In a Denver election defined by ’safety,’ some dangers matter more than others
Crime, policing dominate the debate in a pivotal race for mayor
Candidates for Denver mayor participate in a forum led by unhoused people outside the Denver City and County Building on Feb. 20, 2023. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)
The statistics paint a clear picture: Like most other cities across the state and the country, Denver is a more dangerous place today than it was a few years ago.
It’s more dangerous to drive a car, ride a bike or walk down the street. The number of workplace fatalities and injuries has ticked up. Emergency-room visits for falls, cuts, burns and other accidents are on the rise. More Denverites pose a danger to themselves, with drug overdoses and suicides, often categorized as “deaths of despair,” spiking to new highs. The COVID-19 pandemic still poses risks, especially to service workers and immunocompromised people. A growing unhoused population faces health risks and deadly cold.
When it comes to the race to be Denver’s next mayor, however, there’s one set of dangers above all that has dominated the debate: an increase in the city’s crime rate, often coupled with concerns about rising homelessness. Wherever the crowded field of 17 candidates has gathered for forums, interviews or fundraisers in recent months, talk of “safety” has soon followed — and has nearly always referred to one kind of safety in particular.
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A “community safety” policy from one top candidate promises to get “smart on crime.” Another pledges to ensure Denverites “feel safe in any neighborhood” by taking “a different approach to crime.” When moderators began a recent mayoral forum by turning to “the topic of safety,” all 10 questions that followed addressed policing and criminal justice.
Denver’s homicide rate declined slightly to 12.4 per 100,000 residents in 2022 — roughly double the level of a decade ago, though still down from its peak of around 20 per 100,000 in the 1980s and early 1990s, according to Denver Police Department data. Reported rates of auto theft have soared, while those of other violent crimes, including robbery and sexual assault, have remained relatively flat.
Few dispute that Denver’s elevated crime rate ranks among the most pressing issues facing the city in 2023. Nearly all of the candidates for mayor list public safety and reducing crime as a top priority.
But Denver’s first municipal election in four years — and the first since a wave of protests and rioting over police violence following the murder of George Floyd in 2020 — has featured starkly diverging visions of how best to achieve that goal, and competing definitions of what constitutes “safety” in the first place. Many communities and interest groups within the city feel frustrated by the campaign’s narrow focus on crime, policing and punishment.
Multimodal transportation advocates decry the city’s worsening traffic-safety record, with the number of traffic fatalities and serious injuries on pace for another record high this year — seven years after Mayor Michael Hancock embraced the “Vision Zero” goal of eliminating traffic deaths by 2030.
Some of the people most affected by a wave of gun violence in the city — young people and people of color — marched on the state Capitol last week to advocate not for a police crackdown but for the enactment of more aggressive gun-control measures to address one of the root causes of violence.
And by far the greatest safety risks posed by rising homelessness, experts and advocates say, are shouldered by unhoused people themselves.
“Who’s the ‘public’ in public safety?” asked Josh Barocas, a physician and public-health researcher at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus who works with people with substance use disorders and the unhoused. “It seems like some candidates believe that the public are the people that donate to them, and the people that can afford very nice houses in different parts of Denver.
“But I think what’s missing,” he added, “is that just because someone doesn’t vote for you, just because someone doesn’t donate to your campaign, doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve safety and wellness and health as well.”
‘The drivers of crime’
Terrance Roberts became one of the first candidates to enter the mayor’s race in April 2022, when the longtime activist launched what he calls a campaign to “save our city.”
As a teenage gang member in the early 1990s, Roberts lived through what Denver media dubbed the “Summer of Violence,” a spate of gang-related shootings in 1993. He later launched a successful anti-gang initiative based in the city’s Northeast Park Hill neighborhood. His acquittal on charges relating to a 2013 shooting is the subject of the book and documentary film “The Holly,” by journalist Julian Rubinstein.
At a mayoral debate in February, Roberts spoke of the need to address the root causes of violence and open “more dedicated youth spaces” throughout the city.
