for the first time since 1985, law enforcement data reported to the FBI shows.

The state’s violent crime rate for decades mirrored the trends seen nationwide, but that changed in 2017 when the national rate began to decline and Colorado’s kept rising. The rate in 2018, however, is still far lower than the rate seen in the early 1990s.

Broader context is crucial when digesting crime data, said Borrego, the MSU Denver professor. Denver has undergone a significant change in the last decade both in population and culture.

“Denver is seeing a growth and with growth you see other factors that are unintended consequences,” she said. “Numbers are up but we need to think about how Denver is changing.”

Gentrification, higher costs of living and disruption of longstanding neighborhood communities can create tension, Borrego said. For some, that stress can translate into violence.

“It’s something to remember there’s always going to be upticks and yearly variations, but that doesn’t mean that crime is always going to rise,” she said. “It doesn’t mean that we need harsher punishments or more time in jail.”

The rise also doesn’t mean that residents should be more afraid, Borrego said. While anecdotes about seemingly random violence can spark rumors and fear, the statistics show that most violent crimes are committed by people known to the victim.

“We always have this weird perception of safety in the U.S. where the people least likely to be victims of crime are more fearful of crime,” she said.


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