Earlier this spring, 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler forewarned of an impending surge in crime that could thrust the metroplex into disarray.
“Conditions in Colorado are ripe for a coming crime wave,” Brauchler wrote in a column published in The Denver Post May 3.
Three months later, the term-limited Republican’s premonitions have largely come to fruition.
Violent crime — defined as murder, sexual assault, aggravated assault and robbery — was up 17% in Aurora during the first half of the year when compared to the same time in 2019, according to recently released statistics. As of Aug. 3, 26 people had been murdered in Aurora this year. That’s eight more reported homicides than the entirety of 2018, and two deaths shy of the total for 2019. This year, some 65% of murder victims were Black, though only about 16% of the city’s population of approximately 380,000 is Black, according to recent U.S. Census data.
In turn, district courts in the Arapahoe County portion of Aurora — which covers nearly 90% of the city — have also seen a rise in case filings, according to data provided by Brauchler’s office. Filed murder cases in Arapahoe County were up 130% in the first six months of the year, and all but two of those stemmed from Aurora.
Much of the violence has come in just the past three months, data show. There were 14 murders reported in the city between May 15 and July 15, according to Deputy Police Chief Harry Glidden. That’s a 250% increase from the four murders reported in Colorado’s third-largest city over the same time last year.
“That is certainly concerning,” said Councilperson Allison Hiltz, who serves as chair of the city council’s public safety policy committee. “I think that 250% increase is very alarming.”
Shootings in the city have become a near-daily occurrence, according to select information released by Aurora police. Officials reported on Twitter 20 instances of people being shot in the city last month. Four people were killed in three of those incidents. The deaths came after 21 reported shootings in the city in June, which marked a 163% increase over May. Six people were shot and killed in the city in June, and two others were fatally stabbed.
As a result, aggravated assault — which is a charge often levied against suspects who use a weapon to inflict harm — has increased in Aurora by 32% so far this year, Glidden said. He was unclear what percentage of the some 1,000 such assaults involved a shooting.
The circumstances behind much of the city’s recent violent crime are muddy at best, as details are often slow to trickle into the public sphere days, weeks or months after injurious encounters. Not all shootings or reports of shots fired are reported on police blogs or social media pages either. For instance, officials were largely mum following a flurry of gunfire outside of a home on East Exposition Drive the morning of Aug. 1. No tweet or blog or Facebook post was ever issued.
But Glidden provided a minute glimpse of what police know of some of the recently reported violent encounters at a recent public meeting. Of the first 23 murders reported this year, eight were related to sale of illegal drugs, two were related to disagreements among known gang members and one was related to domestic violence, he said. The remaining 12 instances were precipitated by unknown causes.
“I think the world is angry right now, and with that anger I think people are taking advantage and victimizing others and feeling as though they can kind of do what they want,” newly appointed Police Chief Vanessa Wilson said of the rise. “And it’s very alarming to me.”
In response to probing by council members, Wilson underscored that the use and sale of drugs is tangentially related to a high proportion of Aurora crime.
“I think that we do have a lot of issues with alcohol and drugs, and that could obviously be a part of what is driving someone to rob for money, or buy drugs, or they are intoxicated or under the influence when they commit these crimes,” she said last week. “I would say the majority of these have that element to it … obviously it’s problematic.”
And despite reporting just two confirmed murder cases related to gangs this year, the often loose and amorphous criminal enterprises remain a regular source of violence in the city, officials have said.
“Gang violence is resurgent,” Brauchler wrote in his recent Denver Post column. “Agencies are so worried about liability in this environment; they have heavily curtailed proactive law enforcement.
Arrest warrants, even for gang members on gun charges, go un-executed.”
Indeed, gang-related crimes in the city trended up last year, with 1,972 unlawful incidents related to gangs reported in 2019, according to Aurora police statistics. Six of those were murders.
“Over the time that I’ve been here, it seems like we are seeing more gang-related violent crime, and we continue to see a lot of crimes involving firearms on the street,” Tom Byrnes, chief deputy district attorney in Brauchler’s office who has prosecuted several high-profile cases involving Aurora gang members, told The Sentinel earlier this year.
