Denver homicides, shootings on pace to again meet levels not seen in decades

Violence in Denver so far this year is on track to meet or exceed the bloodshed of 2020, when the city recorded the highest number of homicides since 1981.

In the first six months of this year, 43 people were killed in Denver homicides — a few more than the 39 people killed in Denver in the same period last year.

Denver police Chief Paul Pazen said in January that he didn’t want the 95 homicides recorded in 2020 — a 51% increase from the prior year — to become the norm. But the violence hasn’t abated.

“We’re trending even above where we were last year, and last year we had too many people who lost their lives in our city,” Pazen said in a June interview.

Denver is not the only U.S. city experiencing an increase in violence in 2020 and 2021. Police, academics and on-the-ground violence intervention workers have pointed to a wide range of potential causes: economic uncertainty and stress from the global pandemic, delegitimization of police after highly publicized cases of police brutality and protests, and a lack of police proactivity.

The violence has not waned as COVID-19 restrictions lifted and mass protests stopped, however. Data collected by the Major Cities Chiefs Association found that 45 of 63 large U.S. cities recorded more homicides in the first quarter of 2021 than in the same period last year.

Beyond homicides, 83 people were shot but not killed in Denver between Jan. 1 and June 12, Denver police data shows. Seventy-five people were shot and injured in the same time period last year. By the end of 2020, 305 people had been shot — a 51% increase from the year prior.

All but three 2021 homicide victims were killed with a gun. That means someone was either injured or killed in gunfire in Denver every 36 hours, on average, in the first half of the year.

“The city looks great from the outside with all the development, but it has internal bleeding,” said Gerardo Lopez, executive director of violence prevention organization Homies Unidos. “We didn’t develop youth programs and mental health programs at the same pace.”

Drugs and domestic violence

A review of police documents in cases with an arrest shows a wide array of alleged motives. Fights between couples that escalated to violence. A drive-by shooting allegedly committed with a baby in the backseat of the vehicle.

Denver police Cmdr. Matt Clark said 13 of the 39 homicide cases so far this year were linked to drugs, which is the same number of drug-related homicides recorded in all 2020. The cases include drug deals gone awry, planned robbery of drugs and disputes over narcotic use or purity, he said.

“We seeing these cases across all the hard narcotic drugs: methamphetamine, heroin, oxy, fentanyl,” he said.

Domestic violence, too, has spiked compared to last year. Eight people, including a 1-month-old baby, have been killed in domestic violence incidents so far this year, Pazen said. That’s already more than the five such homicides recorded in 2020.

Killings last year were fueled by individual arguments that escalated to violence, Pazen previously said. Gang violence in Denver also surged in 2020 as established groups waged internal battles and newer, more fluid organizations grew. The hopelessness and lack of opportunity caused by the COVID-19 pandemic also likely pushed more people toward gangs, violence prevention activists said.

Police have connected three of the 2021 shootings to gangs, one of which remains unsolved, as well as nine non-fatal shootings.

Eleven of the 18 suspects identified in 2021 homicides were under supervision in the criminal justice system when they allegedly killed someone, Pazen said. Five were on parole, four were on probation and two were free on bond pre-trial, according to the department.

“Often when we talk about criminal justice we stop at the police department, but there are significant challenges when you’re talking about effective prosecution, when you’re talking about parole, probation and pre-trial services, when you’re talking about re-entry,” Pazen said. “These are areas where we need other aspects of the criminal justice system to step up and help.”

“We hit the ground”

Gunfire became so frequent in recent months outside of Seven Grand, a whiskey bar in the Union Station neighborhood, that the bar’s staff has become conditioned to it, said Dylan Holcomb, bar manager.

“Now if there’s any type of loud noise, we hit the ground,” he said.

The gunfire started in February near the popular Dairy Block entertainment area and continued until about two weeks ago when police became a more regular presence in the area, he said. Denver police data shows that three people were injured in shootings near the intersection of 19th and Blake streets in April and May.

Holcomb said there have been other “shots fired” incidents where nobody was injured as well and that the violence is connected to a neighboring bar. More than a dozen rounds were fired during one incident, Holcomb said, and the increased violence is impacting business.

“I had a bar full of people on the ground crying,” he said. “Everyone who’s here on one of those shooting nights is never going to come back.”

Shootings and homicides have taken place across a wide swath of the city, police data shows. The killings have taken place in 24 of the city’s 78 neighborhoods.

Six homicides occurred along East Colfax Avenue in the 32 blocks between Holly Street and the city’s border with Aurora at Yosemite Street.

People in the East Colfax neighborhood have started forming neighborhood walk groups to keep an eye on potential problems, said Christian Steward, president of the East Colfax Neighborhood Association.

“It’s making sure that we have people from our community patrolling in the groups and making sure that they have appropriate training,” he said.

The walking groups haven’t started yet because the association wants to make sure participants receive training on de-escalation and non-violent intervention. The neighborhood is working with Denver police, city officials and the nonprofit Guardian Angels, he said.

“Safety is also making sure that if it’s 100-degree weather and there’s a homeless person on the street whose dehydrated, that we can get them resources.”

Prevention and longstanding needs

On May 24,  Mayor Michael Hancock and the city’s public safety leadership announced what they called a new “collaborative” approach to address crime by increasing police presence in five areas in the city, deploying other city resources to improve environments and partnering with community organizations.

The city on June 25 kicked off efforts in one of the hotspots — near the intersection of Federal Boulevard and Alameda Avenue in southwest Denver — with a trash pick-up and graffiti clean-up.

Police officers already have started increased patrols in those hotspots, Pazen said, but the department is still working to create the community connections that city leaders said would accompany police in the five areas of focus.

“We’re putting our officers in the right spots to address the criminal networks in those areas,” Pazen said. “The ultimate goal is to have community step into that space.”

But working in tandem with police can cause problems for some who work in violence prevention, said Lopez, the violence prevention worker. People who don’t trust police may not trust someone who is seen working with them, he said.

“I don’t know how that’s going to look — me walking through the hood with a police officer,” he said.

Lopez says the root causes of violence in Denver are years in the making: lack of opportunities in vulnerable communities, lack of job training, lack of opportunities for people who have been incarcerated and kids being kicked out of school and losing their chance to succeed.

“When there’s no opportunities around neighborhoods, gangs get created and gangs get closer and closer together,” he said.

The solution to Denver’s violence is not difficult to imagine and doesn’t necessarily need to involve police, Lopez said.

“It’s what people have been asking for for decades — distributing funds to mental health resources, youth programs and gang prevention,” he said.

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