In Colorado’s three largest cities, 2020 was not just a year of pandemic and politics. It was a year of record homicides.
In Denver, Aurora and Colorado Springs, the data tells the same story. Denver saw 95 homicides, the police department said, up from 63 in 2019, according to the Denver Post’s number. Aurora recorded 43, compared to 30 the previous year. Colorado Springs reported 39 homicides, up from 24 in 2019.
The uptick of killings — believed associated in part with the COVID-19 pandemic — tell a startlingly grim story for domestic violence victims, experts said.
In Denver, according to Police Chief Paul Pazen, aggravated assaults tied to domestic violence jumped more than 40%, totaling more than 1,000 in 2020.
In Aurora, underlying factors are known in only 15 of the city’s 43 homicides in 2020, according to an email from a police department spokesperson. Of that number, three were domestic violence related.
More than 25% of those who died in Colorado Springs were a result of domestic violence, police said, up from 17% in 2019 and 18% in 2018.
Law enforcement officials and domestic violence advocates said they saw not only an increase in domestic violence calls, but the severity of the abuse worsened throughout 2020.
Pandemic stressors “All of us have been experiencing stressors in our lives on a daily basis. But the added unknowns that the pandemic brought on all of us in March — with loss of jobs, children at home, inability to go about life as we know it — contributed more stress into our lives,” said Anne Markley, chief executive officer of TESSA, a Colorado Springs nonprofit that serves those experiencing domestic violence.
In a typical year, TESSA serves about 15,000 people, Markley said. In 2020, the organization helped between 22,000 to 23,000 people.
In 2019, the organization received an average of 800 calls a month to its hotline, but in 2020, that number jumped to about 13,000 monthly calls.
“Those numbers are not going down. They are staying steady, if not going up,” Markley said.
Markley commended Gov. Jared Polis’ support of domestic violence victims through the pandemic, citing his public acknowledgment that those experiencing domestic violence could break stay-at-home orders to seek safety.
Though the nonprofit has one of the largest safe houses in the state, she said they are still limited on space, with only 32 beds.
Locally, Markley said her organization has a strong relationship with the Colorado Springs Police Department, El Paso County Sheriff’s Office and human service organizations throughout the city.
Lt. Jim Sokolik, a spokesman for the Colorado Springs police, said it was hard to point to what caused the rise in homicides in 2020 and that preventing these types of crimes is often difficult.
“These homicides aren’t necessarily driven by each other. They can be very distinct events,” Sokolik said.
He stressed the importance for those experiencing domestic violence to contact police as soon as possible so that police can connect him or her with appropriate resources.
Among the domestic violence victims in Colorado Springs were Tamara Dunn and Ann Scott, a mother and daughter who were killed by Scott’s estranged husband, after Scott did seemingly everything she could to protect herself against the man who she said stalked, attacked and threatened her.
Scott, 29, called the police and petitioned for a protective order. Dunn spent nights with her at a north Colorado Springs apartment, sleeping with a butcher’s knife under her pillow.
But those efforts meant nothing when, family members said, Scott’s estranged husband stormed into her home in early March and fatally shot his wife and stabbed his mother-in-law 16 times.
In a two-week span in March, six people were killed in domestic-related violence, records show.
Months later came the death of Stella Vigil, a woman in her 70s, whose body was found next to her husband’s along a hiking trail in early October.
Though her death was seemingly agreed upon through a murder-suicide pact, the elderly couple’s deaths marked the tragic impact 2020 had on mental health.
In a note, included in an autopsy report, the couple wrote: “We find our World in a state of chaos with no hope for the future all brought on by a dysfunctional government…”. It continued: “now the use of coronavirus to create a world of fear through our country… Creating a world filled with stress, anxiety, and most of all fear of the future!!! A world that isn’t worth living.”
James “Greg” Anderson, 62, died after his wife shot him several times in their Rockrimmon home, according to court documents. Amee Karin Anderson told police she awoke in bed in the early hours of the morning after hearing “fidgeting” and then screams from her husband on the other side of the bed.
