Infectious disease wasn't the only menace killing Colorado Springs residents more frequently last year. Residents killed each other on more occasions than they had in any year for at least three decades, according to data released Monday by the FBI.
There were 36 homicides in 2020.
The rise in homicides corresponded with a nationwide spike, but local leaders said they could not point to what, exactly, caused the increase. They suspect, though, that pandemic-related stresses could have been a contributing factor, especially for killings tied to domestic violence in the city.
And 2021's homicide pace is roughly on track to match 2020 in Colorado Springs, according to police data, although those numbers include non-criminal homicides as well. This year's numbers are inflated by a May mass shooting that left six dead before the alleged killer shot himself.
Last year was the most homicide-heavy year in Colorado Springs since at least 1985, the earliest year displayed in the FBI data. The previous high number was set in 2018, when 32 people died by homicide, according to the data. Overall violent crime in Colorado Springs was relatively stagnant from 2019 to 2020; the city had 2,896 violent crimes reported in 2020 and 2,849 in 2019, according to the FBI.
In an August interview, Colorado Springs Police Chief Vince Niski said it was difficult to point to what caused the national spike, and said policing practices don't have a significant influence on homicides.
“Property crimes, we can impact that. We can impact some violent crimes," he said. "But homicides are just one of those, usually they’re those one-time crimes that people are involved with, that I don’t know how we prevent those.”
Jonathan Caudill, director of the Master of Criminal Justice Program at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, expects the 2020 violence to be temporary.
"We're all going to look back at 2020 and call it an anomaly, at least in the near term," Caudill said.
Though the stresses of the pandemic may have played a role in sparking the violence, it's still too early to point to an exact cause, he said.
Instead, he pointed to a "cornucopia" of factors that may have contributed.
"I couldn't say that there's empirical evidence that says this that or the other, and I would be cautious of anybody who could tell you exactly why that was," he said.
The pandemic stresses likely had the most significant impact on domestic violence issues, he said, where people may have gotten stuck in problematic living situations and had less access to mental health and social service resources.
"This frustration, anxiety and emotions end up building and it leads to a spark," he said.
The number of deaths tied to domestic violence was higher than usual last year, police previously told The Gazette.
Anne Markley, chief executive officer of TESSA, a Colorado Springs nonprofit that serves those experiencing domestic violence, told The Gazette in January that her organization had seen a large increase in the number of people needing its services. In 2019, the organization received an average of 800 calls a month to its hotline, but in 2020, that number jumped to as many as 1,300 monthly calls, she said.
Domestic violence-related homicides began early last year. Erica Arellano confessed to shooting and killing her boyfriend in a Colorado Springs apartment during a January dispute.
Another domestic dispute led to deaths in March, when Tamara Dunn and Ann Scott, a mother and daughter, 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.
Scott was remembered as a caring woman with a big heart.
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 in what appeared to be a murder-suicide pact she agreed to with her husband Lee.
The jump from 19 homicides in 2019 to 36 last year represents a one-year increase of about 90%, far exceeding the nationwide increase of about 30% revealed in the data. The attention-grabbing local increase is skewed by an unusually low number of Colorado Springs homicides in 2019, which had the fewest since 2012, according to the FBI data.
Compared to a five year average of annual homicides in the FBI data, the 2020 spike is not quite as stark — 2020 had 44% more homicides than the average year between 2015 to 2019.
Still, the single-year jump of 17 homicides was the largest since at least 1985, according to the FBI.