Is Colorado less safe than it used to be?
The answer is not as simple as the question seems. It depends on where you live, who you ask and against which decade you’re comparing today’s crime.
Colorado, like many other states, has experienced shocking spikes in violence during the pandemic. The state’s homicide rate in 2020 surged to a 25-year high after 293 people were killed, leaving more than five people dead every week, on average. Motor vehicle thefts and aggravated assaults, like shootings and stabbings, skyrocketed statewide as well.
Concerns about crime and public safety featured prominently in speeches by Colorado’s top political leadership on the opening day of the 2022 legislative session and will be a major topic in the year’s lawmaking and elections, including the governor’s race. Some observers have referred to recent trends as a crime wave or “tsunami.”
The public, too, is worried about crime. Nearly half of Coloradans surveyed by the Colorado Health Foundation in the summer of 2021 said gun violence was a serious problem and 40% said crime generally was a serious problem. Those concerns, however, ranked lower than anxiety over homelessness, climate change and the cost of health care and housing.
But what’s actually going on with crime in Colorado?
The Denver Post analyzed 35 years of crime data as reported by local law enforcement to the FBI from 1985 to 2020 and spoke with criminologists to paint a broader picture of trends in the state and provide more context about crime in our communities.
The analysis focused on eight of the most serious crimes — homicide, aggravated assault, rape, robbery, arson, burglary, larceny and motor vehicle theft — and did not include drug offenses or lesser crimes like trespassing. Accurate statewide data for 2021 will not be available for several months as many cities are still finalizing their crime statistics.
Some of the major findings include:
- Not all types of crime are rising. While Colorado’s rates for homicide, aggravated assault and motor vehicle theft rose by more than 10% in 2020 over the average of the prior three years, rates for rape, larceny, robbery and burglary stayed relatively level or declined.
- Increases in aggravated assaults — which include shootings and stabbings — and motor vehicle thefts are the biggest drivers of increased rates statewide of violent crime and property crime.
- Colorado’s communities are not a monolith. Trends in the state’s largest cities differ from each other, as do those in medium-sized towns.
- Colorado’s 2020 violent crime rate was the highest it’s been since 1995, but is lower than it was between 1985 and 1995. The state’s 2020 property crime rate was the highest recorded since 2008, but is less than half the rate recorded in the mid-1980s.
- While Colorado’s violent crime rate jumped 10% between 2019 and 2020 — the largest single-year increase since 1990 — that increase came as part of a six-year upward trend. The state’s violent crime rate increased by 8% year-over-year in 2016, 2017 and 2018.
Criminologists interviewed by The Post warned against ascribing changes in crime trends to any single factor.
“We don’t know, to be completely frank,” said David Pyrooz, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder who studies crime. “There are a lot of causes of crime.”
It will take years to develop the data and research to investigate specific factors, he said, especially during a time with an unprecedented amount of the unprecedented: a pandemic, a major protest movement and an ever-increasing addiction crisis.
“I don’t think we should panic yet,” said Mary Dodge, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Colorado Denver. “And I think politicians need to take caution to not make knee-jerk decisions. Making decisions based on a few years of increase is a bad idea.”
But at the same time, the changes in crime are forcing people to question the future of Colorado after it has undergone so many changes in the last decades. The population boomed, cities swelled and rising costs of living are forcing changes in neighborhoods and everyday life.
“I would be very worried if people are comfortable with the way things stand right now,” Pyrooz said.
When did Colorado’s crime rates start to rise?
Colorado’s violent crime rate started to tick upward in 2014 after eight years of decline and it’s risen nearly every year since then. Violent crime, under the standards set by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program, includes homicides, aggravated assaults, rape and robberies.
The violent crime rate’s 10% rise between 2019 and 2020 is the steepest climb in that time period. That’s in part because Colorado saw a decrease in 2019 compared to 2018.
Per-capita crime rates — the number of incidents per 100,000 people — are important to understanding trends in Colorado because they allow more relevant comparisons over time as the state’s population has grown.
The state’s property crime rate has remained relatively steady since 2008, despite a 5% uptick in 2020 compared to the average of the prior three years. The rate recorded in 2020 is the highest since 2007, but less than half the rates of property crime in the late 1980s and significantly lower than those recorded in the early 2000s.
Property crime includes arson, burglary, larceny and motor vehicle theft.
What about in the state’s largest cities?
As the state’s largest cities, Denver, Colorado Springs and Aurora have a much larger impact on the statewide crime rate than other communities. And the trends in those cities differ.
Denver’s violent crime rate began to rise in 2011 and has trended upward since, with the largest increase between 2019 and 2020. After eight years of general decline, Aurora’s violent crime rate began to increase in 2015, with the largest increase also between 2019 and 2020.
Colorado Springs’ violent crime started to increase in 2016 after nine years of relative stability. But unlike Denver and Aurora, Colorado Springs saw its smallest year-over-year violent crime increase between 2019 and 2020, when the rate rose 1%.
