The silver Lexus sedan stopped just before 7 a.m. on Tuesday.
Two people got out, looked under Kym Bloom’s Toyota Prius parked in front of their Capitol Hill apartment building, and then drove off, surveillance video shows. They returned ten minutes later and sawed out the Prius’ catalyst in broad daylight before retreating.
Bloom discovered the theft of the pollution control device a little later when she turned on the 14-year-old car and the roar of the damaged vehicle startled her.
“I never thought I’d have to lock the floor of my car,” she said.
Bloom is one of the thousands of people in Denver who lost auto parts, clothing, bikes, tools, vehicles, and irreplaceable items during a 2020 spike in property crime that is showing no signs of slowing. In Denver, most types of property crime increased significantly in 2020. Compared to the average for the past four years, burglaries rose 23%, thefts 9%, car thefts 61% and car thefts 39% in 2020, Denver police data shows.
The four crimes fell in February when the pandemic was first announced, and then rose month-on-month over the course of 2020, data shows.
“I would use the word ‘surge’ or ‘skyrocket’ to describe the rise in property crime in Denver,” said Paul Pazen, Denver police chief.
The increases contradict trends in other major US cities in 2020. An analysis of crime in 34 cities found that the rate of break-ins and thefts has decreased on average, according to the report written for the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice. However, vehicle theft rates increased by around 13% in the sample.
According to the FBI, the crime rate in Denver real estate has increased every year since 2014, but remains below the rates documented in the early 2000s. For example, Denver recorded 4,646 property crimes per 100,000 population in 2020. In 2004 that rate was 5,401 property crimes per 100,000.
The Denver Police Department tracks 11 types of break-ins and 21 categories of theft. Police saw a significant increase in 18 of the 32 categories in 2020. Of the most common offenses, the largest increases were in corporate break-ins, theft of buildings, theft of vehicles, theft of vehicle parts and theft of bicycles.
Some incidents cross multiple categories. Thieves broke into two of Megan Kolli’s cars parked outside her home in the West Highlands for Thanksgiving weekend. The thieves found a garage opener in one of the vehicles and returned a few hours later in an SUV to steal from the garage. The video shows the thieves driving into the garage and stacking things in their vehicle.
Kolli estimated the loss of tools, furniture, and damage to three cars at more than $ 5,000. Most of the stolen goods were interchangeable, but the thieves also took away the unique saris that Kolli and her husband wore to their wedding. It also broke her sense of security in the neighborhood, she said.
Kolli said she was empathetic to the fact that people in need could steal to get through. But the thieves who stole from her garage left a freezer full of groceries untouched, she said. They also left behind the tools they used to break into their cars and junk like mail that appeared to have come from other objects they had targeted.
“They didn’t seem too concerned about getting caught or facing consequences,” said Kolli.
Overall, there was only a slight increase in the number of residential property break-ins. The police received 2,981 reports of burglaries in residential areas in 2020, a difference of 7% compared to the average of 2,785 per year over the past four years.
“People don’t want to break into houses when someone is around,” said David Pyrooz, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder who studies crime.
Business slumps have skyrocketed, however, as many companies temporarily closed or cut back staff during the pandemic. The Denver Police Department received 1,942 reports of corporate burglaries in 2020 – a 55% increase from the average of 1,249 over the past four years.
Eight of Denver’s 79 boroughs saw more than 50 break-ins in the past year: Five Points, Union Station, Central Business District, Overland, Baker, Elyria-Swansea, and Capitol Hill. Only two of these districts recorded more than 50 burglaries in 2019.
The 2020 slump figures for each of these neighborhoods, which are among the busiest and most populous in the city, signal a significant increase over the average for the previous four years, from a 42% increase in the five points to a 152% increase in the central one Business district. Four of the number of burglaries in the districts in 2020 were more than twice as high as the four-year average.
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Tami Door, president and CEO of the Downtown Denver Partnership, said the stats on the downtown area reflect crime trends across the city, despite massive protests against racial justice also taking place in the downtown area during the summer. Some people in the protest crowd were arrested on suspicion of burglary and other property crimes.
Door said the downtown partnership’s security strategy has had a positive impact on the area and the partnership plans to add more security guards in May.
“A great crime deterrent mechanism is actually having more people,” Door said. “So if you have fewer people in a given environment, we have fewer eyes and ears in one place.”
While some may fall victim to property crimes for the first time, others say their experiences in 2020 will not be much different from other years.
Daphne, who spoke to the Denver Post on condition that her last name not be used for fear of repercussions, has lived in a Denver Housing Authority apartment in the Sunnyside neighborhood since 2017 and said she has been a victim of property crimes every year.
A thief stole their license plates in 2018. In 2019 someone badly damaged the front of their car. In October 2020, people shot their homes and cars with paintballs, causing damage. In February someone tried and tried again to steal their license plates, despite damaging their new car in the attempt.
She asked housing authorities to move her family – which includes her husband and 5-year-old daughter – to a new location, but she denied her requests, she said.
“We are afraid to live in this place,” she said.
It is unclear what impact the economic recession caused by COVID-19 and the loss of thousands of jobs had on the rise in property crime, experts say. A review of 2011 research by US Congress researchers into the impact of the 2008 recession on property crime found a lack of consensus on the correlation between the two.
Pazen has attributed some of the increase in property crime to policy changes in the courts and prison to keep the prison population down and reduce the risk of COVID-19 in the facility. The changes mean that more people will be charged with suspected crimes instead of arrest, and that more suspects will be given low-cost or free bonds.
“We keep arresting people for property crimes and there is no accountability,” said Pazen. “They’re often out of jail for (personal appreciation) bonds before we even do the paperwork.”
Departmental data shows that 324 people were arrested more than six times in the past year. In total, 4,346 people were arrested between two and five times in 2020, and 16,504 people were arrested only once. This means that 22% of those arrested in 2020 were arrested more than once in that year, although the data does not tell how many cases the bail and prison changes were affected.
CU’s Pyrooz said his 2020 analysis of the Denver crime showed a decline in police proactivity linked to loss of confidence in the police and the overall criminal justice system following nationwide protests against the murder of George Floyd Police in Minneapolis contributed to property crime. While the crime rate rose slightly between the start of COVID-19 and the Floyd assassination, it rose sharply after the protest movement, he said.
And the rise in property crime in Denver is showing no signs of slowing, Pazen said. Property crimes across the city increased by 70% in the first 10 weeks of 2021, compared to the average of that period in 2018, 2019 and 2020. He encouraged people to remove valuables from cars, anti-theft tools like Use steering wheel locks and form neighborhood watch groups to report suspicious behavior.
“Crime is still going in the wrong direction,” he said.