Kristin Neubauer has few complaints about her nook of the southeast.
On tree-shaded streets east of South Academy Boulevard, some properties stand out from neglect or disrepair, and neighbors occasionally warn of prowlers, though unlocked cars seem to be the target of choice.
“I don’t feel unsafe,” said Neubauer, 39, who lives near Hancock Expressway and Harrier Ridge Drive. “I let my daughter walk to and from school by herself, which I never would have let her do in our old neighborhood,” near the Citadel Mall, which Neubauer calls “the ‘hood.”
In southeast Colorado Springs, short distances invite jarring shifts in perspective, as attested by 30-year resident Kathy Silva.
Silva, 62, lives on the west side of South Academy Boulevard, near Fountain Boulevard and Chelton Road — an area with double the number of violent crimes in the past several years compared to Neubauer’s, Colorado Springs police figures show. In September, gunfire erupted outside Silva’s front door, sending her neighbors diving to their floors, the latest in what she describes as continuing chaos.
“It’s hell,” Silva said. “It used to be we’d hear gunshots just on weekends. Now, it’s every day of the week.”
It’s nothing new for crime and perceptions of safety to vary from one neighborhood to the next. But block-by-block disparities have ushered in a grim distinction in the southeast, making it the most violent quadrant of Colorado Springs, a Gazette analysis has found.
Southeast Colorado Springs, with about a fifth of the city’s population, accounts for 30 percent of the violent crimes.
Police data shows the area is the center of gang activity in Colorado Springs, containing roughly 40 percent of the city’s known gang population. And sprawling apartment complexes draw frequent emergency calls, contributing to the trends.
Between 2012 and 2016, the city recorded 10,559 major violent crimes — murder or manslaughter, rape, robbery and assault, crime figures show. Of those, 3,231 occurred in the southeast.
When it comes to murder alone, the southeast has more than its share, home to 8 of 22 homicides reported in 2016, or 36 percent, and 9 of 26 homicides so far this year, or 35 percent, police say.
The 18 census tracts that make up the area include six of the 10 most violent in the city, according to The Gazette’s analysis, which focused on an area generally east of Union Boulevard and south of Platte Avenue, including Peterson Air Force Base.
Police at a disadvantage
While many residents say that crime doesn’t define the place they call home, it contributes to an entrenched cycle.
This five-day Gazette series explores a tangle of stubborn social issues in the southeast that have long been linked to crime, including disproportionate poverty, joblessness and related urban ills.
Pinpointing reasons behind disparities from one block to another can be tricky in an area so diverse, but residents tend to blame parochial factors — a nearby drug den, a street with too many shabby rentals or, in Silva’s case, a cluster of high-density housing complexes where police are summoned to raucous gatherings, fights and gunshots.
“You can hear them all the time,” Silva said.
Colorado Springs Police Chief Peter Carey echoed Silva’s concerns more generally about the department’s southeastern Sand Creek subdivision, which patrols the southeast.
“One of biggest concerns I have in Sand Creek is it’s got a high concentration of multifamily housing,” he said. “That’s tough for a cop to develop a relationship with that community,” he added, mentioning crime, anonymity among residents and high proportion of military families that come and go.
One such place is Whitney Young Manor at 2120 Delta Drive, a 200-unit complex where a 2008 shooting killed two men and wounded three other people. Three men were ultimately convicted. More recently, the complex figured into the investigation into a gang-related plot that resulted in the killings of two Coronado teenagers, Natalie Cano-Partida and Derek Greer, with reports that a different teenager abducted as part of the same plan was held in an apartment there, authorities say. Shootings and fights have likewise drawn police to the El Vecino Apartments, 1802 Monterey Road, and Summit Creek Apartments, 1940 S. Chelton Road, in recent months.
Just as police officers begin to learn the dynamics behind the latest trouble at Whitney Young or similar properties in the southeast, old residents move, new ones arrive and new trends take hold, Carey said.
Police launched the Crime-Free Multi-Housing Program, which works with apartment managers on safety and security issues and encouraging them to keep residents informed through regular meetings. But Carey acknowledged that consistent engagement by patrol officers is difficult at a time of what police have called “critical” staffing shortages that leave officers tied up on one emergency call after another.
“You could say that we’re easily 100 police officers down from where we need to be,” Carey said.
In response to the southeast’s disproportionate share of crime, police have assigned more officers there compared to the three other subdivisions, according to staffing numbers the department provided. This year, it has 98 authorized patrol officers — or 34.5 percent of the available patrol force, well above the southeast’s population share of 20 percent and in excess of its 30 percent share of violent crime from 2012-2016.
The southeastern district was also hit with a 2016 restructuring that eliminated special units based there focusing on gangs and localized crime patterns — two factors cited by top brass in driving crime.
The officers were among 30 reassigned from special units to patrol to put more boots on the ground as police grappled with staffing shortages.
Sureños, Crips, Bloods
It’s difficult to say how much of the crime in the southeast flows from gangs, police say, because it isn’t always clear if gang affiliation actually sparked a given crime, or if someone previously identified as a gang affiliate is still involved.
But the southeast has more claimed gang members than anywhere in the city, according to police data showing it is home to 42 percent of them, twice its share relative to population.
Potential gang links have emerged in numerous high-profile crimes in recent years, including a 2012 attack at a party in which Alonzo “Baby Wiz” Paige opened fire on a rival gang at an apartment complex in the 3200 block of East Bijou Street, killing two men and leaving a brother of one of the dead men paralyzed.
The Sureños — based primarily in Southern California and consisting of loosely related gangs that pay tribute to Mexican drug cartels — make up the single largest gang affiliation in Colorado Springs, police records show. Four in 10 live in the southeast. The Crips, Folk and Bloods also have disproportionate representation there.
