Aurora proclaims itself “Safest Large City in Colorado,” but is that true?

The self-proclaimed “Safest Large City in Colorado” is holding on to its title by a thread — and perhaps shouldn’t claim the distinction at all, experts said.

Aurora has for several years billed itself as the safest city in Colorado with a population higher than 250,000 — a category that includes only Denver, Colorado Springs and Aurora — and backed the claim with crime rates calculated from data collected annually by the FBI.

The push began as a marketing effort to combat what city officials said was a mistaken impression among the public that Aurora suffered from especially high crime rates, and the “safest city” message was trumpeted throughout the city’s website, on its police department’s voicemail and on social media as the city dealt with the aftermath of the 2012 theater shooting.

But the difference in crime rates between the three cities has narrowed in the nearly five years since the city started using the slogan, and the data Aurora used to make the comparison is not a reliable way to compare one city’s crime to another, experts said.

In 2018 — the most recent data available from the FBI — Aurora’s crime rate for eight major property and violent crimes sat at about 37 per 1,000 residents. Colorado Springs’ rate was 38; Denver’s was 44.

But if violent crime is considered by itself, Aurora’s rate is higher than Colorado Springs and is nearly on par with Denver, with Aurora seeing a violent crime rate of 7.2 per 1,000 residents and Denver clocking in at 7.3 in 2018.

Homicides in Aurora have hovered at around 30 annually for the last five years, according to data provided by the police department. This year registered an increase in juvenile killings that the police department is working to combat through new initiatives.

“I still believe Aurora is the safest large city in the state,” Mayor Mike Coffman said Wednesday. “Our focus is shifting from correcting the misperceptions about Aurora’s safety that have existed in the past and moving on to the opportunities for Aurora’s future. I’m a new mayor. We have new police leadership, and our goal is to understand the challenges facing us and find solutions.”

The city has been moving away from the safest city branding in the last couple of years even though officials still believe the claim to be valid, lead communications strategist Michael Bryant said Wednesday.

“It’s something we still do believe to be true,” he said. “That being said, the use of that language was really tied in with a lot of our branding and marketing efforts when those were kicked off five years ago, and we have been moving away from using that as part of our branding and marketing.”

David Pyrooz and Tim Wadsworth , both associate professors of sociology at University of Colorado Boulder, said violent crime tends to be the more often used barometer for judging public safety than property crime.

“Most of us don’t get incredibly concerned about the fact that someone is shoplifting from Walmart,” Wadsworth said. “We might not like it, but it doesn’t scare us. … People are going to be concerned about homicide, about rape, about robbery.”

Spike in juvenile homicides

Aurora’s homicides have remained fairly steady through the last five years, according to data provided by the Aurora Police Department. The police recorded 30 homicides in 2019, 23 in 2018, 32 in 2017, and 30 in both 2016 and 2015.

There was a spike in juveniles who were killed in 2019 — with six people under the age of 18 slain, the same number of children killed in Aurora in the previous three years combined.

The police department is trying several new approaches aimed at curbing the violence in 2020, Aurora police Division Chief Terry Brown said. On Feb. 1, the department launched a 14-person task force to focus on identifying and targeting violent crime, Brown said.

Between Feb. 3 and Feb. 11, the task force served six search warrants and seized 17 illegal guns, Brown said. The team’s proactive, enforcement heavy approach is similar to efforts the police department has made in the past but has not had a full time team dedicated to in recent years, Brown said.

“We started up with the goal of evaluating it to see if it is working or not,” he said. “The bottom line is we’d like to see a reduction in violent crime. Taking 17 guns off the street in eight, nine days, is a success.”

The police department also is starting a non-fatal shooting review group that is aimed at solving more of the city’s shootings by boosting coordination between various units and districts.

“Shooters are shooters,” Brown said. “If they shoot once, more than likely they’ll shoot again…We would much rather put someone in jail for an aggravated assault that happened yesterday than put them in jail for a homicide that happens next week.”

The police department has also increased its street presence in trouble spots, particularly on the weekends, and interim Chief Vanessa Wilson wants to bring high school students to monthly meetings with police so they can brainstorm ways to reduce youth violence. That likely will start next month, Brown said.

He declined to discuss the “Safest Large City in Colorado” mantra, but public information Officer Matthew Longshore said the narrowed gap between the crime rates in Denver, Colorado Springs and Aurora may be attributed in part to Aurora’s rapid population growth.

Regional effort to reduce crime

Although Aurora maintains a slightly lower overall crime rate than Colorado’s other large cities based on the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting data, that data is not intended to be used for ranking cities against one another, the FBI warns in a two-page document on their website.

Such rankings ignore multiple factors that impact crime and can create “misleading perceptions,” the FBI says in a section titled “Pitfalls of Ranking.”

A city’s crime rate can be impacted by the number of commuters who travel there, how many parks and open spaces it has, the number of large events it hosts, how willing residents are to report crimes to police and many other nuanced factors that aren’t reflected in the FBI’s crime data, Pyrooz said.

In Aurora’s case, it shares a border with Denver, and that can impact crime.

“Gang members, juveniles, shooters, they don’t know jurisdictions,” Brown said. “So where the city of Denver is and where Aurora starts doesn’t matter to them.”

That’s why a regional effort is required to reduce crime, Coffman said, adding that Aurora officials should always strive to reduce crime and keep residents safe even as the city grows.

“We are no longer a bedroom community,” he said. “We have urban challenges, like any other city of our size. Relatively speaking, we are not in a bad position. However, we can do better.”

Additionally, the FBI’s data is based only on what police departments report to the FBI, and how that is done can vary significantly, Pyrooz said.

Aurora, for example, reported 17 murders and non-negligent manslaughters to the FBI in 2018, but in data provided to the Denver Post, it reported 23 homicides that year.

That difference is likely explained by the number of justified or officer-involved shootings the city had in 2018, Longshore said. In 2018, Aurora recorded 23 total homicides, but six incidents were considered to be justified shootings or were closed without filing criminal charges, according to the data provided by police.

“Different police departments are going to record things differently,” Pyrooz said. “They have different priorities that they are carrying out. That can impact UCR reporting numbers.”

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