“Poverty is the biggest precursor to violence. The biggest precursor to poverty is housing costs, it’s fuel costs, it’s food costs,” Roberts said. “We have a lot of poor people in this city who live in historical communities, especially Black and Brown communities in Denver — a lot of our kids are going to school angry, they’re going to school hungry, and they have nothing to do after school.”
That’s something that Roberts and Kelly Brough, the longtime head of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and the race’s top fundraiser, broadly agree on. Brough touts her experience as chief of staff to then-Mayor John Hickenlooper in 2007, when the city, facing a wave of youth gun violence, made recreation centers free to kids under 18, a policy that continues today.
“We talk about crime and public safety as only a response issue,” Brough said in the Feb. 16 debate. “I think we have to start to treat it much more like the rec center example … where every single member of the team is thinking about what’s their role and their responsibility to reduce crime and the drivers of crime. So, economic development. A great education for our kids. Access not just to our rec centers but real opportunity for our kids so they can see a future. Stable housing. These are the things that we know reduce crime in the long run.”
Despite this note of agreement, however, the two candidates represent opposite poles in the approach to achieving their shared public safety goals.
Roberts is critical of Denver’s record-high $611 million public safety budget and wants more of that money spent on public housing initiatives, along with the establishment of a public banking system, rent control and other progressive priorities. Brough, a 12-year veteran of the conservative business lobby, has endorsed a return of “qualified immunity,” a legal doctrine that bars people from suing law enforcement officers in their individual capacity, as a way to aid the police department’s recruiting efforts, and has spoken of arresting unhoused people who refuse shelter or treatment services as a “last resort” to address homelessness.
As the candidates have debated who would make the best replacement for Hancock, who is term-limited after 12 years in office, gun violence in the city has continued. Luis Garcia, a 16-year-old junior at Denver’s East High School, was shot outside the school on the City Park Esplanade on Feb. 13, and died two weeks later. Seventeen of the 88 homicide victims recorded in Denver last year were teenagers, the Denver Post reported in January.
At East, students have called on administrators to implement stricter security measures like cameras and metal detectors. With support from safety advocates like Denver City Council member Chris Hinds, many want the Esplanade, the location of several recent incidents, to be closed to vehicle traffic. And hundreds of East students walked out on March 3 and marched to the Colorado Capitol, where they met with lawmakers to support a package of gun-safety legislation.
Some students and parents have voiced support for the return of the police department's school resource officers to Denver Public Schools, after the district’s board voted to remove them in 2020. But the debate over police presence in schools puts a spotlight on how in many cases, “safety” can mean different things to different people, and especially to young people of color.
Alex Landau was a 19-year-old community college student in 2009, when he was pulled over by Denver police for making an illegal left turn in north Capitol Hill and badly beaten by three white police officers in an incident that resulted in a $795,000 settlement with the city of Denver. All three officers were cleared of wrongdoing by the city’s manager of safety in 2013, though two of them were later fired as a result of excessive force incidents.
“The image of red and blue lights, and a badge and a gun and impunity to the criminal justice system, is a PTSD trigger for me,” Landau said in an interview. “And that is a mirrored experience for many community members — Black, Brown, Indigenous, even lower-income white.”
Landau is now a co-director of the Denver Justice Project, which began in 2015 as a support group for victims of police violence and has advocated for a variety of criminal justice reforms aimed at fostering “safe and healthy communities.”
“Unfortunately, for me, safety doesn’t begin with law enforcement,” said Landau. “It begins with the removal of law enforcement from particular interactions I experience on a daily basis.”
Failure of ‘Vision Zero’
Riding east from his Wheat Ridge home on the evening of Dec. 9, 34-year-old cyclist Logan Rocklin had just crossed Denver city limits at 38th Avenue and Sheridan Boulevard when he was fatally struck by a northbound driver who fled the scene. Just over a week later, 32-year-old Ainslie O’Neil was struck and killed while riding her bike across Federal Boulevard on 35th Avenue.
