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Analysis: Colorado crime rates dropping but local news outlets are ignoring the story

March 27, 2024, 10:28 am
eagle county justice center
The Eagle County Justice Center in Eagle.

Crime rates in Colorado have been on a sustained decline for nearly two years now. If that surprises you, you’re hardly alone, and it’s worth thinking about why.

Though no measure of crime is perfect, the number of violent and property crimes reported in Colorado declined by roughly 10% in 2023, according to a database maintained by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. Once the data reflects official figures for state population growth last year, the drop in crime rates will be even more pronounced.

It’s the first time Colorado has recorded a decline in crime in a calendar year since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, but monthly data shows the downward trend began earlier than last year. Accounting for seasonal patterns in crime rates, Colorado has experienced year-over-year decreases in monthly reported crimes since the summer of 2022, according to CBI data.

The decline is consistent with trends nationwide. Crime rates surged beginning in mid-2020, when the pandemic upended life around the globe and U.S. cities saw civil unrest following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Over the last two years, this surge has subsided. Data released by the FBI last week showed crime declined across nearly every category in 2023, and the 12% drop in homicides nationwide last year was the largest such decline on record.

Both in Colorado and nationally, the COVID-era crime surge followed what in many cases were record-low crime rates in the 2010s. But even at their recent peak in 2021 and 2022, rates of homicides and other violent crimes were substantially lower than the levels recorded in the 1980s and 1990s, when a wave of drug- and gang-related violence reached crisis levels in Denver and many other U.S. cities.

Despite increasingly solid data confirming this downward trend, however, there are few signs that Colorado’s falling crime rates have sunk in with politicians and the media. Last week’s quarterly FBI crime report, which confirmed the 2023 drop, hasn’t been covered by any local news outlets, many of which have covered such releases when they showed increases in crime rates in recent years.

For decades, research has shown links between media coverage of crime and distorted perceptions of crime trends and risks. In annual surveys conducted between 2001 and 2019, a majority of Americans consistently told Gallup pollsters they believed national crime rates had risen over the previous year, even as data showed those rates plummeting. Consumption of local TV news, especially, is associated with “significantly elevated perceptions of risk and fear of crime,” studies have found.

Colorado Republicans haven’t eased up in the slightest in their rhetoric about the need to “turn the tide of Colorado’s crime tsunami,” as George Brauchler, a former district attorney in the 18th Judicial District who is running for the same post in the newly created 23rd Judicial District in Douglas County, puts it on his campaign website. But even prominent Democrats like Gov. Jared Polis, who might be expected to trumpet a decline in crime rates that has occurred on their watch, have remained relatively muted on the subject, though Polis did briefly mention the encouraging “early data” in his State of the State address in January.

In part, this may be because the rise and fall in crime rates nationwide since 2020 points to a truth rarely acknowledged in debates over criminal justice policy: crime trends have relatively little to do with the issues most often discussed at the statehouse or in political media.

As the crime surge peaked in recent years, these debates were dominated by a conservative backlash to criminal justice reforms like drug decriminalization and curbing cash bail. In Colorado Republicans’ telling, these efforts, many of which attracted bipartisan support in the 2010s, amounted to “coddling criminals with measures that water down accountability,” in the words of one recent editorial from the conservative Denver Gazette, which was launched by Colorado Republican billionaire Phil Anschutz in 2020. Polis and other moderate Democrats, too, endorsed this view in some cases, joining Republicans to reverse a handful of reforms and stiffen penalties for drug possession and auto theft.

But an exhaustive body of criminological research has shown there’s no evidence that harsher punishments are effective in reducing crime rates, which are far more dependent on a wide variety of long-term social and economic factors, like poverty, population density and even environmental risks. In the shorter term, there’s more evidence linking increased crime rates in the pandemic era to reductions in police presence — a trend driven not by state or local policymaking but by large numbers of officers quitting and, in some cities, what many have characterized as intentional work slowdowns by local police departments.

You don’t need advanced criminology degrees to understand this; it’s obvious from even a cursory glance at the last few years of U.S. crime data. In the years following the onset of the pandemic, crime rose everywhere — in blue states that had decriminalized drugs and in red states that hadn’t, in big cities with reform-minded mayors and DAs and in rural areas governed by their tough-on-crime counterparts. Over the last two years, despite a wide spectrum of policy responses to the surge, crime rates have similarly declined across the board.

Within Colorado, the data largely paints the same picture, despite efforts by conservative commentators to draw sharp distinctions between Democratic policies and the actions of some of the state’s Republican-run cities.

A recent Gazette editorial praised cities like Aurora, where a conservative council majority has stiffened some criminal penalties, for tackling crime “absent any help from the Legislature” or “more lenient jurisdictions, like Denver next door.” But the data hardly shows a wide gap in recent crime trends between Aurora and its neighbors, much less a strong correlation between the partisan bent of local government and its crime rate. In fact, one of the only large Colorado cities to defy the statewide trend in 2023 and record a significant increase in crime was the traditional GOP stronghold of Colorado Springs, where violent crime rates rose by 7.2%.

Editor’s note: This analysis piece first appeared on Colorado Newsline, which is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: info@coloradonewsline.com. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.

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