It’s Not Your Ears. Gunshots in North Denver Have Increased

DPD ShotSpotter Alerts Rose More Than 470% in 2020 Compared to 2017

Gunshots: A car passes by a Denver Police Department road sign near 50th Avenue and Federal Boulevard. The full message on the sign stated “Help Prevent Crime. Do Not Leave Firearms In Your Vehicle.” Photo: Eric Heinz/For The Denver North Star

To the untrained ear, hearing the difference between the sounds of a car backfiring, fireworks going off, and gunshots can be nearly impossible.

Tracking the number of gunshots in a neighborhood can be difficult, even for the most sophisticated technology police departments currently use.

But since at least 2017, North Denver residents’ ears have not been deceiving them. Gunshots in this part of the city have been on the uptick.

The Denver Police Department uses a technology called ShotSpotter that tracks where and when a gunshot goes off. It covers about 2 square miles in North Denver, designated as District 1, and about 14 square miles of the entire city is covered by the technology. SpotShotter alerts officers within the coverage area to respond within 90 seconds.

“I’m assuming all over the city, but really in District 1, we have people leaving firearms in their vehicles and a lot of them are leaving their cars unlocked,” DPD District 1 Commander Layla DeStaffany said. “This is residents or people who stay in hotels and motels. They come from somewhere that they don’t have to lock their car doors, and we’ve seen a lot of guns stolen.”

DPD will not release the locations of the ShotSpotter technology because it could compromise the system.

According to SpotShotter data in District 1, there were 74 gunshot alerts in 2017 and 356 in 2020—a 470% increase. SpotShotter was installed in 2016, and that year 47 shots were tallied while the technology came online.

Although ShotSpotter has helped DPD make more arrests and take more guns off the streets, DeStaffany acknowledged it is not always completely accurate.

Sometimes echoes from shots fired in adjacent Lakewood can get picked up by the ShotSpotter, she said.

“It’s not a perfect system. It’s a great system, but it’s not perfect,” DeStaffany said.

The coverage area of the ShotSpotter technology has not changed since it was installed in 2016. From April to August of that year, ShotSpotter’s coverage increased as it was finalized.

Homicides in District 1, from West Colfax to Globeville and west of I-25, however, have been relatively flat for the last few years.

The data provided by DPD did not disclose which homicides were from gunshots, but in the 10 neighborhoods that comprise The Denver North Stars coverage area, 21 murders were reported between the start of 2015 and 2020, with an average of four per year.

There has been one homicide recorded this year in District 1.

‘There Are Just More Guns Out There’

According to DPD, from Jan. 1 through June 30, 2020, there were 327 guns that were reported stolen in the city, and the department stated these were primarily during burglaries and thefts from vehicles. That represented a 26.7% increase in gun thefts compared to the three-year average, DPD officials stated.

The Colorado Bureau of Investigations InstaCheck report showed statewide there were about 487,000 requests for firearm background checks in 2020 that were approved compared to about 335,000 in 2019.

About 14,000 background checks in 2020 for requesting to purchase a firearm were denied.

Between January and February of this year, the most recent available data, there were just over 83,000 requests for background checks that were approved for purchasing firearms, and about 1,700 were denied.

Data was not immediately available for specific parts of the state or Denver.

“There are just more guns out there,” DeStaffany said. “Last year was weird. A lot of folks here are not spending time in jail right now (due to COVID-19 occupancy reductions). So they’re getting out pretty quickly. There’s some, I expect, that a good deal of (gunshots) are probably repeat folks that are engaging in that same behavior.”

Preventing Gunshots   

In early March, the Denver City Council voted to spend another $835,000 for the SpotShotter program, making the total contract more than $4.5 million since it was implemented. Councilmember Candi CdeBaca was the only member who dissented. She said tracking the sounds does not help find the shooters, other pieces of evidence do.

DPD Chief Paul Panzen told the council that SpotShotter has indeed helped officers respond to situations.

“Shot Spotter itself has saved at least two lives,” Panzen said. “We’ve responded to situations that someone was actually hit with gunfire and there was not a corresponding 911 call.”

Panzen said the technology has helped the police department “clear” or solve 64% of recent nonfatal shooting cases, which he said is one of the highest rates in the nation.

The funding the city council approved March 8 does not increase the coverage areas for SpotShotter. The money will be used to continue the program and likely calibrate the system.

Last summer, DPD launched a social media campaign within its “Lock Out Crime” website in response to, at the time, statistics that showed the city’s gun homicide rate was on pace to double in 2020 compared to 2019.

“In an effort to stop these concerning upward trends in gun-related violent crime, the Denver Police Department … is increasing its outreach efforts to the neighborhoods directly affected by this violence and is launching a social media campaign promoting safe firearm storage,” DPD stated.

Several videos and other gun safety information is listed on the Lock Out Crime website, which includes materials on gun locks, gun safes/lock boxes and information on firearm thefts, accidental shootings and the use of firearms in the commission of crimes.

“It’s hard to tell what we’ve prevented,” DeStaffany said. “Definitely, gun crime has gone up in the city. It’s gone up in District 1. Our violent crimes numbers are down, but gun crime has gone up. That’s something we’re addressing.”

A police messaging board seen on March 27 at 50th Avenue and Federal Boulevard echoed the commander’s statements, saying “Help Prevent Crime. Do Not Leave Firearms Inside Your Vehicle.”

Eric Heinz is a freelance journalist based in Denver, who most recently covered Los Angeles City Hall for City News Service. 


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