Nobody knew how the coronavirus, with its historic stay-at-home order from the governor, would influence and inspire crime across Colorado.
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No previous period, no critical incident, offered much in the way of clues to how law breaking would evolve — how conditions would reshape the ways people interacted in close quarters; how violence might erupt under stress and economic anxiety; how the cloistering of citizens in their homes would create vacuums of illicit opportunity elsewhere.
But as municipal and county law enforcement statistics from the first phase of Colorado’s response to the pandemic emerge, a few trends have begun to take shape, according to numbers reported by a sampling of jurisdictions. Crimes “against society” — offenses like drugs, gambling and prostitution — dropped in several areas, and traffic crashes dipped, too.
In general, crimes against people were down during the stay-at-home period — unless those people lived in the same home. In other words, there were fewer robberies but law enforcement noted more assaults among roommates. Another trend: While overall burglaries remained relatively flat, the targets shifted from homes to closed-down businesses.
Some in law enforcement saw that one coming.
In Denver, crime data analysts looked to 2009, a pale imitation of a pandemic but a time when the Great Recession offered similar economic stressors. They looked at the crimes that spiked that summer. They factored in more limited mental health and addiction treatment during the pandemic, even the rising price of some street drugs.
They mapped and strategized: One concern was the transformation of the urban center from a hub of activity for both business and entertainment to an empty shell.
“When the stay-at-home orders took effect, we were very concerned about the types of crime issues that would fill that void,” Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen said. “We shifted our approach and were able to get our arms around business burglaries, for example.”
In part through rearranging patrols by time of day and location, police interrupted 56 burglaries in progress — already more than twice the number of an average year.
Across Colorado, law enforcement also based its calculations on conventional wisdom, intuition and a readiness to adapt quickly to unexpected situations. In large part, those predictions closely matched what early crime data reveals to be some apparent trends during the shutdown — at least in some of the more populated areas of the state.
In addition to the predicted shift in burglaries to businesses from homes, domestic violence showed an uptick in many jurisdictions. Denver also noticed a troubling trend toward more violent incidents as the shutdown has worn on. Some smaller municipalities showed no change — something those local authorities regarded skeptically.
David Pyrooz, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder who researches crime trends, notes that everybody assumed domestic violence and child abuse would likely increase as people stayed home. They also understood that such increases might go largely unreported. Domestic violence victims would find it harder to leave; mandated reporters of child abuse — primarily teachers — wouldn’t be having face-to-face contact with kids.
But beyond that, Pyrooz said, “we really had no clue.” With shutdown orders and lockdowns at the state level, conflicting theories pointed to competing scenarios.
On one hand, he said, the “routine activities theory” holds crime will be distributed across a city based on the locations of motivated offenders and appealing targets — either people or property — coupled with the absence of “capable guardians.” Those locations change when a stay-at-home order creates a massive shift in our recreation and mobility patterns.
In other words, downtown areas no longer feature high-traffic interactions that might produce incidents like aggravated assaults. Those have shifted to the neighborhoods. But pushing back on that is the theory of “collective efficacy,” which says that the lockdown could lead to greater social cohesion and act to reduce crime.
“With the lockdown, we have communities coming together in ways that had never been anticipated before, mostly because people are busy,” Pyrooz said. “But social distancing barbecues and happy hours, people getting on Nextdoor to talk about problems in their community and also to respond to problems, might prevent them from occurring without necessitating police. With so many active guardians, you’re able to offset some of what you think might take place with crime moving toward the neighborhoods.”
Bottom line: Aggregate crime statistics for large metro areas may not change significantly. But when you tease apart the details, you may find a redistribution. Some crimes might move to neighborhoods and away from downtown, while others move in the opposite direction.
A sampling of what Colorado has seen since the coronavirus arrived:
- Aurora Police Department, for example, made 49% fewer arrests from April 6 through May 3 compared with the same dates last year. Violent crime reports in Aurora — including murder, sexual assault and robbery — were down 17%. Traffic accidents dropped by 59%. And traffic tickets fell 87%, according to data provided by the department.
- In Denver, overall offenses from March to May 15 dipped by 4% over the same period in 2019. Broken down further, there was a 10% increase in property crimes, while crimes against people dropped 9% during that period. But homicides and aggravated assaults spiked by 66% and 27%, respectively.
- Fort Collins’ overall crime numbers for March, the latest available, spiked compared to 2019, which was markedly low, but were basically in line with the city’s three-year average for the month. Anecdotally, Assistant Chief John Feyen noted a big drop in motor vehicle accidents as well as declines in burglaries and thefts, the latter owing to nonexistent shoplifting and retail theft during the shutdown. He also saw an increase in “family problems” and noise complaints toward the end of the stay-at-home order.