Both locations are part of what’s known as Denver’s “high-injury network,” roughly two dozen high-speed arterial roads that account for half or more of all the city’s traffic deaths. The network was first identified in a 2017 city report outlining its plan for “Vision Zero,” a nationwide initiative aimed at achieving zero traffic deaths by 2030.
The city’s initiative has been a dismal failure. After recording an average of 53 traffic deaths per year in the years leading up to the release of the Hancock administration’s “Vision Zero Action Plan,” Denver has seen a surge in fatalities since then, reaching 84 deaths on its streets in 2021 and 82 in 2022. The 15 traffic fatalities the city recorded in the first two months of this year have put Denver on track for another new high in 2023.
In Denver’s close-knit community of biking and transit advocates, each tragedy hits especially hard.
“Sometimes it feels insurmountable,” said Molly McKinley, policy director for the Denver Streets Partnership, which advocates for multimodal transportation policy. “The fact that people continue to be killed at higher rates on our city streets every year, with action that doesn’t seem to match the level of crisis, is really upsetting and heartbreaking.”
Though traffic safety has largely been absent as an issue in the mayor’s race, questions about red light cameras sparked debate last week among City Council candidates and activists over whether the solution to rising traffic fatalities, too, is more policing and harsher punishments for offenders.
McKinley said that while automated measures like photo enforcement could be an “interim solution” in certain situations, efforts to improve traffic safety should focus more on “system design.”
“Right now, people drive really fast on Colfax (Avenue) and Federal because they’re designed like highways,” she said. “We could be designing our streets in a way where it facilitates safe behavior, so that we’re not having to introduce additional traffic enforcement.”
Ashley Brooks-Russell, who studies traffic safety at the Colorado School of Public Health, says that public-health researchers are trained to “look for the environmental changes” that may be driving trends like the increase in road fatalities.
“It’s hard, because they’re an investment in the physical infrastructure — things like how we design roadways, how we look at intersections where there have been a lot of crashes,” Brooks-Russell said. “Those are very expensive, and I don’t know if you always see the impacts quickly enough that people feel like there’s enough urgency being given the issue.”
Like rising crime rates, Denver’s higher rates of deadly traffic accidents are part of a statewide and nationwide trend. Last year, Colorado reported the highest death toll on its roads in over 40 years, an increase that transportation officials and experts blame on a variety of factors including a rise in impaired driving and the growing popularity of larger, more dangerous vehicles.
When it comes to safety, Brooks-Russell noted that technological trends are “cutting in both directions” — heavier electric vehicles are expected to increasingly dominate U.S. roadways in the coming years, but the adoption of full or partial self-driving features on a growing number of cars could make things safer in the long run.
“It’s a long way off from that being a reality, especially for all motorists,” she said. “We have some decades ahead of us with these challenges.”
About half of the nearly 700 people killed in traffic accidents in Denver over the last decade were people in cars or on motorcycles, according to city data. The next most at-risk category was pedestrians, who accounted for 235 fatalities over that span.
As Denver strives to reduce car use in order to meet its climate and environmental goals, the perceived lack of safety for people who choose to navigate the city on foot, bike or public transit presents far-reaching challenges. So too do persistent concerns about the Regional Transportation District, the Denver metro area’s independently-governed public transit agency, which continues to report ridership figures roughly 40% below pre-pandemic levels and a rise in violence and drug use aboard its buses and trains.
Though state leaders planned last year to roll out a fully funded program to provide free rides across the RTD system and reduce air pollution during the summer ozone season, they met resistance from RTD leadership, who expressed fears about driver and passenger safety. In January, the agency announced plans to prohibit passengers from riding indefinitely, a policy that critics say would target people experiencing homelessness. McKinley acknowledged that the state of RTD is a “tough issue,” but the Denver Streets Partnership opposes the rule change.
“There aren’t that many public spaces, especially indoors, where folks can just exist in Denver,” she said. “We want everyone to feel safe and welcome on our public transit — from transit operators, to residents and visitors, to unhoused individuals, to folks experiencing really challenging times.