The cities’ property crime numbers also paint different pictures.
Denver experienced a slow rise in its property crime rate since 2011 before a 25% spike over the three-year average in 2020. Aurora’s property crime numbers remained relatively level until also spiking in 2020. Colorado Springs’ property crime rate, however, has remained steady since approximately 2005 and declined between 2019 and 2020.
What types of crime have gone up the most in Colorado?
Rates for four crimes rose by double-digit percentages statewide in 2020 compared to their three-year averages: homicide, aggravated assault, arson and motor vehicle theft.
About the data and definitions
This reporting uses data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program. Every year, local law enforcement agencies across the country provide to the FBI the number of each type of crime that has been reported to them. The data does not capture crimes that are not reported to law enforcement, which can make counts for crimes less likely to be reported to police — like rape — less accurate. The data analyzed by The Denver Post does not include drug offenses or minor crimes like trespassing. The dataset can also be incomplete because some agencies do not report their numbers.Crime rate: Number of crimes per 100,000 residents of a specific geographic areaViolent crime: Total number of homicides, aggravated assaults, rapes and robberiesProperty crime: Total number of arsons, burglaries, larceny and motor vehicle theftsAggravated assault: An unlawful attack by one person upon another for the purpose of inflicting severe or aggravated bodily injury, usually accompanied by the use of a weapon or by other means likely to produce death or great bodily harm
The motor vehicle theft rate increased the most. Its 2020 rate of 534 thefts per 100,000 people is 36% higher than the three-year average.
Data shows that the state’s increase in violent crime is primarily driven by the increase in the rate of aggravated assaults, which rose 18% in 2020 over the three-year average.
While the homicide rate saw a greater percentage increase — up 30% in 2020 over the three-year average — there are far more aggravated assaults in any given year than homicides. For example, Coloradans in 2020 reported 16,575 aggravated assaults to police and 293 homicides.
Over the last 10 years, guns have become the most common weapon used in aggravated assaults. In 2010, about 20% of aggravated assaults were committed with a gun, according to law enforcement data collected by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. By 2020, they were the primary weapon in 35% of attacks.
Similarly, the increase in the state’s property crime rate is driven primarily by the increase in motor vehicle thefts.
Colorado’s pattern of rising homicides, aggravated assaults and motor vehicle thefts match national trends from 2020. Between 2019 and 2020, the number of homicides, aggravated assaults and motor vehicle thefts rose nationally while robberies, rapes, burglaries and theft declined.
What about in the big cities?
In Denver and Colorado Springs, the rise in violent crime has been driven primarily by aggravated assaults. If aggravated assaults are removed, violent crime totals for both cities show a decline every year since 2018. Compared to the three-year average, the number of aggravated assaults in Colorado Springs was up 25% in 2020 and up 36% in Denver.
Aurora’s rising violent crime rate is also driven primarily by an increase in aggravated assaults — the rate was up 42% in 2020 compared to the three-year average — though robberies have increased as well.
All three large cities saw their homicide rates spike in 2020. Both Aurora and Denver saw their homicide rates rise 50% over the three-year average and Colorado Springs’ rate rose 33%.
In Denver, 95 people died by homicide in 2020, the highest number since 1981. Homicides remained at an elevated level in Denver in 2021, with 96 people killed — but the per-capita rate remains below the highs seen in the early 1990s.
Motor vehicle thefts also saw the biggest increases in two of the cities. Denver and Aurora saw the number of motor vehicle thefts surge more than 50% in 2020 over their three-year averages, though Colorado Springs’ 2020 number remained level.
Are some crimes going down or staying level?
Yes. The statewide rate for rape decreased 14% in 2020 compared to the three-year average. Rates for robbery, larceny and burglary remained relatively level with changes of 5% or less from their three-year averages.
Denver saw a 12% reduction in its rape rate and its robbery rate remained level in 2020. In Aurora, the rates of rape, larceny and burglary remained level.
Colorado Springs saw the largest reductions. Its rape and robbery rates dropped 25% in 2020 compared to the three-year average and its burglary, larceny and motor vehicle thefts remained level. Of the three cities, it was the only one to record a decrease in its property crime rate in 2020.
How do 2020’s crime rates compare historically?
Rates of violent crime and property crime for Colorado and its three largest cities remain lower than those recorded during a nationwide crime explosion in the early 1990s.
Colorado’s 2020 violent crime rate is the highest recorded since 1995, though it remains lower than the rates recorded each year between 1985 and 1995. The state’s property crime rates have declined steeply since 1985. While the 2020 property crime rate is the highest since 2008, it is less than half the record high in 1986.
Denver and Aurora’s historical crime trends also mirror the national pattern — 2020’s violent crime rates are about equal to those recorded in the early 1990s, though lower than record highs.
