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Why Pueblo has the highest per-capita homicide rate in Colorado

March 14, 2016

PUEBLO — When a volley of gunshots rang out last month outside two busy bars in the center of town, patrons went diving for cover. As the drive-by gunfire ceased, those in the crowd stood up, checking themselves for wounds. Then the toll became apparent. Devin Clark, a young ironworker walking with friends for a late-night bite to eat, tried to stand up before collapsing on the sidewalk.

His friends watched as he died from a bullet that had passed through his chest. Two nearby security guards were clutching at wounds of their own.

"He was out just doing what any 26-year-old (would do)," Clark's mother, Heather Poole, said of the Feb. 28 shooting. "You should be able to go to a bar. You should be able to go out."
Pueblo residents stage a candlelit vigil for Devin Clark at the Martin Luther King Jr. Cultural Center on March 4. Childhood friends and those who loved

Pueblo residents stage a candlelit vigil for Devin Clark at the Martin Luther King Jr. Cultural Center on March 4. Childhood friends and those who loved Clark came to share their sorrow and show support for the family after he was the victim of a fatal drive-by shooting while waiting outside a downtown Pueblo bar. (Joe Amon, The Denver Post)

Violence in Pueblo has soared over the past two years, pushing the city's per-capita homicide rate to the highest in Colorado, a Denver Post analysis found. Police blame a gang war that sometimes has spread into parts of the city that are typically peaceful.

The violence has claimed bystanders, such as Clark, caught in the crossfire of a battle they had no part in.

While an understaffed Pueblo Police Department and federal agents have made it a priority to tackle the problem, deaths such as Clark's, which authorities are investigating as stemming from the gang battle, continue to shake residents.

And for a city on the precipice of an economic recovery after years of a declining industrial base, leaders are worried the violence could keep new businesses away.

"These are areas where people want to go out at night, they want to shop during the daytime," said City Council president Steve Nawrocki. "We have been trying to revive our city, and undoubtedly we want people to feel safe at the city center."

Investigators say they have identified more than 1,000 gang members in the city, which is roughly 1 percent of Pueblo's population. The police department had one officer dedicated to the problem before a second recently was assigned to the beat.

"Part of our problem in Pueblo has been (that) our staffing levels are too low," said Police Chief Luis Velez. "Just like the gang problem is not new in Pueblo, understaffing is not a new problem either. However, when you have a dramatic increase in calls for service and your position of staffing is the lowest that you have been at in quite a while, that gap causes enormous problems."

The force is down to roughly 190 officers from a peak in 2009 of more than 205.
District Attorney Jeff Chostner is asking for more money to bolster the Pueblo police force by 40 percent.

Velez said a decline in Pueblo's sales tax revenue during the recession led to his reduced force. That has meant a scenario he likened to robbing Peter to pay Paul.Since 2009, the city's population has been slowly rising. But since 2011, the department's detective staff has been reduced by 24 percent.

"I have had to diminish the number of officers who are in narcotics," Velez said. "I have had to diminish the number of officers in our traffic section. I have had to diminish the number of officers in our gang unit. Why? Because I needed them to answer calls for service and patrol."

Pueblo had 13 homicides in each of 2014 and 2015 — a record — and last year saw a 12 percent increase in aggravated assaults as compared with the previous 12 months. Last year, the city's homicide rate was 12 per 100,000 people.

By comparison, Boulder, which has roughly the same population as Pueblo, had three homicides in 2015 with a per-capita homicide rate of 2.9 per 100,000. Denver and Aurora's homicide rate last year were 7.5 and 6.2 per 100,000 people, respectively.

Reports of shots fired and drive-by shootings and gang-related 911 calls in Pueblo reached a five-year high in 2015, police statistics show.

"They are doing an almost impossible job trying to stay up on these calls for service," Andrew McLachlan, Pueblo's deputy police chief, said of his officers.

Authorities attribute the gang violence, centered between two long-standing rival factions in the city, to battles over stakes in Pueblo's drug and gun trafficking trade.
(The Denver Post)

Opioid use — specifically black-tar heroin — in Pueblo has risen sharply in the past several years. County Coroner Brian Cotter likened the spread to "an explosion."

Police say it has become the cheapest high in town, less than the cost of recreational marijuana.

The Colorado Health Institute found deaths in Pueblo linked to drugs were at a rate above 20 per 100,000 people in 2014, higher than the statewide average of 16.3 drug-related deaths per 100,000.

In 2002, drug-related deaths were happening in Pueblo at a rate of about 13 per 100,000 people, according to CHI.

"I think the public has got to the breaking point on this," said District Attorney Jeff Chostner, who is pushing a half-cent ballot initiative to increase the city's police force by some 25 percent. "They've seen an uptick in violence and lethal violence. They want changes."

Chostner began pushing hard for his proposal after Clark's death, but he is facing reluctance from some members of the City Council who say they already are trying to address the problem.

"If the council doesn't give me what I want, I'll go and stand in front of King Soopers for a couple of weekends" collecting petition signatures, he said. "To have this streak of violence in Pueblo just can't happen. It can't happen under my watch."

Clark's death, in which no arrests have been made, was similar to two other killings in Pueblo in the past six months that have been blamed on gangs. Police say all three victims were in the wrong place at the wrong time and had no connection to crime or the gang war.

Isaiah Vialpando, 20, was fatally shot in the head Sept. 2 in a downtown Pueblo drive-by that authorities believe was a case of mistaken identity or random violence. No arrests have been made in the case.

On Sept. 14, 32-year-old Ricky Muniz was killed as police say he confronted gang members spray-painting gang graffiti behind his parents' home. Timothy Tafoya, 21, is accused in the slaying.

On the night Clark was killed, he was standing in front of popular bars packed shoulder to shoulder with patrons.

"Everybody just started ducking," said Sabrina Lindenmuth, who was bartending that night. "Girls were sobbing. We were just trying to get people inside."

Clark's family said the slain man was a goofy giant at 6-foot-7 who loved the outdoors, the Pittsburgh Steelers and taking care of those around him. He played basketball at Trinidad State Junior College and Colorado State University-Pueblo.

His grandmother taught public school for years, making the Clarks a Pueblo mainstay.

"We want young, talented educated kids to lift this community up," said his mother, her nails painted purple for Devin's favorite color. "This is the kind of thing that makes them go: 'I'm getting ... out of here. I'm packing my bags.' "

Police are exploring new ways to address the gang problem, including a metrics-based approach to decide where officers should be patrolling. Authorities also are seeking grants to pay for expensive technologies like ShotSpotter, which has helped Denver police track gunfire in neighborhoods with gang violence.

This spring, the U.S. Marshals Service will evaluate the breadth of gangs in Pueblo, and other federal law enforcement agencies have albeen dedicating resources to enforcement.

Over two days in August, the FBI, Drug Enforcement Agency and Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives arrested 47 people during a Pueblo sweep targeting gang members. Colorado's U.S. attorney, John Walsh, called the operation a significant step.

Chostner said he also is exploring indictments under Colorado's Organized Crime Act as another way to target gang enterprises.

"I hate that it had to be my brother," said Clark's 25-year-old brother, Tyler. "But I'll make sure what happens now is something positive."

Denver Post