Colorado domestic violence deaths spiked in 2021, report finds

Six family members gunned down at a birthday party in Colorado Springs. A woman going through a breakup who’d sought support from her brother and a friend. A 1-month-old baby.

All are among the 91 people who died in domestic violence incidents in Colorado in 2021 — more deaths than any year since at least 2016, according to a new report released Friday by the state’s Domestic Violence Fatality Review Board.

In 2020, the state saw 63 domestic violence-related deaths, compared to 70 in 2019, 43 in 2018, 40 in 2017 and 58 in 2016, according to the review board, which first began tallying the deaths of both victims and perpetrators of domestic violence in 2016.

The 91 deaths in 2021 make for a 44% year-over-year increase, a spike that could be driven by the COVID-19 pandemic and seems to validate concerns from advocates who warned early on that the lockdowns, isolation and financial insecurity would cut off domestic violence victims from help and escape routes.

“More people died from domestic violence (in 2021) than ever in the life of the board,” said Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, who chairs the board. “So when you think about the amount of trauma that represents — domestic violence death is a nuclear event in a family. The kids that live in the shadow of this will endure that trauma for their entire lives and it will play out in all sorts of terrible ways. The deaths only start to capture the pain, the trauma, the impact.”

The review board found that most victims killed in domestic violence incidents were women, and most perpetrators of the violence were men. Among couples, about half were married or had been married, and half were dating or had formerly dated, the board found.

The stay-at-home orders during the first months of the pandemic made it difficult for victims of domestic abuse to get away from danger, said Katherine Miller, director at the Phoenix Center at Auraria, which supports survivors of domestic violence at several Denver college campuses.

“At the height of the pandemic, 2020, 2021, when there were still a lot of stay-at-home orders, that proximity, when we are talking about domestic violence, really does make a significant impact,” she said. “It really challenges people’s safety and how they can obtain safety. You can’t leave, you can’t go anywhere; it was difficult to access services.”

On top of that forced closeness, other stressors, like job losses and housing insecurity, were worse during the pandemic, said Margaret Abrams, executive director of the Rose Andom Center, which helped compile the board’s report.

“When you’re dealing with housing instability, unemployment and not knowing what health risks there may be, it just makes it that much harder to then address abuse and violence in your relationship until it’s at a really critical point,” she said.

In 2021, the 91 fatalities occurred in 61 separate cases and include 45 victims of domestic violence, 32 perpetrators and 14 collateral deaths, which the report defines as any deaths in the context of a domestic violence incident that are not the direct domestic violence victims or perpetrators.

Of the perpetrators who died, 72% killed themselves, with the rest killed by law enforcement officers or civilians. The report notes that in the 2021 cases in which domestic violence perpetrators were killed by police or civilians, there were no other deaths.

The vast majority of 2021’s domestic violence perpetrators used guns to kill their victims, the board found. Guns were used in about 81% of incidents, according to the report. Victims were strangled to death in about 9% of cases and stabbed in about 7% of cases, according to the report.

“Firing a gun is pretty easy, actually, and it’s very quick,” Miller said. “It can happen in the heat of the moment.”

Figuring out how to remove guns from people who are abusive or who are likely to become violent is key to curtailing domestic violence deaths, Weiser said. He called for more training about and use of Colorado’s red flag law, which allows authorities to seize someone’s guns if they present a threat to themselves or others.

Weiser also pointed to a state law that requires people who are subject to protection orders in domestic violence criminal cases to get rid of their guns, and said that law — which was broadened in 2021 to apply to both married and unmarried romantic relationships — should be better enforced.

“The unfortunate lived experience of that law is that (in the past) those perpetrators of domestic violence were asked, ‘Can you give me your weapons?’” he said. “At best they were asked that. In many cases, it was a formal requirement that was never followed up on. We were concerned that this procedure was not working as it should… we’re still working to implement the change. Like the red flag law, it takes time to build the public awareness, the judicial system’s awareness, so that we are using it for the purpose that we passed it.”

The board made several recommendations for statewide change aimed at curbing future fatalities, including additional training for the state’s judges and law enforcement officers, strengthening local domestic violence prevention infrastructure and better enforcing protection orders and gun relinquishments.

The report notes that judges frequently deal with domestic violence either directly or indirectly in cases, and suggests the current training and resources available to judges are inadequate.

“We have pretty good laws on the books,” Abrams said. “It’s a matter of really working with, not just the judiciary, they’re certainly part of it, but law enforcement, prosecution and the court system overall about how to implement those laws.”

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