Violent Crime in Denver Soared During the Pandemic

During 2020, in what could be another example of fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, Denver experienced a substantial increase in violent crime — led by murder, which rose more than 30 percent from the previous year. Aggravated assaults and robberies climbed in comparison to 2019, too.

These conclusions are supported by statistics from the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, which this month released 2020 data from hundreds of law enforcement agencies across the state, including the Denver Police Department. The gusher of information from the invaluable Colorado Crime Statistics website arrived ahead of schedule — it's only been seven months since the CBI's August report on 2019 crime — and the figures pertaining to the Mile High City are disturbing.

According to the CBI, 6,749 violent crimes — including murder, non-consensual sex offenses, aggravated assault and robbery — took place in Denver last year, as compared to 5,977 in 2019, 5,811 in 2018, and 5,342 in 2017. The 2020 numbers represent a jump of over 12 percent in twelve months, and in excess of 23 percent over three years.

The spikes are very stark in two of the individual categories: murder and aggravated assault. In contrast, the robbery total was close to stable, bumping up by just sixteen offenses over 2019, and sex offenses fell slightly. Here are the numbers:

2020: 97
2019: 67
2018: 65
2017: 56

Sex offenses, non-consensual
2020: 1,020
2019: 1,188
2018: 1,216
2017: 1,253

Aggravated assault
2020: 4,409
2019: 3,515
2018: 3,312
2017: 2,807

2020: 1,223
2019: 1,207
2018: 1,218
2017: 1,236

Another important stat involves so-called clearances. According to CBI communications director Susan Medina: "'Cleared,' in most cases, means one or more arrests were made. However, there are exceptions where an incident has reached a conclusion from the law enforcement perspective. An incident is also cleared if the offender is found but not arrested. These are called 'exceptional clearances.' Exceptional clearance occurs when the offender is a juvenile released to the parents, or if the offender is found to be deceased or if the offender is found to be in the custody of another jurisdiction. Also, an exceptional clearance may occur if the case cannot proceed by either prosecution declining the case or the victim refusing to cooperate. Then the incident is counted as cleared."

But in all cases, Medina says, "'cleared' means law enforcement has found the perpetrator of the crimes which occurred in the reported incident."

In other words, a clearance doesn't mean someone has been prosecuted and found guilty of committing an illegal act. But even judged by this lower standard, fewer than half of the violent crimes in Denver — 49 percent — were cleared in 2020. That's down from 53 percent in 2019 and 55 percent in both 2017 and 2018.

The percentage of cleared murders fell from 73 percent in 2019 to 66 percent last year; the rate was 71 percent in 2018 and 68 percent in 2017. The clearance rate for aggravated assaults also dropped: It was 56 percent in 2020, compared with 61 percent in 2019, 62 percent in 2018 and 61 percent in 2017. But those numbers look good compared to sex offense clearances, which landed at just 40 percent in 2020, down from 46 percent in 2019, 52 percent in 2018 and 58 percent in 2017. And 2020 robbery clearances were down to 31 percent, after a 36 percent rating in 2019, 37 percent in 2018 and 38 percent in 2017.

The CBI provides additional details about each crime, and those pertaining to sex offenses are among the most troubling: In the cleared cases, half of the offenders knew their victim and were family members or so-called intimates, while the largest category of victims was between the ages of ten and seventeen.

Victim to Offender Relationship
Acquaintance: 36.8 percent
Intimate: 8.4 percent
Unknown: 22.6 percent
Family: 19.0 percent
Stranger: 13.2 percent

Victim Age
Under 10: 130
10-17: 329
18-24: 167
25-34: 184
35-44: 95
45-54: 60
55-64: 22
65 and over: 19

Other categories tracked by the CBI include hate crimes, and while the number of offenses, 91, is actually down from102 in 2019, the clearance rate was just 40 percent, down from 45 percent last year. Overall, 101 people were victims of hate crimes in Denver last year, for these reasons:

Number of Victims
Race/Ethnicity/Ancestry Bias: 59
Religious Bias: 8
Sexual Orientation Bias: 29
Disability Bias: 1
Gender Identity Bias: 4

Separate categories for DUI and drugs are also tracked. The city saw 869 DUI cases in 2020, with most arrestees (337) between the ages of 25 and 34. There were also 1,913 drug or narcotics violations in Denver last year, and the clearance rate in those instances was the best of any recorded: 96 percent. This is how the cases broke down in types of violations and drugs seized:

Drug Narcotics Violations
Possessing/Concealing: 1,481
Distributing/Selling: 415
Using/Consuming: 35
Cultivating/Manufacturing: 29
Operating/Promoting/Assisting: 7
Buying/Receiving: 6
Transporting/Transmitting: 5

Drug Seizures by Drug Type
Narcotics (e.g. Opium, Heroin, Cocaine): 42.3 percent
Stimulants: 40.6 percent
Other Drugs: 6.6 percent
Marijuana/Hashish: 6.4 percent
Hallucinogens (e.g. LSD and PCP): 2.4 percent
Unknown Type Drug: 1.4 percent

For more information about Denver and other jurisdictions throughout the state, visit the CBI's Colorado Crime Statistics website.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts