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African Americans and Hispanics die by homicide in numbers greater than their share of the population in Colorado Springs.

As surprising as that might sound, it’s not unusual. Nationally, Black people have accounted for roughly half of murder victims for years, which is about four times their 13.4 percent share of the population.

In Colorado Springs, where the Black population comprises just 6.5 percent, in 2020 and through mid-October this year, 20 of the 70 homicide victims were Black.

That’s nearly 29 percent of those killed, or more than four times their share of the population.

Hispanics, too, die in homicides at a higher rate than their population share here. During that same nearly two-year period, 23 victims were Hispanic, or 33 percent of those slain. The Hispanic population in Colorado Springs stands at about 17.6 percent, so the homicide rate is double the percentage of Hispanics’ population share.

And despite nearly 79 percent of the city’s population being white, only 34 percent of murder victims in those almost two years were white.

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CSPD Lt. Joe Frabbiele

So what does that data mean, and how is it possible to reverse that course?

Several local officials theorize about why people of color are slain at such high rates compared to their populations, but nobody can give a definitive reason.

Minorities generally live closer to the edge socioeconomically, subjecting them to greater risk, one theory goes. Another suggests minorities have less trust in police officers, which leads to less protection against crime.

But Lt. Jim Sokolik with Colorado Springs Police Department says it’s hard to get your arms around why minority citizens die at the hands of others in greater percentages than white people.

“We investigate the crime that occurred,” he says. “We’re not investigating the social pressure that leads to that activity.”

Whatever is happening, the same forces are work across the country, and getting worse. While Black people comprised about 44 percent of homicide victims in 2011, or 2,695, that number grew to 56 percent last year (9,913), according to FBI crime data. 

The Indy looked at homicide victims in Colorado Springs during 2020 and through mid-October 2021, the most recent data CSPD could provide. Homicide is the killing of one person by another, and not all constitute the crime of murder. Some are ruled self-defense, manslaughter or negligent homicide.

While this year’s number of victims will set a record in the city — there were 40 homicides as of Dec. 7 — the number of people killed by homicide here is small compared to some cities of Colorado Springs’ size or larger. A smaller data set generally means it’s difficult to draw reliable conclusions from that data, and CSPD Lt. Joe Frabbiele agrees with that tenet.

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Terry Martinez

Frabbiele, who oversees the violent crime division, says his detectives aren’t thinking about the demographics of a victim or the perpetrator when summoned to the scene of a killing.

“A crime occurs, and our patrol officers respond,” he says. “They determine the status of the victim, the identity of a suspect, take someone into custody and call us if there’s a death. From then on, our detectives work to determine facts of the case and to hold that person responsible.” Or, if the killing was in self-defense, they try to determine whether the facts support that scenario.

“The focus of the investigation is on uncovering the facts and circumstances that led to the event, the event itself, and, if a suspect is not in custody, the identification of suspects and their actions after,” he says.

But Frabbiele did say that the typical homicide here involves people who knew one another, such as a domestic violence event or a drug deal gone bad. 

“Homicide is the result, typically, of interaction of two human beings where one person felt endangered, or there was a disturbance and things got out of hand,” he says. Another instance is during a robbery. “Crime occurs where the opportunity exists.”

Frabbiele also notes that if the mass murder incident in May at Canterbury Mobile Home Park (where a Hispanic man killed six members of a Hispanic family before killing himself) were omitted from the city’s tally, there would be seven Hispanic homicide victims, not 13. 

Still, absent those deaths, the homicide rate for Hispanics would still sit at 26 percent, exceeding Hispanics’ 17.6 percent share of the population during the two years in question.

A breakdown by race of 104 perpetrators who used firearms in homicides in the city from 2017 through early December 2021 shows 45 percent were white, 34 percent were Black, 19 percent were Hispanic and 2 percent were of unknown race. It’s the only data for homicide perp by race readily available from CSPD.

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Dr. Alex del Carmen

In addition, CSPD released figures for assaults with weapons by race, both for suspects and victims. Black people were overrepresented as suspects and victims by four to five times their population, while Hispanics’ involvement roughly mirrored their share of the population.

While the city’s figures are relatively consistent with national figures, El Paso County Sheriff’s Office reported 20 homicides during the 22 months at issue, of whom 12 [victims?] were white and seven Hispanic; the race of a newborn victim wasn’t released.

In Colorado, Black people and Hispanics also are overrepresented as homicide victims.

The Washington, D.C.-based Violence Policy Center, a nonprofit that advocates for gun control, issued a report last May based on 2018 data, the most recent and complete available.

It ranked Colorado 19th-highest in the country for number of Black homicide victims, with 56, or about 18.5 per 100,000 population. Black people comprise 4.6 percent of the Colorado population.

The state’s death rate from homicide that year was 4.7 per 100,000 population, or 263 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which underscores that Black people were killed at a higher rate than their share of the population.

The Violence Policy Center reports that Missouri has the highest death rate for Black people from homicide, at 366 victims, a rate of 47.4 per 100,000 population. Rounding out the top five, by rate: Alaska, Indiana, Nevada and Illinois.

A similar study by the Violence Policy Center released in July 2021 based on 2019 data shows Colorado had the eighth-highest rate of firearm homicide deaths per 100,000 population for Hispanics, at 10.66.

“The homicide victimization rate for Hispanics in the United States is nearly twice as high as the homicide victimization rate for whites,” the center found. “The Hispanic homicide victimization rate in 2019 was 5.15 per 100,000. In comparison, the homicide victimization rate for whites was 2.62 per 100,000.”

Moreover, homicide is the third-leading cause of death for Hispanics ages 15 to 24, and 87 percent of those victims were killed with a gun. For all Hispanics killed by homicide, 74 percent were victims of a shooting.

The center also noted that while gang-related killings accounted for only 8 percent of homicides not related to the commission of another felony, for Hispanics, the percentage was 19 percent. For Black people, the percentage was 10 percent; for whites, a mere 1 percent.

The center concluded that Hispanics in the United States are disproportionately affected by lethal firearms violence.

Terry Martinez, a retired educator who sits on the city’s Law Enforcement Transparency and Accountability Commission (LETAC), wonders if victimization of minority citizens is tied to whether those communities trust police and feel safe.

Analysis of data on the city’s four police divisions, using community-engagement platform ZenCity, shows that residents in the Southeast sector, the city’s most diverse, report feeling less safe and trust police less than the city’s other sectors. The Southeast is served by the Sand Creek division. Falcon covers the north, Stetson Hills the northeast and Gold Hill, the west and southwest. (See graphics.)

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Sen. Pete Lee

The data is considered fairly reliable, because it’s based on thousands of citizen responses, though far more white people than people of color responded.

“There’s a difference between Falcon and Sand Creek divisions in whether the public feels trust and feels safe,” Martinez notes in an interview. “For us, there’s a correlation of trust. There’s a disparity there of how safe they feel and the trust they feel in the Police Department.”

Martinez suggests that might lead citizens to be less apt to seek help for a lot of different reasons or it might also mean, “They’re maybe taking things into their own hands.”

Sokolik disputes that a trust factor figures into the equation. “We get more calls for service in the Sand Creek area,” he says, suggesting people are not reluctant to seek help from police. The reason for more calls is simple, he says. “We’re investigating more crimes.”

Martinez also asserts there’s a “direct correlation” to those populations who live on the margins and their being at greater risk of being crime victims.

“They [minorities] are more highly represented in those marginal populations,” he says, “which puts them in more susceptible populations.”

Those include folks who lack health insurance or jobs that pay enough to sustain a household and don’t have a permanent address or become homeless.

“You’re more likely to be a victim of crime by being in those circumstances,” he says. “You’re now in a situation that is more tenuous.”

