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14 shootings with 56 victims: Denver sees spike in multi-victim shootings even as homicides drop

Three months after Raphael Velin was shot to death in Aurora, his friends stopped by his home to celebrate what would have been his 16th birthday.

They brought cake. And memories. And love for their lost friend. Raphael’s parents welcomed them, and tried to be happy, but their son’s loss was close and hard. As the gathering wound down, Raphael’s mother, Nancy Velin, collected 16 balloons and walked out into her front yard to release them.

“When I let go, oh my God, it was like taking my heart away,” she said, crying during an interview with The Denver Post.

Her son was one of 129 people killed in Denver and Aurora in 2023, and one of 12 kids under the age of 17 to be slain across the two cities as a wave of violence that crested during the COVID-19 pandemic finally began to recede.

Both Denver and Aurora saw mild reductions in homicides in 2023, though the number of deaths remains well above levels the cities saw in the years before the pandemic. The slower pace fits with a nationwide trend: many cities across the country saw a decline in violent crime last year from elevated levels between 2020 and 2022.

In Denver, 84 people were killed across the city, down from 88 in 2022, 96 in 2021, and 95 in 2020 — but still much higher than the 63 people killed in 2019, according to newly finalized data released by the Denver Police Department.

Notably, Denver experienced a 20% drop in the number of children and teenagers wounded in shootings in 2023 compared to 2022, and a 47% year-over-year decline in youth homicide victims.

But the city also saw a significant jump in shootings with three or more victims, according to data provided by the department. And across the state, the number of Colorado youth charged with homicide also spiked, hitting at least a 22-year high in 2023 even as the state’s juvenile population has declined.

In Aurora, 45 people were killed in 2023, down from 53 victims in 2022, but up from 43 people killed in 2021, according to the police department.

Denver’s 4.6% year-over-year decline in homicides and Aurora’s 15% drop put the cities on the mid-to-lower end of the national declines.

Some 14 cities across the U.S. saw larger year-over-year declines in homicides, ranging from a 32% drop in Rochester, New York, to a 16% decline in Detroit, according to analysis of crime trends by the Council on Criminal Justice, a national think tank focused on criminal justice. Another seven cities they examined saw homicides rise in 2023.

“It appears that Denver is generally following the national trends, which are a reversion, rebound, return toward pre-pandemic levels,” said Adam Gelb, CEO of the Council on Criminal Justice.

Jump in multi-victim shootings

In the last three years, shootings in Denver that wounded three or more victims rose sharply.

Denver recorded four shootings with three or more wounded victims in 2021, with 14 surviving victims across those four incidents. In 2022, that rose to eight shootings with 27 wounded victims. In 2023, the city saw 14 such shootings, with 56 people injured across those 14 incidents, according to the data provided by police.

Nine people were shot near the intersection of Market and 20th streets on June 13 amid the celebration of the Denver Nuggets’ NBA championship win. Five people were shot at a bar on Market Street in September after police say a 17-year-old girl opened fire when she was turned away at the door. Six people were shot, three fatally, at a party in east Denver in October. Three weeks later, seven people were shot at a motorcycle club, two fatally.

Four additional 2023 shootings had at least four victims, according to the data.

In all, 294 people were wounded in 225 shootings throughout Denver in 2023, compared to 292 people wounded across 246 shootings in 2022.

“We have fewer incidents but more people around when these incidents occur,” Denver police Chief Ron Thomas said. “…We are seeing an increase in community violence in public spaces, house parties and large gatherings.”

He said police officers have bumped up the priority level for calls about disturbances at house parties as they’ve recognized the potential for violence at such events.

“That’s not necessarily a run-of-the-mill disturbance anymore, we recognize the heightened propensity for violence so we want to get there much more quickly,” he said.

He added that much of the violence Denver experienced in 2023 happened between people who knew each other in some capacity, and many incidents were not “random acts of violence.”

