A string of shootings in Littleton and Englewood this summer comes after a major surge in violent crimes involving guns last year, data shows.
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In 2021, Littleton saw 25 violent crimes involving guns, up from 16 in 2020, according to data from the Colorado Department of Public Safety. The numbers were far higher in Englewood, which saw 84 violent crimes involving guns in 2021, up from 17 in 2020.
The spike is the largest uptick in gun presence for both areas in the 10 years of data that was analyzed by Colorado Community Media.
In 2022, there have been 48 cases of violent crimes involving a firearm in Englewood as of May. For Littleton, it's 18. Those numbers already top firearm cases in both cities for years 2020 to 2012.
“Eighteen in a five-month period is a bit alarming," said Sheera Poelman, spokesperson for the Littleton Police Department.
Englewood Police Chief Sam Watson said the city is on track in 2022 "for a 20% increase in aggravated assaults involving a firearm."
Littleton and Englewood have experienced several shootings in recent months, some of which have been fatal.
The most recent, which involved Englewood police officers who fired back at an active shooter inside a home July 24, claimed the life of the shooter's brother — 22-year-old Matthew Neal Mitchell — who was inside a barricaded bedroom with his brother and who reportedly did not fire at officers.
Englewood police responded to a shooting July 18 that resulted in two adults reportedly shot. Both survived, police said.
On July 4, there was a shooting in a home in the 3600 block of South Sherman Street in Englewood that resulted in the death of a 21-year-old.
In Littleton, police found a 28-year-old man — later identified as Luke Scott Clayton — shot and killed in a home July 16. Nearly a month earlier, police reported that a 7-Eleven clerk was held at gunpoint June 18.
And on June 14, Littleton police arrested a 14-year-old boy for allegedly shooting a woman in the leg at Progress Park and stealing her purse on June 12.
Littleton police officer Rick Redmond said, despite the violence, the department has been proactive in making swift arrests in those cases.
“One thing I want the citizens to know is how hard the department works to protect the citizens," Redmond said. “I still consider Littleton to be an extremely, extremely safe city.”
Still, Redmond said it's hard to "pinpoint exactly why that increase is happening," when it comes to gun crime.
Gun ownership nationwide is on the rise. In 2020, there was a reported record-breaking 22.8 million guns sold. Colorado followed that trend, with 487,097 gun sales in 2020 — the highest number ever recorded in the state.
“Obviously, if you have more of something, there’s a chance it could be involved in what’s going on," Redmond said, adding that Littleton and Colorado's rising population could also be a cause for increased crime.
Watson said that his officers are "encountering more people during traffic stops and calls for service who are armed with a firearm."
According to Stacey Hervey, associate professor in criminal justice and criminology at Metropolitan State University of Denver, metro Denver has followed national trends for violent crimes, such as murder.
“Homicide rates across the United States do seem to be going up in major cities," Hervey said.
The uptick in summer months can be partly attributed to more people being outside, Hervey said, as well as increased drinking around the Fourth of July holiday.
Hervey said a growing mental health crisis — exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic — has also played a role in the increase in violence.
“Mental health issues are at an all-time high right now. It’s hard for anyone with a mental health crisis to get the help they need," Hervey said.
In the case of the 22-year-old killed by Englewood police during a shootout with his brother, Hervey said it showed an instance where a family member turned to police for a mental health issue.
“Unfortunately, some families do rely on 911 for mental health crises … when you send police to a mental health crisis, they’re trained in a certain way to deal with things," Hervey said. “We really need to be looking at how did that family get into a situation where they had to call 911."
An arrest affidavit for the victim's brother — 29-year-old Phillip L. Blankenship — says that Blankenship's mother called police because her son was intoxicated, suicidal and had shot a gun inside their home.
“Any time you do add a gun to the mix … it adds a whole different ballgame," Hervey said.
She likened the case — which is currently being investigated by the 18th Judicial District — to the Paul Childs case in 2003, when a Denver police officer shot a mentally disabled 15-year-old four times because he was holding a large kitchen knife.
A family friend had called the police on Childs after seeing him with the knife, which officers said he "was threatening" his mother with, according to a 2003 Denver Post article.
Upon arriving at the scene, police asked Childs to drop the knife. Childs, whose mother said he was unable to understand the commands, did not and was shot by an officer.
That incident "really changed how police in Denver respond to mental health crises," Hervey said, putting a spotlight on the need for better deescalation tactics.
Littleton and Englewood police have said mental health needs to be a priority for policing.
Both cities' departments have made investments in mental health resources — such as a co-responder program — which partners officers with trained clinicians when responding to incidents that may involve a mental health crisis.
Watson said Englewood police remain "committed to tackling crime trends through a variety of programs that address the causes of crime, including an emphasis on mental health awareness and response training."
Englewood police recently unveiled a mobile response unit to help take people to mental health care facilities and treatment centers. But those services, while needed, are far from perfect, Redmond said.
A lack of in-patient beds statewide has created an immense backlog for those in need of mental health treatment. Police are the "end of the road" for someone who can't find help, Redmond said.
“It’s just this revolving door where you’re doing everything over again," Redmond said. "There are parts where the system’s just not working the way I would like it to work."
He said it can be "very frustrating and daunting" for police, who are not equipped to take on the mental health crisis alone. Where departments can play their part is by being involved with their community, Redmond said.
When not responding to a call, Redmond works in Littleton's schools as a resource officer.
“One of the best things we can do is build a relationship with the community where people can talk to us, people can tell us things," Redmond said, adding that "a lot of our information does come from tips from citizens."
Hervey said it will take more time and investments at the local and national level to build the mental health infrastructure that is desperately needed.
“(Mental health) has to be at the forefront of every monetary and political decision we have," Hervey said. “If a family is relying on 911 for a mental health crisis, we’re doing something wrong."
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