Without dedicated gang detectives monitoring them, they are freer than ever to cause trouble, Officer Sean Frazee told The Gazette during a recent patrol shift in Sand Creek.
“I think it made crime increase,” Frazee said. “We don’t have people that know the main players in the gangs, the problem people, and they don’t see trends developing. I don’t see trends developing from my perspective just because we go to everything,” he said, referring to a constant stream of 911 calls that keep police running between emergencies.
With police response times averaging 14 minutes per emergency citywide — 75 percent above the national “gold standard” of eight minutes — Carey said he was forced to take action to put more boots on the ground across the city.
By reassigning six officers from the city’s gang unit and others from the Sand Creek-based Impact Teams, police managed to trim response times by 2 minutes, still leaving them 4 minutes slower than their goal, Carey said, adding, “I’m not proud of that.”
One gang expert called the disbanding of the gang unit an example of reactive policing that prioritizes “putting out fires” over early intervention.
Mayor John Suthers, who defended the move last year, previously summarized the grudging acceptance from elected officials and community leaders.
“The world is full of trade-offs,” Suthers told The Gazette in September 2016. “The objective here was to get more people on the street in patrol. And we’re hoping that that will not significantly deter our gang effort, our anti-gang efforts in the city.”
In an initiative that went to voters earlier this month, Suthers won approval from city residents on a new stormwater fee. Current city general fund dollars now going to stormwater projects will be used instead to hire additional officers and firefighters, among other needed changes.
Carey called the plan “a positive step in the right direction,” saying he would like to see 100 officers added to the force within five years, pledging more proactive policing, faster response times and higher clearance rates.
In the meantime, police say they participate in community programs meant to take a different approach to public safety issues, including attending monthly meetings with the Fountain-Chelton partnership, a nonprofit that works on crime issues.
A painful casualty of downsizing has been the ability of street-level officers to conduct proactive investigations — which Carey called necessary to stopping crime trends in their place.
Instead of trying to figure out if a string of car break-ins is related, and who might be to blame, officers are too wrapped up on the most serious calls to devote meaningful time to less urgent, quality-of-life issues, Carey said.
“We’re not Detroit or Philly, where I come from. However, we’re struggling,” Carey said.
Recent history is rife with examples of how property crimes turn violent. In 2013, a series of burglaries south of Pikes Peak Avenue ratcheted up with assaults on a 15-year-old girl home sick from school and a 71-year-old woman who was beaten and robbed inside her home twice in four months. The 17-year-old boy identified as a suspect in those break-ins, Macyo January, was ultimately convicted of killing a Fort Carson soldier and his pregnant wife in January 2013 while ransacking their home. He is serving back-to-back life sentences with the possibility of parole.
or those who haven’t been personally touched by violence, stereotypes of neighborhoods in the grip of chaos can feel overblown.
Shreena Brown, 27, who lives at Fountain and Powers Boulevard, doesn’t consider her neighborhood bad, even though her car was stolen over the winter when she left it running to warm up, calling it her fault.
“I have no problems,” she said. “I have friends that live up north off of Constitution and they still deal with crime and have their cars broke into. I feel like it’s spreading everywhere.”
Craig Martinez, 23, said he got a rude awakening when he left his childhood home in the southeast, at Circle Drive and Fountain Boulevard, and moved into an apartment at Austin Bluffs and Academy boulevards.
“I feel less safe where I live now,” Martinez said, recounting shootings and robberies that have happened not far from his doorstep. “I think people just try to give the southeast a bad image. It seems like it’s (crime) everywhere in the city.”
The issue of violent crime — and the question of police staffing — registers more with those who have been directly affected.
Pressures on Colorado Springs police weigh heavily on Margie Chavarria, who lost her daughter Cindy Arias in 2015 to a crime of brutal violence — a home invasion, abduction and double murder that began on Jetwing Drive off South Powers Boulevard.
Arias, 22, and her boyfriend, Luis Fernando Sandoval, 33, were taken at gunpoint from an apartment near the Colorado Springs Airport. Their bodies were later found in a field near Calhan in unincorporated El Paso County, showing evidence they had been bound and tortured, Chavarria said.
Two years later, police tell her they have no suspects — partly, she believes, because of a staffing crunch.
“I think they’re really good cops, really good detectives,” Chavarria said. “The thing is because they’re full of too much crime. That’s what the detective told me — that he’s sent to one place and to another, doesn’t have enough time to be on one case, because they have to be on a lot of cases at the same time.”
Carey acknowledged that pressures extend to the violent crimes units, but said boosting their numbers is a longer-term goal, given financial constraints.
Earlier this year, Chavarria, who receives public housing assistance, moved into an apartment at Fountain Boulevard and Chelton Road, the same area where Silva reported so much turmoil.
Her apartment is filled with gifts from her daughter, including a Minnie Mouse snow globe, a chandelier-style lamp on a side table and a portrait of the Virgin Mary. There also are enormous photos of Arias on the walls. A necklace with an imprint of her fingerprint is kept in Chavarria’s purse or around her neck. On the back, it reads, “A touch of Cindy forever.”
She doesn’t tie what happened to her daughter to the southeast, saying, “I feel safe there. I like the area.”
Nor has she lost hope police will capture her daughter’s killers, despite the department’s challenges.
The only question is when.
“I feel that they’re getting there — slowly, but they’re getting there. Sometimes, justice comes that way. It takes a while, but it comes, and I have faith in God that it will come, one way or another.”
Ellie Mulder, Chhun Sun, and Burt Hubbard contributed to this story.