Exactly how that translates to becoming a victim is further explained by Dr. Alex del Carmen, associate dean and professor in the School of Criminology, Criminal Justice and Public Administration at Tarleton State University, Fort Worth, Texas.

“Within that group of minorities is a common thread on some things, such as poverty, lack of social services,” he tells the Indy by phone. “Predominantly in minority neighborhoods, you have an intrinsic lack of social services — education, food stamps, Section 8 housing. You tend to have more vulnerability to certain crimes, and homicide is no exception.”

He called it “a stretch” to link lack of trust in police to a higher homicide rate, though he acknowledged trust might figure in as an additional component that could help explain it.

In his opinion, he says, “It goes back to different realities. The reality of the African American population is the history of enslavement, poverty, marginalization from community, discrimination. By virtue of that, that tends to isolate human beings. At some point that isolation leads to frustration, anger, marginalization. Some of those components may be related to homicide.”

How so? Del Carmen says the picture begins to form based on a simple overview of how an affluent part of town differs from not-so-affluent areas.

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Most homicides in 2020 in Colorado Springs involved firearms.

“When you go to an affluent neighborhood, oftentimes many homes have alarm systems. They have police patrol. The mayor may live in that neighborhood. They may have components in place. They’re watching each others’ properties. They have individuals who work in their homes, so there’s always someone present. Also, there’s more likelihood someone in the marriage may not work, and that individual is home. 

“Having the pool person show up at 3 p.m. — that would provide physical presence in the neighborhood. Someone who mows [the] lawn in the morning. There’s going to be a lot more of that in affluent neighborhoods than those that don’t have the affluence I just described.”

Thus, he notes, areas where marginalized citizens live lack reliable guardians.

“Everyone is gone during the day,” he says. “There’s no alarm system. The door doesn’t have necessary locking devices. It’s a highly revolving area where people come in and out every day; you have a new neighbor every other week. It invites crime. Criminals know those neighborhoods are softer.”

Del Carmen, who’s trained thousands of police officers, including at the FBI’s training facility in Quantico, Virginia, and is widely regarded as a racial profiling expert, says studies show that most crime is never reported to police and, therefore, is never recorded.

“You don’t know the true picture of victimization in these neighborhoods,” he says, adding if police receive more calls, it’s likely because there’s more crime to report.

“The reality is,” he adds, “our communities made up of minorities are incredibly vulnerable to homicide, and that’s a problem for all Americans, not just those communities.”

Moreover, del Carmen notes, people of color have been shown to be overrepresented as perpetrators of crime. FBI data from 2018 shows that Black people were responsible for 39 percent of reported homicides, white people, 30 percent and Hispanics, 10 percent, although not all departments reported ethnicity, and some departments do not report crime data to the FBI.

Census figures show white people comprise 76.3 percent of the nation’s population; Black people, 13.4 percent; and Hispanics, 18.5 percent.

Disparities in the criminal justice system also contribute to perpetuating marginalized populations, some believe, including State Sen. Pete Lee, a Democrat from Colorado Springs.

He notes that the 4th Judicial District, which covers El Paso and Teller counties, sent more people to prison than any other district in the state in 2017 data — 1,086 compared to the next highest number, 881, from Denver. More up-to-date numbers weren’t readily available. The DA’s Office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

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Most homicides this year have occurred in the city’s southeast quadrant.

“Draw your own conclusions but that is the fact,” Lee says by email. “Our jurisdiction is the most punitive and retributive in the state as measured by incarceration. Other jurisdictions seek alternative sentences and use approaches such as probation, community treatment, diversion, etc.”

Lee notes that imprisoning low-level non-violent offenders “does not prevent or deter offenders and that poor communities are weakened rather than strengthened by high rates of incarceration.”

For example, he adds, “Research has shown that children are adversely affected by having a parent in prison, and children of incarcerated parents are seven times more likely to become involved in the criminal legal system.”