“What we’re seeing right now in our public transit system is symptoms of unmet needs in our community more broadly,” McKinley added. “We really need leadership to be addressing the root causes of these issues.”
Perception and bias
A bipartisan poll released last month by A Denver For Us All, a group of Denver business leaders, found that 63% of Denver residents report feeling safe in the city, compared to 35% who report feeling unsafe. Three-quarters of Denver voters said crime is either a major or a minor problem, but only 21% called it a “crisis.”
The best predictor of attitudes on crime and safety, the poll found, wasn’t a respondent’s neighborhood, age, sex, race, income or education level, but their political affiliation. Republicans, who make up fewer than 10% of Denver’s 450,000 registered voters, were far and away the demographic group most likely to report feeling “very unsafe,” at 30%, compared to 12% citywide.
For decades, studies have shown that public perceptions and media portrayals of crime don’t always match up with reality. A 2022 Bloomberg report found that in New York City, where Mayor Eric Adams was elected on a tough-on-crime platform two years ago, a rise of roughly 50% in the number of shootings citywide was accompanied by a 600% increase in media coverage mentioning shootings.
Even perceptions of the infamous “Summer of Violence” in 1993 were heavily influenced by local media, which coined the moniker despite the fact that rates of violent crime were down from the previous year, a 2000 study by University of Denver researchers found.
“We created a bit of hysteria,” former Denver Post editor Frank Scarndale told the New Republic in 2021. “We got the politicians involved. There were a lot of editorials, a whole cauldron of stuff.”
In August 1993, Democratic Gov. Roy Romer convened a special session of the Legislature to address youth gun violence, passing a package of reforms that dramatically increased criminal punishments and expanded the state’s juvenile incarceration system. A decade later, Colorado’s youth justice system and practice of sentencing offenders as young as 14 years old to life without parole became the target of a scathing report by the organization Human Rights Watch.
Denver’s 2023 municipal election will be the first since the launch of the Denver Gazette, a new digital newspaper launched by conservative Colorado billionaire Phil Anschutz. In an aggressive citywide advertising campaign, the new outlet has sought to position itself as a rival to the long-established Denver Post, urging readers to “leave the Post in the past.”
One social media ad launched by the Gazette in January touted its “honest reporting on Denver crime prevention,” though the ad’s image of flames towering over a patrol car was in fact taken from a 2022 roadside wildfire in Eagle County. Its editorial board, which offers readers nonstop commentary on the city’s “crime tsunami,” endorsed Brough for mayor last month.
While some newspapers in Colorado and across the country, including the Post, have begun to rethink the routine publication of mug shots of suspects released by law enforcement agencies, the Gazette and its social media accounts publish a steady stream of such photos. They’re joined by prominent figures in Denver’s conservative talk-radio world, who have for years collected lurid stories of crime and homelessness under the hashtag “#DenverInDecay.”
A study published in November by researchers at Stanford University found that nationally, social media posts by law enforcement agencies significantly overreport crimes allegedly committed by Black suspects, who make up 20% of arrestees but account for 32% of posts about criminal suspects on official police Facebook accounts.
“This overexposure occurs across crime types and geographic regions and increases with the proportion of both Republican voters and non-Black residents,” researchers wrote.
One candidate for mayor, Democratic state Sen. Chris Hansen, faced harsh criticism last month for a TV ad that featured footage of unhoused people and people apparently committing crimes, most of whom appeared to be people of color. Hansen called crime and homelessness “the No. 1 issue on voters’ minds” and said complaints about the ad were “overwrought.”
At times, alarm over public safety issues in Colorado veers into the realm of misinformation. Multiple mayoral candidates have blamed the state’s rise in auto thefts on a 2019 law that reduced the penalty for stealing a car valued at under $2,000 from a felony to a misdemeanor — but over 91% of stolen cars exceed that value threshold, and remain a felony. Widespread myths about the synthetic opioid fentanyl, including claims of airborne or passive exposure that toxicologists have debunked as virtually impossible, continue to be spread by law enforcement agencies.