Across 47 homicides in which police identified the relationship between the suspect and victim, 64% of victims were killed by someone they knew, a family member or an intimate partner. Another 36% were killed by strangers, according to the data provided by police.

That latter category includes the 12-year-old who was killed when a man tracked down his stolen car and shot the boy inside the vehicle, as well as two brothers killed in a road rage incident, and a man and woman killed in unprovoked stabbings.

The most common reasons for homicides were arguments or confrontations that escalated into violence, said major crimes Cmdr. Matt Clark.

“Some are long-term conflicts that have continued to boil, and some are spontaneous confrontations that individuals had over various situations that escalated into a violent situation,” he said.

In 2023, 81% of Denver homicide victims were killed by people wielding guns, according to the data. More than half of homicides — 52% — happened on roads, alleys, or sidewalks, and another 21% happened in homes.

A third of victims were Black, 34% were Hispanic and 28% of victims were white, though Black people make up just 9% of the city’s population and Hispanic people 29%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Denver police have solved about 80% of 2023’s homicides, Clark said, noting that includes cases in which suspects were arrested and charged as well as cases in which the suspect was identified but not charged for various reasons, like a valid self-defense claim.

The Post in December filed nearly identical open records requests for detailed information on homicides with both the Aurora and Denver police departments, but the newspaper was not able to perform the same demographic analysis for Aurora’s homicides because the information that agency provided was too heavily redacted.

Fewer victims of youth violence

Denver saw a notable drop in young people killed or wounded in shootings in 2023.

Across the city, 10 children and teenagers under the age of 20 were killed in 2023, about 12% of all homicide victims. That’s down 47% from 19 youth victims in 2022, about a fifth of that year’s homicide victims.

Similarly, 56 people under the age of 20 were wounded in shootings and survived in 2023, down from 71 youth shooting victims in 2022 — a 21% drop, the data shows.

In Aurora, five children younger than 17 were killed in 2023, the same number as those who were killed in 2022 and up from one in 2020, according to statistics provided by the police department.

When youth violence started to spike in 2019, officials in both Denver and Aurora scrambled to curb the increase. Task forces and coalitions formed. Community meetings swelled. New positions were hired. Money flowed.

In Denver, then-Mayor Michael Hancock created the Denver Youth Violence Prevention Action Table, a coalition of city departments, agencies and community groups aimed at slowing youth violence housed within the city’s Office of Children’s Affairs, and gave the effort a $1.93 million budget.

But the pandemic stymied Denver’s efforts, and the response to the rising youth violence was bogged down by bureaucracy and criticized as ineffective as the deaths mounted.

The Office of Children’s Affairs did secure $7.3 million in federal money from the American Rescue Plan Act, which it gave out to community organizations through grants and contracts. The federal money kicked in at the start of 2023 and will run out by the end of 2024.

The funding was divided into three categories: $1.6 million for youth mental health, $3.3 million for out-of-school programs, and $2.4 million for youth violence prevention. Each category impacts overall youth violence, said Melissa Janiszewski, senior policy and strategy adviser in the Office of Children’s Affairs.

“We’re looking at root causes all the way outward to threats to public safety,” she said.

Formalizing a response to youth violence within the city in 2020 and hiring a full-time coordinator to steer the city’s efforts has brought a new level of accountability to the work, she said, allowed city departments to coordinate their efforts and opened better lines of communication with community organizations.

“We are doing much better than 2020 when we were all stuck at home,” she said. “We’re trying to think through how we get out of reactionary zone and be a little more proactive, start planning for the summer when kids are at home, making sure we don’t experience an uptick in violence.”

The Office of Children’s Affairs is looking for additional funding for 2025, and Mayor Mike Johnston has asked the office for a detailed analysis of its current funding, partners, programs and outcomes, Janiszewski said.

“We’re not necessarily taking a pause, but we are re-evaluating what has the highest impact,” she said.