- Grand Junction saw an overall drop of 9% for crimes reported between March 17 and May 17, year over year. Numbers showing a big spike in violent crime were deceiving due to the small sample size and low raw numbers. There were no homicides, and differences in total incidents for the other three categories — rape, robbery and aggravated assault — were in the single digits.
- Pueblo showed a 4% drop in overall crime for the first quarter of 2020, a trend that seemed to gain momentum at the end of March into mid-April. During the period March 26-April 16, the drop was 17%.
- Greeley saw sexual assaults decline by 27%, from 22 last year to 16 during this recent quarantine period. Incidents of auto theft increased, and aggravated assaults jumped 19% — to 74 from 62 reports last year.
And while traffic violations generally waned on wide-open thoroughfares, some areas saw surges of lead-footed drivers, prompting a quick law enforcement pivot to calm things down.
“The only thing we were not prepared for was speeders and reckless driving,” said Pueblo police Sgt. Frank Ortega. “People saw the open road and thought it was the Autobahn. I’m not talking five or six miles over the limit, but 20 or 30 over. It was ridiculous. After some heavy ticket days, it calmed down.”
Ortega recalled the department’s traffic sergeant stopping by on a warm day, fanning herself with a collection of speeding tickets.
“I don’t know how many there were,” he said, “but it was a bunch.”
Law enforcement agencies and domestic violence prevention groups across the state expected more assaults to occur within families as couples were stuck together at home for weeks on end.
This proved true in some jurisdictions, but others noted fewer reports of domestic violence this spring. The key word here is “reports,” said Tamika Matthews, community impact manager for Violence Free Colorado. It’s possible that victims of domestic violence were unable to safely call authorities or the state hotline for help during quarantine, she said.
“They might not be able to get away from someone who is using abusive behaviors,” said Matthews, who noted that domestic violence shelters across the state have reported varied statistics during the stay-at-home period.
She believes it’s highly likely that domestic violence spiked this spring because of the stressors that come with families living in isolation, especially if they were concerned about child care and unemployment.
“It would follow that there would probably be an uptick in violence that occurs in a household,” she said.
In Pueblo, for example, the police department saw a nearly 40% jump in domestic violence cases in March, compared with March 2019.
“We were expecting domestic violence to rise, and it did,” Ortega said. “It’s the same everywhere, just a constant issue.”
But it isn’t always evident in the statistics. Grand Junction reported no increase in domestic violence calls, but Police Chief Doug Shoemaker stressed that the numbers in this case don’t necessarily reflect reality.
“For every law enforcement agency, it’s a concern that during this time some things may not have been reported,” he said. “I’m not sure how you get the true numbers.”
In Fort Collins, where assistant chief Feyen also noted no statistical uptick in domestic violence, he shares the concern.
“Are people more susceptible during these periods? Absolutely,” Feyen said. “Economic stress, not being able to get outside and mingle — all that creates stressors which for some people are trigger points. It also keeps people in ongoing domestic violence situations with their victimizers, and creates the opportunity for more.
“It doesn’t create that break, where someone might feel safe reaching out to family members or church or social services. Maybe people didn’t have the opportunity to report.”
Denver police were so concerned about an increase in domestic violence that the community affairs team launched an informational campaign reminding residents that the stay-at-home order didn’t mean anyone had to stay in a violent situation.
And from March into early April, calls for service were down slightly. But from there, calls trended upward, slightly above the city’s three-year baseline. Those calls can include strictly verbal incidents, which don’t generate an offense, as well as those that involve physical harm, which do.
When a call for services turns into a reported offense, Pazen said, it usually ends up being simple assault — “a third-degree type of situation” — with fewer instances of aggravated assault involving a weapon or causing serious bodily injury. But during the stay-at-home order, he added, the unusually intense combination of fear, stress and anxiety has triggered increasingly violent incidents.
“It’s a very complex issue,” Pazen said. “We’re seeing that in domestic violence and we’re seeing that in aggravated assaults.”
In Weld County, two types of crimes stuck out during the stay-at-home phase: assaults and auto theft.
The increase in both makes sense to Weld County Sheriff’s Capt. Alan Caldwell. More people were forced to spend time together — not just families but roommates, in college or otherwise — and that led to physical fights, Caldwell said. Assaults increased to 147 compared with 98 during the same time frame last year.
“That makes intuitive sense because if folks are locked up at home, and they are not used to being locked up at home, tempers may flare and that’s possibly why you are seeing an increase with assault offenses,” he said.
As for the rise in motor vehicle theft, Caldwell said he believes it’s because more cars were sitting stationary when people weren’t going to work, or anywhere. Also, people who are out of work and stressed about money are more likely to turn to crime, he said.
The number of auto thefts in the county rose to 41 in January-April this year compared with 36 during those four months last year, but those numbers don’t portray the whole picture, Caldwell said. He said there also has been an uptick in the number of vehicles stolen elsewhere and dumped in the rural county, pointing to the theory that auto theft is likely on the rise in cities, too.