“I think we need to re-center the conversation on vulnerable populations,” said Barocas, an advocate for unhoused people who supports solutions like safe drug use sites to prevent overdoses among people with substance use disorders. “Currently the conversation amongst many of the candidates is centered on people who, in general, are pretty safe.”
A Denver For Us All’s poll found that residents in southeast Denver — home to some of the city’s lowest violent crime rates by far, according to Denver police data — were the least likely to report feeling safe.
Barocas said he takes notice of where he sees yard signs supporting some of the mayoral race’s more conservative-leaning, tough-on-crime candidates.
“I see those signs on very big houses with the Ring doorbells and security cameras,” he said. “And I feel bad for that person, because what is actually going to make them feel safe?
“It’s apparently so unnerving to them to encounter someone experiencing homelessness for 20 minutes out of their day, or an hour, that they then feel unsafe,” Barocas added. “I feel bad for that person, and I feel like some of the candidates are exploiting that.”
Statistically, among the most dangerous things a Denverite can do is climb a ladder.
In 2021, an estimated 16,484 people visited emergency rooms in Denver after suffering an accidental fall — more than any other category tracked by the state health departments’s Injury Epidemiology Program, and an increase from an annual average of 13,975 between 2016 and 2018.
Twelve people in Denver died from workplace injuries in 2021, the highest number in at least 12 years, according to state records. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that 192 Denverites died from accidents like falls, drownings, suffocations and non-drug-related poisonings — also the highest number in decades.
Across a wide range of different safety categories and circumstances, the trends are roughly similar: Things trended slightly in the wrong direction throughout the latter half of the 2010s, and took a significant turn for the worse during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I do think they’re united by a few things,” said Brooks-Russell, who directs the Injury & Violence Prevention Center at the Colorado School of Public Health.
More than 14,000 Coloradans and well over 1 million Americans have died from COVID-19, according to official statistics, though experts say the true number of “excess deaths” that are attributable to the pandemic is far higher. A tumultuous period that included widespread civil unrest and a bitter presidential campaign ended with a violent assault on the seat of American democracy. Prolonged periods of unemployment for millions of workers gave way to supply-chain shocks, volatility in energy markets and high inflation.
“It’s this complicated flow of people feeling hopelessness and despair. That sometimes leads to substance use addictions, sometimes it leads to mental health crises and other outcomes, violence against others, violence against self,” Brooks-Russell said. “You could point to housing, employment, wages, lack of various employer benefits. To sum it up in a word, it’s about poverty.”
In the treatment of substance use disorders, Barocas and many other public health experts advocate for an approach focused on “harm reduction,” minimizing the impacts and stigmas often associated with addiction. He said that many of the same principles should be applied in other situations, too, and urged policymakers to focus on “upstream factors” rather than the “individual factor” when it comes to different public safety issues.
“It’s so much easier to say the problem exists because of the person: ‘The guy who ran the red light and killed the person, that’s his fault,’” he said. “And we don’t think about — well, are our traffic laws correct? Should we have longer yellow lights? … What could have been done at a societal level to decrease that risk?”
But whether it’s crime, road safety or another issue of public concern, Brooks-Russell noted, it’s often far from the most politically expedient option to emphasize the role of long-term investments and infrastructure improvements.
“There can be decades between those causes and effects,” she said.
It’s a pivotal time for public safety in Denver. In addition to electing a new mayor and city council later this spring, the city will elect a district attorney for the 2nd Judicial District in 2024. Landau, the Denver Justice Project and other progressive activists across the city say they’ll continue to organize for police accountability measures, and policies that address the root causes of violence and other health and environmental risks.
“When it comes to safety, it has to be a holistic, wrap-around approach, because there is no one entity that can provide safety for an entire community alone,” said Landau. “And law enforcement certainly cannot do this by themselves.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 5:05 p.m., March 8, 2023, to correct a reference to the group that funded a poll on perceptions of crime. The group’s name is A Denver For Us All.
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