The influx of attention — and money — has helped, said Pat Hedrick, the city’s director of public safety youth programs.

“I think what we’re seeing in part is some of those longer-term strategies are starting to bear fruit,” he said, adding that violence prevention nonprofits are coordinating their efforts with each other and with the city more effectively than in the past.

Such community organizations are critical to defusing conflicts before they erupt into violence, Thomas said.

“We recognize there is great value in partnering with members of the community because they often have some of the answers,” Thomas said. “They are able to provide some of the deterrence mechanisms and some of the pro-social activities that can draw people away from violence.”

Rising young offenders

The drop in kids killed in 2023 is welcome, but there’s still much work to be done, said Jason McBride, secondary violence prevention supervisor at Struggle For Love, a nonprofit focused on helping at-risk youth.

“2022 was a nightmare for people who work in the streets like I do,” he said. “…Coming off the pandemic, it was just a hard year, a year we lost some of our favorite kids. It just seemed like with the frequency, it was happening every week, every weekend. 2023 felt similar, but it didn’t feel as busy.”

Today’s youth are still feeling the effects of the pandemic on their mental health, he said, and the combination of easy access to guns and a lack of interpersonal skills to settle disputes without those weapons continues to fuel violence.

“Until we really start to help them deal with some of those things and give them those tools to be able to discuss and handle things and think first, then we are going to continue to see these spikes and it is going to be even worse,” McBride said. “And you are going to start to see younger and younger kids getting caught up in the system.”

People under the age of 20 charged with homicide in Colorado’s juvenile courts rose from five in 2014 to 34 in 2023, even as the state’s population of juveniles declined, according to data provided by the Colorado Judicial Department.

Included in that spike is an increase in children between the ages of 11 and 14 charged with murder. More Colorado kids that age have been charged with homicide in the last four years than in the previous 19 years combined, according to the data.

No more than three youths between the ages of 11 and 14 were charged with homicide annually across Colorado between 2001 and 2019, according to the data. That rose to four in 2020, then five in 2021, eight in 2022 and seven in 2023, according to the data.

“Six, seven years ago, it was 16, 17, and then we fell to 14, 15, and now we’re at 12, 13 and 14 who are out here,” McBride said. “And they’re the kids who are at the most risk.”

Only one child in that age range has been charged with homicide so far in 2024 statewide — a 13-year-old boy stands accused of killing 60-year-old Richard Sanchez after an argument on an RTD bus in Denver.

“At the end of the day, a handgun in the hands of a young person is just never a good mix,” Thomas said. “There’s a lot of education of parents, to make sure there is an understanding of the dangers of kids getting their hands on guns — the fact that their undeveloped minds allow for more occasions for them to act irresponsibly.”

“If I knew it was going to be his last day…”

Five teenagers have been charged with murder in Raphael Velin’s killing in Aurora.

The 15-year-old was shot to death outside the Southlands shopping center after going there “to conduct some business,” then-police Chief Art Acevedo said after the killing. Two 18-year-olds, two 17-year-olds and a 16-year-old are facing murder and robbery charges in his death. Nancy Velin said the teenagers robbed her son and he was killed when he resisted.

She hopes the court process will bring justice for her son. She hasn’t touched his bedroom since he died. Everything is the same as it was before, except now they keep his ashes there. She goes to his bedroom to talk to him, to pray.

He was a budding barber, she said, and would cut his friends’ hair in a barber chair the family put up in the garage. He was disciplined and focused on eating healthy. He was caring and mature for his age, Nancy Velin said. She and her husband had no inkling he was involved in anything dangerous before he was killed.

She’s wrestled with what-ifs since the shooting, she said. What if he’d gone somewhere else that day? What if he’d just stayed home?

“If I knew it was going to be his last day, I can do more for him,” she said. “I didn’t have a chance to hug him. I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye. I didn’t have a chance to say how much I love him.”

She knows they’ll put his room away someday.

But not just yet.

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