Aurora’s top law enforcement official couldn’t pin down an exact cause for the city’s spiking gun violence but said the bloodshed will not stop quickly and will take dedicated, long-term solutions.
“This isn’t a quick fix,” Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson said Monday in a presentation to Aurora City Council. “There isn’t a Band-Aid. This has to be a commitment by the city.”
Thirteen people have been killed in homicides in the first six months of 2021 in Aurora and 74 others have been shot and survived. That’s on pace to meet the levels of gun violence of 2020, when gun violence spiked and the number of homicides and shootings doubled from the year prior.
More people have been injured in shootings in the first half of 2021 than in all of 2019, Aurora police data shows. The numbers are alarming, Wilson said.
“I wish I had a crystal ball, I wish I had a magic pill, that I could tell you what is happening,” she said.
The chief listed a variety of factors that could be influencing crime, including the stress and financial impacts of COVID-19, changes to the criminal legal system during the pandemic, a flood of illegal guns and easy access to firearms.
“I know that all of us are getting complaints at what appears to be an increase in gun violence in our city,” Mayor Mike Coffman said.
The department is also severely hampered by a lack of officers, Wilson said. Seventy-two officers have left the department so far in 2021, bringing their staffing level to 691 officers. The city budgeted for 742 officers.
The staffing shortage means the department temporarily disassembled or downsized some of its specialty teams, like SWAT and the bicycle patrol unit. Instead, those officers are rotating through patrol shifts, which Wilson said she is paying overtime to fill. The department is holding five smaller academies, instead of the usual two, in an effort to get new officers into uniforms faster. The department is also exploring hiring non-law enforcement officers to handle some duties, like taking non-fatal car crash reports.
“They are tired and they are weary,” Wilson said of her officers.
But the department is still trying different methods to reduce crime, including focusing patrols on crime “hot spots” and creating a team to focus on robberies with a gang connection. The department also applied for a crime reduction program through the U.S. Department of Justice.
Crime data collected by the Federal Bureau of Investigation shows that Aurora’s per-capita violent crime rate more than doubled between 2010 and 2020, meaning the increase in violent crime outpaced the rate of the city’s growth. In 2010, the violent crime rate was 4.5 crimes per 1,000 residents. By 2020, that rate grew to 9.6.
Property crime rates, however, increased only slightly during that time period. The rate was 30.9 property crimes per 1,000 in 2010 and 33.9 crimes per 1,000 in 2020.
Except for sexual assaults — which fell by 22% — every major category of violent crime saw significant increases between 2019 and 2020, according to Aurora police data. Homicides increased 39%, aggravated assaults increased by 33% and and robberies increased by 22%.
In that same time period, arrests by Aurora police plummeted by 47%, the data shows.
Arrests cannot be the only solution to crime, Wilson said. She said nonprofits and city programs need to address some of the underlying causes of crime: instability, financial need and a lack of mental health resources.
“This isn’t just a problem that the police can tackle,” Wilson said.
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