Crime Rates in Colorado and Denver
Crime Rates in Colorado & Denver
Mark Twain once said that those who read the newspaper are not necessarily un-informed but mis-informed. Recently, the Denver Post re-published an article talking about increasing crime rates in Colorado generally and pointed out most of the increases occurred in Denver (Mitchell, 2017). On its face the Denver Post’s article is true but unfortunately incredibly misleading. In this blog post I will point out the flaws in the Denver Post’s article and hopefully give readers a better understanding of what crime rates actually reflect and that they should be interpreted with care and skepticism especially since Denver really is one of the safest cities of its size in the entire country (US News, 2017).
Source of Crime Data:
The Denver Post relies upon data collected by the FBI and compiled in the Uniform Crime Report (“UCR”) and reported by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation (“CBI”). This is immediately problematic because of the inherent flaws associated with the creation of the UCR. The two issues I’ll discuss below should really be considered carefully because even though Colorado and Denver has seen an increase in crime most of us probably have not actually noticed.
First, the UCR only collects data on crimes reported by state and local police departments – there is no requirement any law enforcement agency actually report thus some may choose to not report anything. Law enforcement agencies report crimes that they discover on their own or is reported to them form a citizen phone call/complaint. What is important to understand here is that police departments are effectively reporting possible/potential crimes – not crimes that have necessarily or actually occurred (Welch, 2011)! Moreover, law enforcement will report “crimes cleared by arrest” but this only means that they arrested a suspect – not that the individual is actually guilty (Reiman, 2017). This leads me to the second major issue with relying on UCR data and that is the problem of “unfounding.”
Unfounding occurs when police departments make a determination that a crime they independently discovered or had reported to them is claimed to actually not be a criminal act and thus it is not reported. The concept of unfounding tells us that a crime reported (or not reported) to the UCR is dependent on the subjective belief of police departments. The subjectivity of what is or is not a crime may be heavily influenced by broader social, political or economic concerns police departments are facing. Therefore, police departments may actually be reporting ‘more crime’ to project a particular image so they can increase their budgets and create a feeling of unease forcing the population to become even more dependent and deferential to police officers than is safe in a democracy (Reiman, 2017).
The point of this first section is to point out that crime rates as reported by the UCR are dependent upon the subjective beliefs of police officers and their departments. There are other sources of data academics use in connection with the UCR such as the National Crime Victim’s Survey and Self-Report surveys to discuss crime rates. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to be skeptical of news reporting only relying upon the UCR.
What motivates the Crime and who are the Victims?
The Denver Post’s article is incredibly mis-leading because they allow the folks interviewed in the piece to speculate on why crime rose in Colorado generally and Denver specifically but provide no evidence to actually back up their claims. For instance, one individual stated that auto thefts have increased because the perpetrators are using the stolen vehicles to commit other crimes or ship them to Mexico. Sadly, this person, who is a spokesperson for the Lakewood Police Department, provides no information to back this claim up. Responsible citizens should be asking “what other crimes are being committed?” or “how many cars do we know have been shipped to Mexico and how are they getting there without anybody noticing?” Others in the article speculate about drug habits connected to the legalization of marijuana, increases in heroin/opioid addiction and the increase in ‘transients’ moving to Colorado but again fail to provide any evidence to support their conclusions.
Only 1 sentence in the Denver Post’s article mentions the issue of rising inequality and nothing is stated about the increase of alcohol consumption in Colorado – which are two factors known to highly influence criminality. In Denver, we have seen rents and home prices increase dramatically along with our overall cost of living yet overall only a small percentage of individuals have seen an increase in their wages so they can live comfortably in this new economic reality – a phenomena that is occurring all across the country (Holmes and Berube, 2017). High rates of inequality are generally correlated with higher crime rates for a wide number of reasons (Agnew, 2005; Messner and Rosenfeld, 2006) but the Denver Post’s article particularly focused on the claims that marijuana and heroin as a leading cause of increasing crime without mentioning people turn to drugs as a way to cope with the issues central to inequality or providing any evidence that prove the claims being made.