Incarceration for longer periods, evidence suggests, adversely affects recidivism, he says. “At present, 50 percent of Colorado inmates return to prison within three years, so prison is probably not the optimum solution to seek except for violent repeat offenders,” Lee says.

It’s also worth noting that, according to a Colorado Department of Corrections (DOC) report issued in June 2021, Colorado Springs hosted the highest number of parolees released from prison — 1,905 — of any city in the state. No racial breakdown was provided.

Moreover, reports drafted in compliance with the state’s Senate Bill 185, adopted in 2015, show people of color don’t get the breaks within the criminal justice system that white people get.

The bill requires the Judicial Department to report decisions made at multiple points in the justice system process, analyzing the data by race and ethnicity.

In the latest report available, on 2018 data, after controlling for multiple cases against one individual and prior criminal record, the Judicial Department noted, “Black/African Americans were more likely than Whites to receive a DOC sentence.” The department also found that, compared to white people, Black and Hispanic youths were more likely to receive a sentence in the Division of Youth Services.

City Councilor Yolanda Avila, who represents the southeast District 4 where most homicides occur, according to maps provided by CSPD, says she’s trying to get a handle on measures to counter the socioeconomic trends that lead to victimization.

“We [Avila is Hispanic] are overrepresented in jails, prisons, and it starts from early on,” she says. “In Colorado Springs, we have got to create resources and an equal playing field for all — not just the city, the county really has to step up, and state officials.

“We have this attitude, ‘You’re in the position you are because of the choices you decided to make,’ with little consideration given to what options and opportunities were allowed people of color and people living in poverty,” she says.

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City Councilor Yolanda Avila

For example, 10 years ago, El Paso County moved social services and other county offices from the Downtown area to 1675 W. Garden of the Gods Road, far away from the Southeast where many people who use those services live. That trip could take two to three hours one way by bus, Avila says. But in recent years, after community leaders complained, the county established some offices in the Southeast, such as a Women’s, Infants’ & Children’s office at 2948 E. Fountain Blvd.

Just last year, the county opened a branch of the Department of Human Services within the newly opened Peak Vista Community Health Center at 1815 Jet Wing Drive.

But Avila also notes that in the last year or so, the county has spent $13.6 million in federal aid for the COVID-19 pandemic “to revamp and staff the prison [county lockup] and focus on that instead of services for families to succeed.”

Those improvements included new locks and security cameras and the accompanying controls, training facility remodel, “hazardous duty pay,” and other jail-related projects. The work also included revamping the property room and rearranging work stations, both steps to keep staffers safer from the coronavirus.

Reversing the trend of minority victimization, Avila says, begins with empowering citizens by serving their basic needs.

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For example, several years ago Sen. Lee supported a bill, which passed, that dedicated a portion of the corrections budget to measures to reduce recidivism through nonprofits that work with people at risk by providing jobs and job training.

“So much more should be done,” Avila says. “It’s daunting.”

But things have started to happen. There’s the Peak Vista site on Jet Wing, opened in 2019, and more county services being provided.

Most recently, the city is the chief sponsor of plans for a Family Success Center in the Southeast, which Avila hopes will include a workforce center office, classes in résumé writing, culinary instruction and a child care center, with other offerings to follow.

She also notes that the LETAC’s call to add more Crisis Response Teams to accompany law enforcement to calls for service involving people with mental health issues — a recommendation embraced by City Council and Mayor John Suthers — takes the community in the right direction.

“There’s got to be something else besides sending brute force,” Avila says. “We have to start with the resources. It’s starting with kids and families. We have to start with a dental cleaning, instead of having that money ready for the root canal.” 

Senior Reporter

Pam Zubeck is a graduate from Emporia State University. She worked at the Tulsa Tribune before coming to Colorado Springs, where she spent 16 years at the Gazette and in 2009 joined Colorado Publishing House.