Motor vehicle theft increased in Denver by nearly 8% during the first quarter of 2020 over the same period last year, and Pueblo saw a 28% spike in March, though the total number, 81, wasn’t a great deal higher than in 2019.
Arapahoe County also saw a jump in auto theft during the stay-at-home period — 68 cases from March 28 to May 13, compared with 49 during the same period last year. Vandalism and destruction of property was up, too — 122 cases compared with 108 last spring.
And similar to Weld County, robberies were down. There were nine during those six weeks last year, but just four this year.
Weld County had no robberies during the four-month period from January through April — not that it typically has many. There were just three during that period in 2019. Caldwell noted that robbery is less likely to occur when businesses are shut down and fewer people are out on the streets.
Law enforcement officers who’ve been on the job for a while become familiar with “seasonal trends” in crime, he said, though this was unlike anything they have known before.
“COVID is something that was completely new for all of us,” Caldwell said.
In Denver, one downward statistical trend fell under the heading of crimes against society — primarily vice — and showed a steep year-over-year drop. Prostitution had a particularly steep decline at 72%. But as Pazen explained, that wasn’t due to the obvious lack of people circulating in public. Rather, it stemmed from a “philosophical switch” for Denver law enforcement — focusing on traffickers rather their victims, who have been pressured into prostitution.
“This is not something from a police perspective that’s easy to say out loud, but in many aspects we got this wrong,” Pazen said of the previous approach. “I’m not saying all prostituion is the same, but a lot has to do with human trafficking. Victims of trafficking were the ones being arrested and incarcerated, while the people preying on a vulnerable population were escaping this without being held accountable.
“We want to focus on the person trafficking individuals.”
In some places, the odd circumstances of the shutdown also created opportunity.
In Pueblo, more than a dozen police officers working as school resource officers suddenly had nowhere to go, so they transitioned back to patrols. The extra manpower allowed the department to increase its bike patrols, which usually staff special events but now allowed for extra cops on the streets.
“Pueblo is small enough that you could ride through the city all day,” said Ortega, the department’s spokesman. The bike patrols, riding in pairs, focused on the suddenly quiet commercial areas.
He was working an overtime shift, driving down the street one day, when he heard a radio call for a disturbance at a convenience store a block away. He pulled a quick U-turn and radioed dispatch to say he was about to arrive on scene.
“As I’m getting on the radio to say I’m here, they already have a guy,” Ortega said of one of the bike tandems. “I didn’t know where they were.”
Fort Collins also used the suddenly freed-up school resource officers to fill some patrol slots, including as security for a makeshift homeless shelter at a recreation center when a snowstorm hit right after the stay-at-home order. Additionally, it took advantage of the school closures to perform what has now become an unfortunate but necessary task — updating its emergency reaction plans for all of the city’s public schools.
The SROs launched drones to take aerial photos, performed 3-D scans of school buildings and helped create new interactive maps that indicate staging areas for each campus, scouting areas for specific uses such as landing spots for helicopters.
“We needed to do this, but you’ve got to find time to do it,” Assistant Chief Feyen said. “COVID gave us this time and freed the SROs to do that.”
Grand Junction Police Chief Shoemaker noted that having the ability to shift gears was key to policing during the uncertain time of the pandemic. Assuming a rise in business burglaries — there was a slight increase — required shifting resources in collaboration with local partners.
“We worked with the downtown development authority who assists with promotion of downtown businesses to have more proactive patrols,” Shoemaker said. “Adaptability is a hallmark of how we had to do what we did. That’s still evolving. Mesa County opened earlier than almost anyone in the state. Hopefully we’ll be a successful exemplar of how to do it right.”
With the stay-at-home phase of the pandemic response loosening, some crime trends may return to their usual levels. But police still see this as uncharted territory.
“I anticipate you’ll see some things go back to normal,” Feyen said. “What I call normal are things like retail theft and shoplifting as more businesses open. But I don’t have a feel about family problems or civil disputes. Does (reopening) give people the distance they need to recenter and refocus?”
Toward the end of the shutdown, he added, Fort Collins police did see some increase in family problems, noise complaints — just the type of things indicative of people nearing the end of their rope. Not a huge increase in violent crimes, but just “people needing solutions and someone to step in with a timeout and do some mediation.”
“I don’t have any quantifiable data to give you,” Feyen said, “but it feels like there’s some despondency in parts of the community. It will be interesting to see what the suicide rates do in six months. Is this like the crash of 1929, and people who are small business owners struggle with supporting their family or their identity through their businesses? I don’t know the answer to that. Sometimes it feels like we’re going on more of those kinds of calls.”
From his vantage point in Pueblo, Sgt. Frank Ortega figures some of the crime characteristics seen during the stay-at-home order will persist. After all, the new order is still “safer at home.”
“I think the new normal will be different for everybody,” he said. “Including the cops.”