When she turned on the lights, she said she found her husband bleeding from the neck with a large hunting knife in his hand, documents stated.
She said her husband was yelling and “blaming the coronavirus and stating he was not going to live through it,” documents stated.
Though she claimed self defense, court documents show officials charged her with first-degree murder after deliberation.
In Manitou Springs, Wendy Cupit was killed by her husband in June. He admitted to police he stabbed her with a kitchen knife in “a fit of rage,” according to court documents.
Denver and Aurora cases
Denver chief Pazen said domestic violence along with child abuse and suicide concerned Denver Police from the beginning of the pandemic. Since the risks are often noticed and reported by someone outside the home, Pazen said stay-at-home orders and school closures reduced opportunities to intervene.
“With many of those types of reporting mechanisms being unavailable to us based on stay-at- home orders and school not (being) in person, we were very concerned,” he said.
Pazen said people should not doubt that Denver Police are available to respond to domestic violence right now. But he said the need for limiting interactions brought on by the pandemic has hampered the DPD’s efforts for proactive outreach and following up to prevent domestic violence.
Margaret Abrams, the executive director of the Rose Andom Center in Denver, which connects domestic violence survivors with resources such as shelters and legal representation, said in an email the center saw a drop in its numbers of intakes and contacts for connections with other services in April, May and June. Since August, those numbers have been at and above the center’s 2019 numbers.
The center provided intake and case management services to 989 people in 2020.
Abrams speculated that the numbers of people reaching out to the Rose Andom Center fell in the spring because “victims … didn’t feel able to reach out for help until things reached a really critical level, and where their safety was really at risk.”
She said shortfall in services provided in-person had diminished the center’s ability to track its contacts with clients.
Abrams said the Rose Andom Center’s staff had 1,085 intakes in 2019 for assessing new clients’ needs, and had 2,031 people total come in about 4,211 times to access services.
Anne Kelly, a chief deputy district attorney in Boulder County, who reviews all of the 20th Judicial District’s domestic violence cases, didn’t mince words in saying she considers her job to be homicide prevention.
Kelly said studies have linked natural disasters and economic insecurity to increases in domestic violence. The correlation seems to have to do with increased stress the factors create in a household.
“That’s one of the risk factors for fatality that we look at when we do lethality assessments on our cases — whether or not there’s unemployment and housing insecurity in that relationship. That increases the risk of fatality,” she said.
The district attorneys for Denver and Colorado’s 18th Judicial District, which includes part of Aurora, declined interviews for this story.
Kelly said efforts to keep jail populations down during the pandemic has also created a new urgency for prosecutors to review domestic violence cases after an initial arrest to make a judgment about the suspect’s immediate danger to the victim, and to decide whether to argue for stricter bail terms, such as a cash bond, instead of just a personal recognizance bond.
When someone is arrested for a domestic violence incident, the clock is ticking before their bond hearing by the next afternoon, because the brief period when a suspect is in jail is a safe time for their victim to get out of their household and take steps to protect themselves, such as pursuing a protection order, Kelly said.
A deadly year for the nation
National crime rates show that Colorado wasn’t the only state to see an uptick in homicides.
According to NPR, at the year’s end, Chicago police reported more than 750 murders — marking an increase of more than 50% compared to 2019. There were 437 homicides in New York City by Dec. 20, nearly 40% more than the year prior and in Los Angeles, there was a 30% increase from 2019 with 322 homicides.
New Orleans-based data consultant Jeff Asher analyzed crime rates in more than 50 cities and saw a rise in not only big cities. Using data through September, he saw a 36.7% increase in murder rates in 57 agencies, he said in a tweet.
He anticipated that the rise would be the largest one-year rise in murder in the nation’s history and it has been more than half a century since the country saw a year-to-year homicide rate that jumped nearly 13%, he wrote.