Violence declined at three of Denver’s five crime “hot spots”

When Denver police Cmdr. Brad Qualley drives through the area around South Federal Boulevard and West Alameda Avenue, it’s the things that are no longer there that stand out to him.

The bus stop next to Bungalow Liquors isn’t surrounded by loiterers and drug dealers anymore. A grassy spot near the Walgreens is empty. Broken down and stolen cars no longer line South Hazel Court. Graffiti still marks apartment walls, but there’s less than there used to be.

“As we’re sitting here now, I don’t see anybody,” said Qualley, who has worked in District Four for 12 years. “It was a highway of people, all the time. If you would’ve come out here in December — there’s still work to do, but it’s so much different than it was.”

His officers are also responding less frequently to shootings in the area — one of the successes of the Denver Police Department’s hot spots policing program. For more than a year, a team of officers has focused on the five-block radius around the intersection, which was identified as one of the most violent in the city in 2020. That year, police recorded 49 homicides and shootings in the vicinity. Through Aug. 31 of this year, there have been seven.

Homicides and shootings have fallen substantially over the last two years in three of the five crime “hot spots” identified in 2020 by Denver police. Former Chief Paul Pazen announced the program in May 2021 as part of a plan to mitigate a wave of homicides and shootings. Through the program, police focused on those areas and worked with community organizations as well as other city agencies to make the locations less receptive to criminal behavior.

City leaders, including the mayor, have dubbed the program a success, but violence hasn’t improved at two of Denver’s hot spots and the successes at the three others are not enough to mitigate the rising number of shootings citywide.

The five hot spots — Colfax Avenue and Broadway; Alameda Avenue and Federal Boulevard; Colfax and Yosemite Street; Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Holly Street; and 47th Avenue and Peoria Street — make up less than 2% of the city’s landmass but accounted for approximately 26% of homicides and 49% of aggravated assaults in 2020, according to the department.

Hot spots policing is a well-studied strategy that involves focusing police resources in the small geographic areas where violence is most concentrated and attempting to disrupt it, said David Weisburd, a professor at George Mason University and executive director of the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy, who has been studying hot spots policing for decades.

That doesn’t just mean arresting people or increasing police presence, but also looking at lighting and working with nearby businesses and housing complexes to identify the origins of the problems. Sometimes the source of problems can be narrowed to a single block, a gas station or a bar, he said.

“The evidence is pretty strong that hot spots policing reduces crime,” Weisburd said, though he noted the extent of the success depended on how a program is implemented.

Along with the Federal and Alameda area, violence has subsided around the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and North Holly Street in Park Hill as well as around East 47th Avenue and Peoria Street in Montbello, according to Denver Police Department data.

The number of homicides and non-fatal shootings around the Holly Street intersection fell from 20 in 2020 to three in the first eight months of 2022. At Peoria and 47th, the number of incidents fell from 37 to five.

Shootings and homicides remain consistent at the hot spot at East Colfax and Yosemite Street, but worsened around the intersection of Colfax and Broadway.

Denver police recorded 18 shootings and homicides at the East Colfax hot spot in the first eight months of 2022, compared to 20 in the same time period in 2020. At the downtown hot spot, the number of shootings and homicides increased from 28 in the first eight months of 2020 to 58 in the same time period this year.

Denver is on pace to record fewer homicides in 2022 than in the two previous years, but the number of non-fatal shootings remains similar. The 68 people killed in homicides through Oct. 19 of this year is fewer than the same time period in 2020 and 2021, when the city recorded 82 and 76 homicide victims, respectively.

But the number of non-fatal shootings so far this year in Denver is higher or on par with the same time period during the two previous years. At least 239 people have been injured in shootings so far this year, compared to 250 in the same time period in 2020 and 190 in the same time period of 2021.

New Denver police Chief Ron Thomas said the continued violence citywide is not necessarily a sign that the increased focus on the five areas is simply pushing the violence elsewhere.

“Working with other city partners and community organizations in those hot spots, it doesn’t push it elsewhere,” he said. “I’m not flooding an area with police officers to move a problem elsewhere, they’re embedding themselves in the community to change the dynamics of an area so that they’re not hot spots for crime.”

Fewer gunshots, fewer broken cars

In southwest Denver, a dedicated team of five officers and a sergeant have focused on the five-block radius around Federal Boulevard and Alameda Avenue, said Qualley, the District Four commander.

That team and the district’s community resource officers spoke with business owners and residents in the area to identify problems, like the broken-down cars on Hazel Court. People were using the cars as spots to sell and use drugs, as well as a place to sell guns, Qualley said.

“A large majority of them were coming to the area because it was historically known — if you need whatever, come here,” he said.

The hot spots program builds on work already underway through a community-based crime reduction program in the Westwood neighborhood that Denver police convened under a federal grant. In that program, Denver police brought together multiple community organizations to work together on social needs in the area, like housing and employment, in an effort to combat crime.