Police Lt. Mark Hildebrand, who previously oversaw the department’s gang unit and now manages a regional task force, said that authorities are constantly jockeying to stay ahead of gangs in the city, which increasingly involves investigators preparing large, resource-intensive cases in an effort to take batches of members off the street at once.
That’s in an effort to net longer, harsher sentences that can sometimes elude younger gang members, Hildebrand said.
“We’re not seeing these sentences that are really sending the message we need to send to the gangs; some are getting probation or one to two years,” he said. “ … We’re having a difficult time getting substantial sentences on individuals we know right now may just be involved in shootings, but if we don’t do something now they’re going to be the next murderers.”
While some suspects benefit from diversion programs or probation, Hildebrand said the criminal justice system has yet to catch up to the new generation of mercurial hybrid gangs built on ego and respect — not drug trafficking or turf.
“I really honestly don’t think the criminal justice system as a whole, and that includes the DA’s offices, has really accepted the fact that the kids of 20 years ago aren’t the kids today,” he said. “ … We really want to hold them accountable when they do do something instead of making excuses and saying, ‘Well, they need another chance.” I think some kids do, but some of those that we’ve seen, I would not want to see them on the street 10 or 15 or 20 years from now because I know what would happen. And it’s just scary.”
The reasons for the reported uptick in violent crime in the city are jumbled at best, though officials inside and distanced from Aurora police have offered various theories on the recent rise.
“This is like a Ferguson effect redux going on right now with just the added layer of COVID,” said David Pyrooz, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder who studies crime. “ … I do think it’s trending in that direction.”
That’s in reference to the debated theory that violent crime rose and certain police interactions fell in the months and years after Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014. In 2015, Pyrooz examined police statistics across Missouri and found that traffic stops fell by about 6% between 2014 and 2015, though the number of times officers found contraband in vehicle searches rose 11%, suggesting officers were making more informed decisions, he said.
Pyrooz said that a combination of less proactive policing and a growing skepticism toward the institution of law enforcement could lead to similar trends emerging in 2020.
“This is going to come down to how the community wants to be policed,” he said. “How much violence are they willing to accept, and is city council or another group going to come up with other, effective solutions that will allow the police to revert to a more reactive form of law enforcement and not put the burden solely on police to reduce crime?”
Marc Sears, president of the local department’s primary bargaining union, said he believes cops are now hamstrung by the sweeping police reform measure, Senate Bill 217, passed in the state Legislature earlier this year. The law stipulates a gaggle of new protocols intended to enhance police transparency and accountability, including a provision that could leave officers liable for civil suits up to $25,000 for infractions on the job.
Worse than that, Sears said, is the part of the new measure that requires an officer to be stripped of his or her state law enforcement certification following contentious encounters.
“What is even more pressing to me is that there are things in that bill saying that we could be decertified in a heartbeat without any due process,” he said. “I’ve been a civilian law enforcement officer for 22 years. And you’re going to take my livelihood and everything that I’ve worked for away from me because somebody sees what I did as inappropriate? That is what is scarier for these cops.”
As a result, police are tamping down their interaction with the public, according to Sears. He said that was evidenced by the complete lack of response during a chaotic demonstration in front of police headquarters July 25 that resulted in dozens of windows being smashed and fires being ignited inside the local courthouse.
“The reason why this is happening is because of the individuals that have the platform right now,” Sears said. “We listen to you guys. You can’t say we don’t listen. Obviously, the police department is listening to you. You’re saying you don’t want police? Okay, cool. Now all your crime rates go up. Now all your shootings go up.”
Brauchler, too, has said local officers are being forced to walk an impossible tightrope as calls to defund police budgets grow louder in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis Police.
“Law enforcement is on its heels,” he wrote. “ … The reasons for this unforgiving and unsustainable trend include the devastation of the job market from the government-imposed shutdown, the seasonal uptick in crime during warmer weather put on steroids after months of house-arrest lite, and the increasingly permissive laws and rules seeking to get offenders back onto our streets as quickly as possible.”
