Homicides in Denver soared last year to highest level…
Ninety-five people killed in homicides last year, though Denver’s murder rate low compared to other cities
Mark Hill took a break from watching cartoons with his kids one day last June to move his car.
He never came back inside.
The 35-year-old father of six was gunned down near his Denver home, just blocks from a popular strip of restaurants and bars in the North Capitol Hill neighborhood. He died on the street the day before Father’s Day and two days before he and his wife’s 15th anniversary.
Seven months later, no arrest has been made in his case and Hill’s family is left wondering whether he was targeted or just a bystander caught in the gunfire.
“My 3-year-old just doesn’t understand why he’s not here any more,” said his wife, Ambrosia Hamilton-Hill.
Hill was one of the 95 people killed in homicides in Denver in 2020 — the highest number recorded in the city since 1981, a 51% increase from the 63 recorded in 2019 and a sharp uptick from the numbers seen over the past decade. The historic homicide level combined with a staggering increase in non-fatal shootings meant somebody was shot or killed in Denver at least once a day on average last year, police data shows.
“Our primary focus is making sure 2020 stays an anomaly and doesn’t become the rule going forward,” Denver police Chief Paul Pazen said. “We saw a lot in 2020 and faced many challenges.”
Last year’s per-capita rate of 12.9 homicides per 100,000 residents is the highest recorded in Denver since 2004, though it’s lower than rates seen during the early 1990s. It’s also far lower than 2020 murder rates in other major American cities, many of which saw staggering increases in homicides and other violent crimes last year. St. Louis, for example, recorded a record-high 87 homicides per 100,000 residents in 2020.
Denver is not the only Colorado city to see major upticks in homicides. Although statewide crime data for 2020 will not be available until the fall, both Colorado Springs and Aurora saw unusually high levels of killings last year.
Experts and police struggled to pinpoint an exact cause for the surge in violence that has obliterated lives in Denver and in many other large cities across the U.S.
The coronavirus pandemic changed nearly every aspect of daily life, disrupted violence prevention efforts and substantially altered the legal system’s processes. Widespread protests of racist policing may have created more distrust of law enforcement or caused police to be less proactive, some experts say. The wide-reaching, devastating financial impact of COVID-19 could also be a factor as people struggle to meet basic needs.
It’s a “big, confusing mess” that will take years to figure out, said Mary Dodge, a criminology professor at the University of Colorado Denver.
“Some would say that we’re in a state of normlessness,” she said.
That’s exactly how Hamilton-Hill feels after the killing of her husband — adrift. She and her children — ages 3 to 19 — are still in therapy to deal with the trauma of his death. Explaining to the kids that their dad had died was the hardest thing she’s ever done, she said.
“What words do you even come up with?” she said. “I didn’t have the words to use.”
“Violence begets violence”
Denverites were killed last year while walking the dog, while sleeping in their beds and while hanging out with friends at parties. Others died during confrontations with partners or acquaintances.
A Denver police analysis of the killings found that the most common underlying cause was an argument or fight that escalated to a killing, Pazen said. The nature of the conflicts varied from arguments at house parties, disputes between neighbors and physical brawls that escalated until someone fired a gun.
“Some of these are minor issues, like shooting someone over a parking spot,” Pazen said. “Where do we have to be as a society so that would be the go-to response?”
The ages of those killed ranged from a 6-month-old who died along with four other family members when arsonists set fire to their home to two men in their 80s, one of whom was beaten to death. Sixteen children and teenagers died in homicides last year — the highest number recorded in the past six years.
The vast majority of victims knew their killer, Denver police data shows. Of the 48 homicides where the relationship is known, 36 people were killed by a family member, acquaintance, neighbor or romantic partner.
Experts feared a sharp increase in the number of domestic violence killings during the pandemic lockdown, but that did not happen in Denver. Though the city saw a surge in domestic-violence assaults last year, the 10 domestic-violence homicides recorded in 2020 is the same number seen the year before.
It’s difficult to pinpoint patterns or broad, underlying causes in homicides, Dodge said.
“You can’t predict homicide and what is finally going to drive a person to kill another,” she said.
The homicide rate in the city has slowly climbed since 2014, but the 95 killings recorded in 2020 is a 64% increase from the five-year average of 58 homicides a year. Twenty-six of the 95 killings remain open cases, meaning police have not made an arrest in the case.
One of the factors driving the violence last year was an increased number of gang-motivated killings, which the police department defines as a killing committed for the financial furtherance of a gang or between two gang members.
Sixteen of the 2020 homicides were gang-motivated, according to the police department, which is higher than the four-year average of 10 gang-related killings a year. Ten people died in gang-motivated killings in July alone — more than the total number of gang killings for all of 2019.
