The violent crime rate in Boulder is the highest it’s been in the last decade, according to federal data.
In 2021, the Boulder Police Department received 377 reports of violent crimes, which include aggravated assaults, robbery, rape and murder, according an analysis of Federal Bureau of Investigation data by the Boulder Reporting Lab.
That’s a violent crime rate of 348 per 100,000 people, up 63% from a rate of 214 in 2010.
In the last decade, vehicle theft has trended up, too, with a notable spike in reports of stolen car parts since the start of the pandemic.
Boulder’s violent crime rate is lower than the Colorado average. It’s also lower than dozens of comparably sized U.S. cities and university towns, according to an analysis by David Pyrooz, an associate professor of sociology at CU Boulder who studies violence and crime trends.
“Across every single metric, from property crimes to violent crimes, Boulder was among the safest,” Pyrooz said of his recent research.
But the national rising crime trend — whose determining factors are likely many and unclear — has not entirely spared Boulder.
And public safety concerns surrounding the growing crime rate have already influenced politics and policymaking. Local political groups have organized around it. City council candidates have campaigned on it. Boulder County sheriff candidates are vowing to take it on. And state lawmakers want to get to the root cause.
The federal data on crime is based on reports to the Boulder Police Department, which then relays its data to the FBI under the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program.
The data is imperfect and incomplete. It includes people who have been cleared of wrongdoing. It misses others. Generally, fewer than half of all violent crimes are reported, according to a 2020 study by the Pew Research Center.
The Boulder Reporting Lab analyzed 11 years of crime reporting. Here’s a summary of key takeaways.
Violent crime is rising
In 2021, people reported more violent crimes than in any single year for the past decade. And last year marked another double-digit percent increase in the city’s violent crime rate.
FBI data dating back to 1985 indicates Boulder experienced more robberies and aggravated assaults in 2021 than in any year during the last 25 years.
Overall, the violent crime rate in Colorado is substantially lower than it was in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when crime rates across the U.S. were at record highs. But in Boulder, the violent crime rate today is similar to the peak of the last major wave.
Murder rates in Boulder have remained relatively low in the past decade, with the exception of last year’s shooting at King Soopers on March 22, in which the alleged gunman killed 10 people. (The FBI data recorded this as one homicide, revealing another limitation of the data.)
In the last 11 years, Boulder’s average annual murder rate of 1.4 per 100,000 people was less than half the Colorado average. The Colorado murder rate is below the national average, according to FBI data.
Crimes involving a firearm are up
The rate of crimes involving a gun have nearly doubled in the last decade, according to FBI data.
However, Boulder’s rate is about a quarter the statewide rate.
Separately, in Boulder County, the number of suicides involving a gun have trended up, too, according to data from state health officials. In 2020, 31 people died by suicide involving a firearm.
The overall number of property crimes are down from a peak in 1991, according to FBI data.
And in the last 11 years, reports of burglary have remained relatively steady.
Two notable exceptions to this trend are shoplifting and car theft, both of which have shot up in recent years.
In the last decade, reports of theft of cars, car parts and property inside cars has nearly doubled.
Much of that rise has happened since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. In the last year, theft of vehicle parts, such as catalytic converters, has tripled. The emission control parts are sold for hundreds of dollars. To help slow the trend, lawmakers this year have proposed legislation to restrict the sale of used or recycled catalytic converters.
What we don’t know
The reasons behind these trends are largely speculative — and sometimes used for political purposes.
Hypotheses include decisions by county sheriffs to detain fewer people in jail as a Covid-19 pandemic precaution. Other ideas include general distrust for law enforcement, pandemic-induced financial instability and emotional disruption, as well as rising methamphetamine and Fentanyl addiction. Methamphetamine overdoses reached record highs in 2020, according to the most recent state health department data.
Boulder Police Chief Maris Herold said in an interview with the Boulder Reporting Lab another reason may be that the whole criminal justice system has been disrupted.
“Our trials have been disrupted. Mental health services have been disrupted. Any kind of diversion programs have been disrupted. The whole medical side of the equation has been disrupted. Counseling services have been interrupted, people having to do Zoom therapy sessions. So the whole system put in place to address issues around criminal justice has been disrupted because of the pandemic,” Herold said.
She said the department recently hired a criminologist to help the city better understand issues of victimization, repeat offenders and homelessness. She said additional data could help guide policing reforms.
Pyrooz, of CU Boulder, said Boulder should conduct a survey similar to the National Crime Victimization Survey to understand who is being victimized, where crimes are taking place, whether crimes are reported to the police, whether an arrest was made, and general satisfaction with the law enforcement response.
But ultimately, he said, it’s hard to measure crime.
“There’s no perfect criteria. It’s not like we can rely on a ruler and say yes, that is indeed 10 inches,” he said. “It just doesn’t work like that with crime.”