Local cops have echoed Brauchler’s latter sentiment, saying that efforts of county courts and local jailers to keep people out of detention centers during the COVID-19 pandemic have created a revolving door for repeat offenders.
“COVID restrictions on jailing allow for repeat offenses to occur which can be one contributing factor to crime increase,” Officer Crystal McCoy, spokesperson for Aurora police, wrote in an email.
Indeed, local district attorneys and judges have granted more personal recognizance bonds and increasingly allowed for stipulations to keep people out of jails in an effort to stem the spread of the new coronavirus in local jails. Typically, such bonds would not be granted to someone who has skipped court numerous times and appears likely to continue eloping.
“We are going to lose some of these guys,” Matt Maillaro, assistant district attorney in the 18th Judicial District, told The Sentinel earlier this spring. “They’re not going to just show up willingly down the road, — we hope they will — but the bigger issue now is to keep them out of the jail.”
Wilson said low-level criminals now know they face lesser consequences for their actions, and have told patrol officers as much.
“I’ve had people tell officers, ‘I know you can’t arrest me,’” she said. “And they’re given a ticket, and they don’t care. It’s kind of this lawlessness attitude with some of these individuals.”
For their part, The Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office, which is tasked with overseeing Aurora’s largest county jail, said officials are not letting people out of detention due to the global pandemic.
“The sheriff’s office has done no compassionate or early releases from custody due to COVID,” Ginger Delgado, spokeswoman for the local sheriff’s office, wrote in an email. “Now, whether the courts have is another question … but the jail has not done any.”
Nevertheless, the facility’s daily population has plummeted in recent months, data show. There were 608 in the facility on July 31, which marks a roughly 45% decrease from the average daily population in 2019.
THE WHAT’S NEXT
For now, the city has Wilson, who was officially appointed the city’s first female police chief on Aug. 3, at the helm.
She inherits a police department juggling a carousel of scandals, including officers found to have driven drunk on and off duty, the erroneous detention of Black residents, and a cacophony of calls to oust officers who detained Elijah McClain, the 23-year-old Black man who died six days after officers put him in a now-banned control hold in the 1900 block of Billings Street one year ago.
A large demonstration is scheduled to take place in the area where McClain was stopped and later injected with ketamine on the anniversary of the incident, Aug. 24. The department has received international blowback for how it handled a pair of other demonstrations calling for renewed investigations into McClain’s death, the first on June 27 and the second on July 25. Officers were excoriated for disrupting a violin vigil with smoke canisters and pepper spray at the first event, and pilloried yet again for inaction as protesters smashed windows and shot fireworks into buildings late last month.
City and community leaders have largely commended how Wilson has skippered the department in her seven months as interim chief, with many lauding her swift decisions to fire officers found to have violated department protocols.
“One of the things that has impressed me most about Vanessa in her seven months as interim chief of police has been her demand for accountability and her dedication to communicating with the community in pursuit of trust and truth,” City Manager Jim Twombly said in a statement issued after he tabbed Wilson to lead the department on a permanent basis.
Wilson has held several media standups and community meetings during her stint as interim chief, and she walked alongside youth protesters in a march to the Aurora Municipal complex in early June.
Local leaders have expressed cautious optimism about Wilson’s appointment, citing her desire to work with the city’s new police community task force as an encouraging sign. The recently formed group could recommend crafting a new independent review entity in the city later this year.
“I think that the appointment of the new police chief, I hope — being optimistic — would bring some type of expedited and systemic change,” Omar Montgomery, president of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People branch, said.
Montgomery also sits on the new task force.
For months, Wilson has acknowledged the increasingly frosty relationship between Aurora residents — particularly Black residents — and the police department. She’s repeatedly pointed to a collaboration with local leaders like Montgomery as a way to mend the community fissure.
“The problem is we need the community’s help to combat crime — we need them to trust us, to call us, but obviously there’s a lot of mistrust in policing right now,” she said. “It worries me, but hopefully we can get people to cooperate … One year form now I’m hoping we’ve made substantial steps with the community task force and recommendations from them that we can implement so they feel a part of the solution and not just given lip service. I want them to see actionable items from me and city management and the city council.”