- Associated Press - Saturday, January 25, 2020

AURORA, Colo. (AP) - Anyone who has called city hall in recent years has likely been greeted with Aurora’s proudest slogan: “The safest large city in Colorado.”

But the number of murders in recent days and weeks has challenged that claim, which is based on 2015 federal crime rates per 1,000 residents.

There have been 11 homicides in Aurora since Dec. 1, with at least two other shootings that left a total of six more people injured, The Aurora Sentinel reported. Several of the shootings have involved children.

The first weeks of 2020 have seen Aurora racked by gun violence in particular. Aurora police have investigated five shootings since Jan. 1. Two of those shootings took place a week apart at the same apartment complex behind Rangeview High School, the Courtyards at Buckley. After a quintuple shooting at the complex Jan. 12, at least one resident told The Sentinel he plans to move.

“This place sucks,” Kyle Vickers, 22, said of the complex last week. “We’re actually moving out right now.”

Another recent shooting that garnered widespread attention involved teenagers at The Town Center of Aurora. One teenager shot another inside a department store.

Police brass have acknowledged the perceived spike in crime and largely attributed it to the increased availability of firearms.

“I think right now it is an uptick in violent crime and I think (it’s) the accessibility to guns,” newly appointed Interim Chief Vanessa Wilson said. “You know, people can fight and have an argument and yell and scream and disagree with each other, but when there’s a gun involved … tragedy is going to occur.”

To combat the rise in violence, Wilson implored parents to talk to their children about guns, and engage community organizations to identify resources for young people who may be struggling.

“It takes the entire community and it takes the parents getting involved,” she said. “Not saying that they’re not, but if they’re struggling with somebody - a juvenile - that is experiencing whatever they’re going through in their life, whether it’s depression or addiction or just unhappiness, like if parents feel like they don’t have options, we have (Police Area Representative) officers, we have nonprofit organizations; this community has things, solutions, to help with that. They’re our future, so everyone has to be invested in this.”

Wilson, who took the reins on an interim basis from former Chief Nick Metz at the beginning of the year, said she’s working with the city’s community relations division to bolster resources and events for Aurora children. The city dispersed free recreation center passes and hosted an expo last summer following a spate of murders that resulted in the deaths of three different 16-year-old boys in the first half of 2019.

City Councilwoman Allison Hiltz, who serves as chairwoman of the city’s public safety committee, said she’d like to bring more youth into the conversation about the resources needed to combat gun violence.

“We have an opportunity to get it right, and we need to think fast and figure out how we’re going to do it right,” she said.

Hiltz lives in Ward 5, where seven people have been shot in the last week.

“I don’t know if we fully understand the scope of the problem. I’m hearing a lot of people ask if it’s safe to walk their dog down the street at night,” she said. “My understanding is that (these shootings) are not random and are not a threat to the general public but when you have this much, the general public sees it and they don’t know if they’re safe or not to go about their daily business and I don’t know how to make them feel more comfortable because I don’t have the answers.”

It’s difficult to judge whether the shootings are random. Police release few if any details. It isn’t until courts get involved that the public finds out what happened in most shootings, sometimes months after the fact.

Overall, crime in the city trended up in 2019, with 19 reported homicides in the first nine months of the year, according to most recent Aurora police crime statistics. That was a 35 percent increase over 2018.

Denver officials report the homicide rate in that city being relatively flat during the past year. Denver recorded 60 homicides in 2018 and 59 in 2019, according to city records.

Colorado Springs homicide trends look more like those of Aurora, according to that city’s records. The city reported an almost 20 percent increase in homicides over the past five years. Numbers were not immediately available for 2019. There were 38 recorded homicides in Colorado Springs in 2018, and all but six of which involved a firearm.

It’s also difficult to discern how much of those cities’ gun violence is attributed to youth or gang violence. In Aurora, police and city leaders acknowledge that the numbers point to a problem.

Jason McBride, a program assistant with the Gang Rescue and Support Project in Denver, condemned city leaders’ response to the recent shootings, saying he nearly walked out of a recent community forum after attendees failed to discuss youth violence.

“It’s amazingly hard to deal with right now, especially if you don’t have any idea how to deal with it, and, honestly, Aurora has no idea what they’re doing at all - none whatsoever,” he said. “ … As a kid that’s going through this, I would feel disrespected and insulted because I’d think they don’t give a f(asterisk)(asterisk)(asterisk) about us. That’s why these kids are exhibiting these behaviors: because they don’t think anybody cares anyway, and if you go by these meetings, they don’t.”

McBride, who was involved in Aurora gangs himself in the early 1990s, said while factions have evolved into slippery, diminutive entities, cities like Aurora could curb gang-related violence with additional school-based resources.

“They’ve evolved into something that’s really hard to track,” McBride said of gangs in 2020. “They’re not necessarily identifying with a park or a school or numbers or anything like that … now, it’s six or seven kids who play Fortnite together.

“You have to want to make these kids want to go to school, and if you offer them amenities, they’ll go to school and they’ll stay in school. You just have to offer them something that they’re interested in, but the traditional ways of teaching they’re not interested in any more. So they skip school and they get into trouble … This is a city that has money for schools and can make a dent in the problem by just offering enrichment programs that kids identify with.”

In lieu of those resources, McBride said violence will continue to spill into younger demographics.

“We’re picking up 14-year-olds, 13-year-olds,” he said. “And if we don’t stop the problem now, three years from now it’ll be 10- and 11-year-olds.”

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