Denver records most homicides since 1981, continuing trend

However, homicide detectives have maintained their clearance rate

By Elise Schmelzer
The Denver Post

DENVER — Ninety-six people died in Denver homicides last year, the highest number recorded since 1981 and a toll that's left dozens more families devastated by the elevated level of violence that's ripped through the city over the past two years.

The victims included a real estate agent, a teacher, a Coors Field concessionaire, an accountant, mothers, fathers and teenagers. The youngest victim, Atlas Grooms, was 1 month old when her father shot and killed her along wither her mother, a nurse. The oldest, William "Stu" Hoebel, was 77 years old when he was strangled in his basement by a man he knew.

"He always did things his own way, without apology or protest, just a simple yet powerful inner fire that burned bright," Hoebel's obituary states. "People often described him as fearless, the kind of person who made things happen, and one of the few they had ever known who would do whatever he set his mind to."

The deadly violence last year continued a sharp spike in the number of killings in the city that began in 2020, when the number of homicides rocketed to 95 from the 63 recorded in 2019. Non-fatal shootings, too, remained more frequent than average in Denver last year — though they did drop from 2020 levels, according to police data recently obtained by The Denver Post through a public records request.

The number of homicides has trended upward since 2014, when the city experienced a record-low number of 31 killings, according to data collected by The Post. Denver recorded 100 homicides in 1981, the highest on record for the city. The per-capita rate of 13 homicides per 100,000 residents last year is the highest since 2004, when the rate was 16 killings per 100,000 — though the current rate still is lower than those recorded in the early 1980s and 1990s.

The increases of the past two years are significant and should not be allowed to become normal, Denver police Chief Paul Pazen said.

"That is not fine," he said of the homicide numbers. "That is not OK."

Increases in domestic violence killings and homicides involving narcotics helped fuel the record number, according to a Denver police analysis. Denver police also attributed 22 homicides to arguments or confrontations that spun out of control — the most common underlying causal factor in 2021.

"We're seeing individuals involved in these altercations had firearms with them and they resort to those firearms early on," said Denver police Cmdr. Matt Clark of the Major Crimes Division. "They're resolving these conflicts through the use of a firearm."

A review of homicide arrest affidavits shows the alleged motives and circumstances for killings vary widely.

In one case, a woman is accused of shooting and killing a man she believed was checking the door handle on her relative's car. In another case, a man allegedly killed another because he thought the victim had stolen a friend's cellphone. Another man killed a friend after an argument about whether the victim had broken the window on a truck. One suspect allegedly killed his father while experiencing schizophrenic delusions.

"I don't think there's a distinctive pattern," Denver District Attorney Beth McCann said. "I do think the stress and frustration and anxiety over that people have been feeling over the last couple years because of the pandemic and the economic uncertainty has definitely contributed. I think that's probably a fairly large part of it."

Danger at home

Fifteen people were killed in domestic violence incidents in 2021 — the highest number of domestic violence homicides in the city in at least the last six years. It's nearly double the average recorded over the prior three years.

At least seven children were left orphans by the violence, with their parents either dead or in jail.

Organizations that provide support to people experiencing abuse have worked hard to meet fluctuating needs during the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced many to rethink how they provide services, said Abigail Hansen, chief program officer of SafeHouse Denver. The nonprofit organization has seen fewer new clients reach out during the pandemic, but Hansen said that might mean fewer people are in a safe position to ask for help.

"There's definitely not less domestic violence happening, I can say that with certainty," Hansen said.

Service providers at SafeHouse have found circumstances for existing clients became even more complex during the pandemic and the abuse more egregious. Survivors were further destabilized as they lost child care, jobs and mobility, and faced more isolation, she said. Physical violence increased, but so did other equally dangerous forms of abuse: manipulation, emotional and verbal abuse, financial abuse.

"When domestic violence happens, it is a potentially lethal event each and every time," she said.

The vast majority of 2021 homicide victims knew their killers, according to Denver police data. Of the 56 incidents in which the victim-suspect relationship is known, 77% of the suspects knew their killers. Guns were the most common weapon used to kill people and were used in 85% of homicides last year.

Gang-motivated homicides in the city plummeted in 2021, according to Denver police data, but Pazen said that doesn't mean that gang violence has ebbed. The number of gang-motivated non-fatal shootings has risen, he said.