The groups host community events in the summer — when criminal activity tends to be higher — to help connect people to services, said Jamie Roth, assistant director of impact strategy with Mi Casa Resource Center, which is part of the program.

“It’s a way for Westwood partners to work more effectively together,” she said.

Mimi Ye, who manages the Far East Center at the intersection of Federal and Alameda, said police have built stronger relationships with her and other business owners in the shopping center over the last year. The police department helped her apply for a grant to buy more security cameras and improve lighting, she said.

She noticed officers in the area more frequently over the past year. One officer even called her one night when he realized she hadn’t clasped the lock on the store that her family runs.

“We’ve built a really strong partnership that if I need something or have an issue and I can reach out to them,” she said. “Before we didn’t feel that kind of confidence that we could do something like that.”

Ye’s mother, Fawn Luong, has owned and operated Truong An Gifts in the center for 34 years. Sometimes when someone walks in that Luong feels could cause problems she asks all her employees to go outside for their own safety. But she generally feels safe in the neighborhood where she’s worked for decades.

“People say this area isn’t safe,” Luong said. “I say everywhere isn’t safe.”

How do the people who live and work near the intersection of Federal and Alameda feel about the hot spots policing program? Many of them didn’t know it was happening.

Franky Moreno, 23, grew up in a house near the intersection and said he noticed an increase in gunshots and general chaos in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic began. The gunshots have subsided somewhat, he said, but otherwise, things seem pretty much the same.

He feels generally safe in his neighborhood.

“I just don’t like walking around super late at night,” he said.

Amalia Vargas said she didn’t know that she lived in a hot spot or that police were doing anything different in the neighborhood. She did notice, however, that there were fewer RVs and broken cars on the streets around the house where she’s lived for 17 years. She generally feels safe in the neighborhood — in part because of the iron bars on her windows and door.

Hiep Thai has run Viet’s Restaurant in the Far East Center for 15 years and said crime is better than it used to be when he started the restaurant, in part due to improved lighting and also because of Ye’s management. There are sometimes problems, he said, but it’s never a big deal.

“People acting stupid can happen anywhere,” he said.

A return to broken windows policing?

When Pazen announced the program in 2021, critics said it would be a return to “broken windows policing,” which is the idea that making a large number of arrests for even the smallest infractions — like breaking windows — would improve crime in an area. Increasing police presence in already-marginalized communities would decrease trust, the critics said.

But a well-implemented hot spots policing should do the opposite, said Weisburd, the George Mason University professor. Investigating what makes a small geographic area attract crime and targeting the people committing high-level offenses should lower crime without impacting the broader neighborhood. Whether a hot spots program improves or worsens police legitimacy depends on how it is implemented, Weisburd said. There will be negative consequences if officers act disrespectfully or simply flood the area with arrests.

“If the police come in like an invading army, some of these problems can be exacerbated,” he said.

It’s difficult to examine whether that’s the case in Denver because the department could not provide the citywide number or types of arrests made in connection to the hot spots program. In District Four, police have made 218 felony arrests, recovered 63 illegally possessed firearms and recovered 105 stolen vehicles, according to department data.

Weisburd conducted an experiment from 2017 to 2020 in which teams of police officers were assigned to a total of 120 crime hot spots across three cities. Half of the teams received 40 hours of training about building trust and procedural justice while the other half did not. The researchers found that the trained officers made fewer arrests than the untrained ones, but that crime fell more in the trained officers’ hot spots. Surveys of residents found that those in the trained officers’ hot spots “were significantly less likely to perceive police as harassing or using unnecessary force” though there was no significant difference in attitudes of police legitimacy.

“The programs that increase patrol are good, but programs that go beyond that, those show larger impacts,” Weisburd said.

While District Four has a team dedicated to the program, the hot spots in other police districts are managed by officers as part of their regular duties, according to the department.

Qualley agreed that simply rounding people up wouldn’t fix the underlying problem. He’s participated in those types of operations in his 30 years as a police officer and they were ineffective, he said.

“It’s not just putting officers there and doing a lot of heavy, targeted enforcement,” he said of the hot spots program. “There is enforcement, for sure. But it’s trying to do something more sustainable. I can’t have police resources there all the time — we have responsibilities to the whole district.”

Since the launch of the program, the Denver Police Department has identified three more hot spots to focus on: West Mississippi Avenue and South Lipan Street; West 14th Avenue and North Federal Boulevard; and East Dartmouth Avenue and South Havana Street.

With the area around Federal and Alameda calmed down, Qualley shifted his team to focus on Mississippi and Lipan. The team will continue doing “maintenance” at the old hot spot, he said, but he believes the environmental changes and the relationships built by the team will help keep the area calm.

“It’s working with those folks to be our eyes and ears,” he said. “We know things change — as soon as we leave it changes.”

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