Further, the Denver Post’s article does not mention certain drugs like alcohol, cocaine and methamphetamine as having an influence on increased crime rates in Colorado and Denver. This is problematic because the overwhelming majority of research demonstrates that people who use drugs like cocaine and consume alcohol are much more likely to engage in crime than those using marijuana and heroin/opioid based drugs (see generally: Gorman et al., 2001; Hughes, et al., 2007; Martin et al., 2014). Alcohol and cocaine are much more likely to be in a person’s system when a crime occurs because they tend to get people ‘amped up’ while marijuana and heroin actually make people more mellow and lethargic.
When it comes to victims we need to pay special attention to when and where the crimes occur. By looking at the Denver crime map it is clear to see that most crimes occur around liquor stores, bars/nightclubs and areas where homeless populations congregate. Moreover, the times matter – for instance there are a lot of assaults that take place at 2:00 a.m. in areas where there is a high concentration of bars which should be of no surprise. For some reason the Denver Post’s article makes no attempt to incorporate these realities into their piece. You can view the Denver crime maps here and judge the accuracy of this paragraph for yourself: http://crime.denverpost.com/map/
There is no information about victims provided by the UCR so we know nothing about them based on the Denver Post’s article but we can make some presumptions based on prior research. Most victims of crime are victimized by somebody they know and are engaged in some type of behavior that carries an increased likelihood of victimization like drinking in bars until 2:00 a.m. or living on the streets (Karmen, 2007). This means that for most of us even though crime rates have increased the chances of becoming a victim have either remained the same or only slightly rose and the reality is if we are victimized it will be a non-violent crime.
Articles like the one printed by the Denver Post tend to mis-lead people and make them more afraid of being victimized than need be. Policy makers use this type of article to justify increasing lengths of sentences for crimes or create new activities to criminalize. The U.S. and Colorado have a long history of creating criminal justice policy based upon societies misunderstandings commonly associated with articles about crime that do not tease out the necessary nuances and subtleties central to understanding crime rates.
The reality is the crime situation in Colorado and Denver is not nearly as bleak as the tone of the Denver Post’s article. Unfortunately, prosecutors, police, judges and policy makers will use this type of article to justify increased harshness in our criminal justice system.
Agnew, Robert (2005). Pressured Into Crime: An Overview of General Strain Theory. New York: Oxford University Press.
Gorman, Dennis; Paul Speer; Paul Gruenewald and Erich Labouvie (2001). Spatial dynamics of alcohol availability, neighborhood structure and violent crime. Journal of Studies on Alcohol 62(5): 628 – 646.
Holmes, Natalie and Alan Berube (2017). City and metropolitan inequality on the rise, driven by declining incomes. https://www.brookings.edu/research/city-and-metropolitan-inequality-on-the-rise-driven-by-declining-incomes/
Hughes, Karen; Zara Anderson, Michela Morleo and Mark Bellis (2007). Alcohol, nightlife and violene: the relative contributions of drinking before and during nights out to negative health and criminal justice outcomes. Addiction 103(1): 60-65.
Karmen, Andrew (2007). Crime Victims: An Introduction to Victimology – Sixth Edition. New York: Wadsworth Publishing.
Reiman, Jeffrey (2017). The Rich Get Rich and the Poor Get Prison: Ideology, Class, and Criminal Justice; 7th Edition. New York: Pearson Publishing.
Martin, Susan; Christopher Maxwell and Helene White (2004). Trends in Alcohol use, Cocaine use, and Crime: 1989-1998. Journal of Drug Issues 34(2): 333-359.
Mitchell, Kirk (2017). Crime rate in Colorado increases much faster than rest of the country. The Denver Post. https://www.denverpost.com/2017/07/11/colorado-sees-big-increase-crime-10-percent-higher-murder-rate/
Messner, Steven and Richard Rosenfeld (2006). Crime and the American Dream: 4th Edition. New York: Wadsworth Publishing.
US News (2017). https://realestate.usnews.com/places/colorado/denver/crime
Welch, Michael (2011). Corrections: A Critical Approach – 3rd Edition. New York: Routledge Publishing.