Aurora ponders funding hospital intervention group to stem rising violence

2019 Shooting scene near East Sixth Avenue and Sable Boulevard in Aurora. One person was shot and killed among numerous juveniles present at the time. Aurora is considering funding a University of Colorado Hospital program that would intervene with wounded patients, their friends and families in an effort to stem rising violence in the region.

AURORA | A panel of Aurora lawmakers last week gave preliminary approval to a program intended to curb increased violence in the area by involving hospital staffers as they treat the wounded. 

Three members of a city council policy committee on Feb. 20 agreed to move forward with a new “hospital-based violence intervention program” at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital. The project would place outreach workers at the bedside of patients who have been shot, stabbed or assaulted in an attempt to disrupt the situation that led to the violence, according to city documents.

Although the city recorded a minute decrease in overall violent crime in 2019, violence in Aurora has generally been trending up in recent years, according to city statistics. The number of violent crimes in the city rose 23 percent between 2016 and 2018, with slightly fewer than 3,000 such crimes — including murder, rape, aggravated assault and robbery — recorded in Aurora last year, according to data compiled by UCHealth. 

Aurora tallied 28 murders last year, which is a 55 percent increase over 2018, according to Deputy Aurora Police Chief Harry Glidden.

Hospital officials say they’re alarmed at the number of violence-related injuries.

“I came here from Baltimore expecting to sort of relax a little bit, and that has not been the case,” Dr. Catherine Velopulos, associate professor at the CU School of Medicine told council members last week. 

The new program would be an extension of an existing intervention program at Denver Health, where outreach workers met with 895 young people who had been injured last year, according to Johnnie Williams, chief operating officer with the Gang Rescue And Support Project in Denver. Workers also met with some 375 people who came to visit patients who had been injured in an attempt to tie in friends and family members who may be interested in retaliating after contentious incidents, Williams said. 

“When a traumatic injury comes into the hospital, who comes to see that person?” Williams said. “The homies come. The family comes. So we’re finding out who’s in the waiting room as well, and we’re making connections with them because we know if we send this person out into the community after this injury and don’t touch base with their support system that … they may be coming back.”

If approved by the full council, the program would allow workers like Williams to make local visits to homes, schools and hospital bedsides with the goal of reducing recidivism of people violently injured, and saving the justice system money. A single murder can cost the system $17.25 million over a lifetime, according to data presented by Velopulos. 

The new Aurora program would dovetail with Williams’ work in Denver, where he suggested a surge in housing prices is pushing violence farther north and east. 

“Because of the involuntary displacement that we’re seeing in Denver, a lot of Denver’s problems have moved far northeast toward Green Valley Ranch and Aurora,” he said. “And with he unfortunate change of funding with the (Aurora’s Gang Reduction Impact Program), people have still been reaching out to us.”

Aurora decimated the funding for its longstanding AGRIP program last year, cutting the group’s allocation from about $300,000 in 2018 to $70,000 this year, according to city budget documents. The bulk of that remaining funding will go toward Centennial’s Juvenile Assessment Center, a nonprofit group that aims to keep children out of the juvenile justice system.

“This would allow us to be able to not only revitalize the AGRIP to some standards in the schools and in the community, but also catch that hospital piece of it,” Williams said.

Later this week, council members are expected to introduce a proposal calling for a 1 percent special sales tax on recreational marijuana sales in the city to infill some of the AGRIP losses. If passed by the full council, the new tax would bring in about $1 million a year, which could replace the same amount lost when voters killed the city’s photo red light program two years ago. The new funds would pay for several programs, including those tailored to homeless individuals, abused children and teens at risk of becoming involved in gangs. 

Doctors and outreach workers are annually asking for $93,172 from the city to fund half of the program for two years, according to city documents. UCHealth will fund the other half the program over that period, with grants and CU covering additional costs. In total, the program is expected to cost $186,345 a year, funding salaries for two outreach workers and one program director, according to information presented to council members last week.

Deputy City Manager Jason Batchelor said the funding would likely come out of the general fund. He went on to laud the merits of the potential program.

“Some of the issues that we’re seeing are regional … they don’t necessarily care about boundaries,” Batchelor said. “We’ve seen that with some instances where, because we have a world-class trauma care center, the instance may happen in Aurora but either the victim or the perpetrator may not be from Aurora … I think this just helps the entire region … because one community can’t solve this.”

Assaults tracked through the University of Colorado Hospital Trauma Registry have generally tracked up in recent years, rising from 94 in 2016 to 152 last year, according to data provided by UCHealth.

Interim Police Chief Vanessa Wilson also praised the potential program, saying it is an encouraging step toward re-engaging with the Gang Rescue And Support Project.

“We’re already reaching out to GRASP and I feel like it’s something as a city that we do need to bring back,” she said at the committee meeting last week.

The proposal will now head to the full city council for further discussion at an upcoming council study session in March.