The number of homicides and burglaries in Pueblo dropped substantially last year, as other violent and non-violent crimes — such as robberies and theft— continued to rise, according to data from the Pueblo Police Department.

The homicide rate in the southern Colorado city dropped from a total of 13 cases in both 2014 and 2015 to 8 in 2016 — the first decrease since 2013 — according to a crime index from the Pueblo Police Department’s “Annual Report 2016.”

According to the report, which has not yet been released in its entirety, the number of burglaries in Pueblo also dropped from its 2015 peak of 2,053 cases to 1,737 last year.

“I would say that the overall trend right now is that crime is going down — if you look at everything as a big picture,” said Capt. Kenny Rider, who works in the Community Services Division at the Pueblo Police Department.

While those statistics are positive for a community that has in recent years been characterized as Colorado’s most dangerous city (based on per-capita statistics), some crime is on the rise: certain types of property crimes and assaults, for example. Throughout 2016,  robberies increased from 186 in 2015 to 223 in 2016; aggravated assaults increased from 218 in 2015 to 546 in 2016; sexual assaults increased from 147 in 2015 to 153 in 2016; larcenies/thefts increased from 4,422 in 2015 to 4528 in 2016; vehicle thefts increased from 915 in 2015 to 1,198 in 2016; and arson crimes increased from 36 in 2015 to 49 in 2016.

“Our property crimes remain high, and I think that has a lot to do with the heroin problems we’re facing right now,” Rider said. “And 2015 was a bad year for us: That’s when we were dealing with a lot of gang activity, but that seems to have settled down a little bit.”

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Pueblo’s problems with drug abuse and crime are largely concentrated in its poorest neighborhoods, located in the east-central and south-central parts of the city.

“Those are definitely lower-income areas, and have always been high-crime areas,” Rider said. “It doesn’t really matter what [crime statistics] you’re looking at — it seems like everything is always higher in those neighborhoods.”

Jeff Shaw, president of the Pueblo Economic Development Corporation, said he agrees that there are certain neighborhoods that have been hit hard by crime and poverty, but that it hasn’t done much to prevent economic growth citywide.

“Our mission is retention, attraction and expansion … and our prospect pipeline has never been stronger,” Shaw said. “I would say that our business climate is better than it has been in decades.”

As part of Shaw’s job with PEDCO, he regularly works with companies that are currently located in Pueblo, as well as those considering a move to the town. He said that despite years of negative news coverage and undeniable crime statistics, it isn’t something that prevents those serious about doing business in Pueblo from coming or staying.

“We have prospects who will ask about crime rates, but certainly not on a regular basis,” Shaw said. “Is crime an issue in Pueblo? Crime is an issue everywhere. … There are certain parts of the community that have really struggled, but it hasn’t affected the business community — at least as far as [PEDCO] is concerned.”

Shaw and other Pueblo business leaders say the problem that besets their community is less about the crime itself and more about its perception.

Larry Atencio is a Pueblo city councilor who represents District 2, which includes the east-central neighborhoods with some of the city’s highest rates of both poverty and crime. He said he agrees public relations is paramount.

“It is my perspective that Pueblo really doesn’t have a higher crime rate than probably most other cities,” Atencio said. “I just don’t think we’re this crime-ridden, terrible place. … I think the reputation that Pueblo has had over the years is a bigger problem than anything else. Overcoming that reputation is really rough.”

Atencio said the city’s crime rate hasn’t been a deterrent for businesses in his district, but admitted there are certain types of crime that have grown in poorer communities since the decline of Pueblo’s industrial economy.

Despite high rates of property crime in some neighborhoods, Pueblo officials say the city is safe.
Despite high rates of property crime in some neighborhoods, Pueblo officials say the city is safe.

For decades the CF&I steel plant in south Pueblo was the region’s largest employer, providing good-paying jobs to 7,000 locals. But Pueblo’s post-war period of prosperity began to fade in the ’80s, as manufacturing companies began outsourcing jobs internationally. By the ’90s, CF&I’s statewide employment had fallen from 13,000 to just 1,300 as other Pueblo manufacturers also suffered, leaving thousands in the city impoverished.

Decades after the decline, Atencio said the community is beginning to recover thanks to a growing economy and more-diversified business scene.

“Our transition to modern economic success has been slow in coming,” Atencio said. “In changing a whole community from lunch-bucket, blue-collar industrial to a real modern economy, I think we’re finally turning a corner. It has taken us this long to really make some good strides in diversifying our economy.”

In response to the community’s high crime rate and the negative impact it has had on the city’s public persona, Pueblo created a program called the Southern Colorado Safe Streets Task Force that has found success in crime prevention and quelling gang activity by publicizing the names and photos of wanted criminals via local media outlets. And thanks to steadily increasing tax revenue, the annual budget for the Pueblo Police Department has grown from $26.2 million in 2013 to $28.7 million this year.

The police department has also applied for an Office of Community Oriented Policing Services grant to fund seven new police officer positions and a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice that would pay for new body cameras and software.

As the police continue to do their jobs in fighting crime in the area, local officials in the business community said they will continue to do their part in defending Pueblo’s reputation as a business-friendly community with a few bad neighborhoods.

“We have about 990 business members in our chamber and we don’t hear a lot of concerns from them in terms of the crime rate,” said Rod Slyhoff, president of the Greater Pueblo Chamber of Commerce. “I think our members feel that things are positive right now in Pueblo. … But anywhere you’re at, crime affects business; and we’ve been able to demonstrate to people that we’re really no different than any other community in the country. … We’re really working very hard to make Pueblo a safe destination for tourists, as well as a safe place to do business. That is unfortunately — no matter where you are in the world — a job that I think you have to work at every day.”