Joe Aragon, program director at Urban Impact and a longtime Denver anti-violence worker, attributed part of the rise in gang violence to people spending an increased amount of time on social media, where fights and conflicts play out in comments and messages.
“People are fighting who don’t even know each other,” he said. “And when they do run into each other, things can get violent.”
More than any specific factor, Dodge pointed to the elevated stress that many have felt during the pandemic. When people are struggling to meet their basic needs and legal opportunities seem scarce, some might turn to illegal methods of survival, she said.
“A lot of what that boils down to is the strain that everybody feels,” she said.
Beyond homicides, other categories of violent crime also increased. Aggravated assaults grew by 29% from 2019 and the number of people who were shot, but survived, more than doubled from 2019 to 2020, when 305 people were injured in gunfire.
That massive increase is concerning because it means more people might turn to more violence to avenge their injuries, said David Pyrooz, an associate professor at the University of Colorado Boulder who studies crime.
“Knowing that violence begets violence, here is 305 people who are now aggrieved,” he said.
Fleeing violence, into violence
In 1981, Kim Phok fled the Khmer Rouge’s bloody rule over Cambodia with her husband and their infant son.
The refugee couple, in their early 20s, settled in Denver, where Phok worked for more than three decades in hospitality and cleaning. She learned English and built a stable life for her two children, her oldest son Chhom Seng said. Even in her 60s, she continued to work and care for her kids, who by then had kids of their own. She was known to randomly drop off groceries at their homes — just in case.
But Phok couldn’t flee the violence in her adopted city. She was shot in her car on Interstate 70 while on her way to her second job early in the morning on April 20.
When Seng picked up her phone from police while his mom was hospitalized, he saw messages and calls pouring in from concerned friends and coworkers.
“She was really loved by everyone,” Seng said.
Phok died four days after being shot. And though Seng’s two daughters know to light incense in their grandmother’s room any time they visit, they don’t know who killed their grandmother. No arrest has been made.
“What we know is that we don’t know,” Seng said.
Disrupting the disruptors
Pastor Glenn Garcia bowed his head and prayed for healing on Tuesday at a Denver intersection where gunfire erupted the week before. He prayed for the teenage boy who was injured and for the community that heard the shots blasting through the air in front of their homes.
A dozen people gathered with him, despite the snow blowing sideways and piling on the bowed heads of those praying for peace.
“There are four corners of our city that need our prayers,” Garcia said to the group. “So let’s keep lifting them up, for the victims, for the families, for the perpetrators.”
Normally, Garcia might hold such an event inside on a snowy day. Over the last year, however, Garcia and many others who work in violence prevention and intervention had to drastically change how they operate due to COVID-19. Typically, the network of churches and faith communities that makes up Safe Haven Denver, which Garcia leads, convenes neighborhood gatherings in the wake of a violent event and offers support services. But this year the group couldn’t host its typical large events or indoor counseling sessions.
Instead, Safe Haven Denver turned to virtual sessions and smaller outdoor gatherings, which aren’t always as effective, Garcia said.
For years, Aragon has met with families impacted by gang violence. After a shooting, he usually sits down with a victim’s family to talk about their loss and help connect them to resources. Before COVID-19, that often meant packing a bunch of people into a living room. Now, he’s had to have these conversations outside.
“Kind of strange meeting on the front lawn of a house that might be a target for more shooting,” he said.
Aragon and Leo Alirez, founder of Life-Line Colorado and another longtime anti-violence worker, in August combined their expertise to create Urban Impact, a violence prevention and intervention program that works with young people on Denver’s west side.
In coordination with Denver Public Schools and the juvenile legal system, the six-person staff of Urban Impact hopes to educate young people about the dangers of gang life, prevent students from joining gangs and supporting those who decide to leave the lifestyle. It’s a wrap-around effort that includes counseling, job training, long-term case management and help for those at risk to meet their basic needs outside of gangs.
“If we can meet that one person that is really driving that violence and pulling people in, we can really make an impact,” Aragon said.
The duo’s longstanding credibility in the neighborhoods where they work helps them connect resources offered by entities like the schools and social services with the people who need them. Grassroots efforts from within communities to address neighborhoods’ specific needs are crucial, Alirez said.
After a series of shootings on South Federal Boulevard this summer, families who were impacted by the violence reached out to Urban Impact to see how they could help calm the violence, Alirez said. They participated in peace walks and memorials, as well as other anti-violence events.
“Did that stop retaliation? I believe so,” Alirez said.