"By no means are we saying that gang homicides are down and that's an indicative trend showing gang activity is decreasing," Pazen said. "That's not the case."

The department defines gang-motivated homicides as killings that were done to further the status or finances of a gang, or reflect rivalries between two groups, Clark said. That definition doesn't include all homicides where a gang member was killed or is suspected of the killing.

Denver police analysis shows that 15 of those killed in homicides last year were gang members or affiliated with gangs, as were 17 homicide suspects. Three of the suspects and one of the victims were minors.

Thirty-two of the suspects were on probation, parole or pre-trial release, according to Denver police data. Pazen said that number was concerning and that Colorado needs to examine whether pre-trial, probation and parole agencies have enough resources to effectively monitor their clients and deter them from criminal activity.

"We as a state need to figure out what's working and what's not working," Pazen said. "If we have more than 30 individuals that are continuing criminal behavior — including homicide — and they are on some form of supervision, then what is happening?"

The data also shows that 15 homicide victims were experiencing homelessness. Eight suspects were experiencing homelessness, including a man charged with stabbing a Denver Rescue Mission worker.

Both Pazen and McCann pointed to the proliferation of guns as a potential factor in the violence. Beyond homicides, at least 228 people were shot last year but survived their injuries, down 24% from 2020 but slightly above the three-year average of 206.

Nearly a quarter of those injured in gunfire were teenagers, according to Denver police data obtained by The Post through a public records request.

Assaults with a firearm are driving up the number of aggravated assaults in the city, which includes any attack that caused serious injury. Against the three-year average, aggravated assaults are up 27.4%, Pazen said. But aggravated assaults with a firearm — which include incidents where someone fires a gun but does not hit anyone — spiked ever further and are up 55% over the three-year average.

"That is like, 'Oh my gosh, what is going on?' " the chief said.

Are cases being solved?

Despite the record number of homicides, Denver police detectives' ability to solve the cases has not dropped.

As of March 1, 66 of last year's 96 homicides had been cleared, for a clearance rate of 69%. A homicide is considered cleared if an arrest is made, if the suspect is dead or if police identify a suspect but the district attorney declines to prosecute the case. Police said they have "viable information" about a suspect's identity in eight of the 30 cases that remain open.

The 2021 clearance rate of 69% is on par with the 70% rate for 2020 as of early 2021 and slightly below the 80% clearance rate of 2019.

Twelve cases were cleared in 2021 because the suspect was believed to have been acting in self-defense. Nine cases were cleared because the suspect died. The number of such clearances, called clearance by exceptional means, is unusually high, Clark said.

"I think by and large the investigative team was in agreement with the district attorney's decisions in terms of what cases we could overcome self-defense claims," he said.

Prosecutors have an ethical duty to not file cases they don't think they can prove in court, McCann said. In cases that involve a self-defense claim, prosecutors must prove that the defendant was not acting in self-defense or to defend others and that their actions were not reasonable. Prosecutors have to consider who initiated the aggression and the danger of the threats they faced.

For example, the district attorney's office last year declined to prosecute a man who killed a man who was choking his sister. The man choking the woman had a history of abusing her, McCann said.

"We have to be cognizant of our ethical obligations," she said.

National comparison

Denver is not the only city in Colorado or across the U.S. to experience a sharp rise in killings over the past two years. Aurora and Colorado Springs both saw significant increases in homicides in 2020.

Sixteen of the 22 cities studied by the Council on Criminal Justice reported a rise in homicides last year compared to 2020, ranging from increases of 108% in St. Petersburg to less than 1% in Memphis and Baltimore. Six cities saw declines.

Criminologists have said its difficult to pinpoint exactly what is driving the increased violence. They've pointed to a variety of possible factors, including societal stresses from the COVID-19 pandemic, fallout from the 2020 protests of police, a worsening drug-use epidemic and the continuous influx of guns into communities. Others, in Colorado and elsewhere, have attempted to pin the violence on specific criminal justice reform efforts.

The Council on Criminal Justice report notes that homicide rates in most cities, including Denver, are still lower than they were in the 1990s.

But Denver should be experiencing an extremely low violent crime rate compared to 30 years ago due to the evolution of crime-fighting technology and research, Pazen said. Investigators can now use DNA, gunshot detectors, federal databases and cellphone tower data, he said.

"The advancements that we've had, we should be way below these numbers," he said.

(c)2022 The Denver Post

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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