Colorado Springs’s violent crime rate bucks those trends, however. Unlike Denver and Aurora, the Springs did not experience high rates of violence in the early 1990s. Its 2020 violent crime rate is the highest ever recorded.
Property crime rates for all three cities in 2020 were half the rates seen in the mid-1980s.
How do Colorado’s three largest cities compare?
Aurora’s violent crime rate in 2020 exceeded Denver’s that year — the first time that’s happened since 2002. Aurora’s violent crime rate was 898 crimes per 100,000 people, Denver recorded a rate of 882 crimes per 100,000 people and Colorado Springs recorded 604 crimes per 100,000 people.
Denver’s property crime rate, however, outstripped those recorded in Aurora and Colorado Springs. Denver recorded a rate of 4,779 property crimes per 100,000 people while Colorado Springs recorded a rate of 3,420 per 100,000 people and Aurora recorded 3,380 per 100,000 people.
Pyrooz, the CU Boulder associate professor, said crime is not only most heavily concentrated in larger cities, but in specific areas of cities.
For example, about a third of the state’s 293 homicides in 2020 occurred in Denver. A third of those 95 Denver homicides occurred in just seven of the city’s 77 neighborhoods.
“It’s our large cities that need the solutions first,” he said.
What does data from other large Colorado communities show us?
Not all of Colorado’s largest communities saw violent crime spike in 2020.
Violent crime numbers in Thornton, Fort Collins, Arvada and Westminster decreased in 2020 compared to previous years. Lakewood’s 2020 violent crime total is higher than 2019, but lower than 2017 and 2018.
What do we know about 2021?
Data reported to the FBI by Colorado Springs and Aurora for the first three quarters of 2021 show declines in homicides in both cities compared to the same period in 2020. Denver recorded one more homicide in 2021 than in 2020.
But other major categories of crime — aggravated assault, burglary, larceny and motor vehicle theft — are up year-over-year in Denver and Aurora during that period. Colorado Springs, however, reported declines in every category.
How do Colorado’s crime trends compare to other states?
Colorado was not the only state to see violent crime increase in 2020. At least 37 states saw their homicide rates rise in 2020 and many large cities, like those in Colorado, saw major increases in homicides, according to the Pew Research Center.
Colorado’s violent crime rate of 423 crimes per 100,000 people in 2020 was the 20th-highest in the U.S. Alaska recorded a rate of 838 violent crimes per 100,000 people — the highest in the country. Colorado exceeded the national violent crime rate for the first time in 2018 and stayed above the national rate in the two years that followed.
In 2020, Colorado had the third-highest property crime rate in the country, after Louisiana and New Mexico. Colorado’s property crime rate has exceeded the national rate every year since 2015. The state property crime rate also exceeded the national rate between 1985 and 1996 and between 2001 and 2006.
Did homicides rise only in Democrat-controlled states and cities?
No. An analysis of homicide data from the first six months of 2020 published in The New York Times showed that homicides were up 29% in Democrat-led cities in the sample and up 26% in cities with a Republican mayor. Fifteen of the 37 states that saw homicide rate increases in 2020 were governed by Republicans.
Researchers also have found that cities that did not cut their police budgets in 2020 in response to protests following George Floyd’s murder saw staggering increases in homicides along with cities that did make reductions.
What’s driving crime trends?
Criminologists interviewed by The Post said there are hundreds of variables that might contribute to changes in crime trends: increased gun sales, financial pressures, political unrest, the substance use crisis, changes in attitudes towards police, changing levels of police pro-activity, understaffed law enforcement agencies, unaddressed mental health and addiction needs, specific policy changes to the criminal legal system and a state of normlessness created by the pandemic.
“We’ve been asking that question for years,” said Stacey Hervey, an associate professor in the Criminal Justice and Criminology Department at Metropolitan State University of Denver. “It’s so multi-faceted.”
Socioeconomic factors — like education, housing and job opportunity — in communities also matter, Pyrooz said. While those standards don’t shift dramatically year over year, they create a cumulative impact.
“You can’t talk about rises in violence without talking about the underlying conditions that give rise to it,” he said.
Different types of crime often have different underlying motives and should not be lumped together when looking for causes, said Jeffrey Lin, an associate professor at the University of Denver who studies crime.
For example, a person committing theft is most likely going to be motivated by the need for money. But someone shooting or stabbing someone is less likely to be financially motivated and may instead be acting out of revenge or in the heat of the moment.
Conclusive research parsing the reasons for the spikes in some crimes in 2020 will take years, Pyrooz said. “By the time we figure it out people are going to have moved on,” he said.
Politicians for years have attempted to pin changes in crime trends on their opponents’ specific policies or reforms, Lin said.
He advised that people should challenge politicians making such accusations with a simple request: “Show me the data.”
Updated 11:40 a.m. Jan. 25, 2022 This story has been updated to correct the name of the organization that conducted a survey of Coloradans in the summer of 2021. That survey was conducted by the Colorado Health Foundation.