“He was a child”
Orvelina Gonzalez called her 15-year-old son a little after midnight on the first day of 2020. The teen, Wayli Alvarado-Gonzalez, had been out with friends ringing in the new year and Gonzalez wanted to check in.
When he didn’t answer, she became worried. When he still hadn’t called back an hour later, she started to panic.
Alvarado-Gonzalez had only been in Denver for a year after migrating from Guatemala, where his mom left him as a toddler in the care of relatives so she could pursue a better life for her family in the U.S. Twelve years after she left, Alvarado-Gonzalez followed her to the U.S. and turned himself in to immigration authorities, who later reunited him with his mom, whom he hadn’t told he was coming.
“I was so happy to see his face,” she said.
But on Jan. 1, 2020 — a year to the date after they were reunited — Alvarado-Gonzalez was stabbed to death near a Sheridan Boulevard gas station.
Once again, Alvarado-Gonzelez lost her son.
She misses watching him playing with his younger siblings, holding them in the air while they giggled. She misses seeing him in his ROTC uniform. He wanted to be a soldier, she said.
An 18-year-old whom Alvarado-Gonzalez didn’t know was arrested in connection with Alvarado-Gonzalez’s death. Gonzalez wants the young people of Denver to think about the consequences of violence — the lived trauma and loss that will echo for lifetimes — before acting out in anger.
“He was a child,” she said. “A second doesn’t pass that I don’t miss him.”
Denver is not the only city in Colorado or across the country that saw significant increases in violent crime in 2020.
Major cities like Los Angeles and New York saw sharp upticks in homicides, while other cities, including Kansas City and Indianapolis, marked record-setting number of homicides last year, like Denver. A study of 22 large U.S. cities by the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice found that the average homicide rate increased 29% in 2020 over the year prior. Aggravated assaults and motor vehicle thefts also increased nationwide during the pandemic, while rates of burglaries, robberies and larceny fell.
“Long-lasting reductions in violent crime will require subduing the pandemic, pursuing effective crime-control strategies and enacting needed reforms to policing,” the report states.
Aurora and Colorado Springs also saw record-high homicide numbers in 2020. Colorado Springs police investigated 39 homicides and Aurora recorded 43 killings last year, a 54% increase from the 28 recorded in that city in 2019. Homicide numbers in Aurora have hovered around 30 for the past five years, data shows.
“We’ve had increases pretty much across the board,” Aurora Deputy Chief of Police Darin Parker said.
The city saw violent crime increase 26% overall in the first three quarters of 2020 compared to the same time period in 2019. Property crime also increased 14% between the two years, including a 53% increase in motor vehicle thefts.
Statewide crime data for 2020 won’t be available until the fall of 2021, but preliminary numbers from individual agencies show crime trends are less consistent outside of Colorado’s three largest cities. For example, Grand Junction saw a 42% increase in violent crime between 2019 and 2020 as well as a significant increase in property crime, police Chief Doug Shoemaker said. But surrounding Mesa County did not have a large violent-crime increase, Sheriff Matt Lewis said.
Parker attributed the increases in Aurora to a wide range of factors, including restrictions on jail admissions and changes to bail practices designed to minimize the risk of COVID-19 in the jails, which has meant many people arrested on property-crime charges are not booked. He said he didn’t know whether the police department was tracking how the jailing and bail changes are affecting crimes.
“If someone knows they’re not going to be physically taken to jail they’re probably less deterred to commit that crime,” Parker said.
Sheriffs said they struggled to find the right balance of jailing people who pose a threat to society and minimizing the risk of introducing the coronavirus to their jails. Lewis made several adjustments over the past 10 months to the rules dictating who could be jailed in Mesa County. Some suspects have accumulated more than a dozen warrants for failing to appear in court after being issued criminal summonses in lieu of being jailed, Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said.
Law enforcement leaders also said protests of policing and a police reform bill passed by the Colorado legislature last summer had a chilling effect on officers’ proactivity, which was already hampered by COVID-19 precautions.
“There’s not only the reticence to get involved because of anti-police rhetoric but there’s also the COVID issue and not wanting to get sick,” Pelle said.
Criminologists are beginning to study how the 2020 protests affected police behavior and public trust in law enforcement, and how those changes affected crime, CU Boulder’s Pyrooz said.
“Law enforcement needs the public to report, and if the public isn’t reporting, they can’t do their job,” he said. “I also wouldn’t be surprised if you saw a major pullback on the police side.”
Pazen said he wouldn’t attribute the rises in crime to the new police reform bill and said his department will double down on creating better relationships with Denverites, especially in the communities most affected by violence.
“Even if we have a strained relationship, we need to work together to make sure these tragedies don’t happen,” Pazen said.