Kanajai Burton stayed up all night after his son was born.
The baby was born early and spent his first months in the neonatal intensive care unit. At all hours of the day, Burton checked the hospital’s video stream and watched his son doze and wriggle under the masses of wires keeping him alive. When the baby came home to Burton’s apartment, the 18-year-old changed his diapers. He got up in the night when he cried.
Burton smiled every time his boy smiled, the teen’s mom, Casandra Watkins, said. He was thrilled to be a father, even if it delayed his plans to graduate high school and play arena football. Burton named his son Sekani, which means joy and laughter.
But Burton never got to graduate. He never saw his joy’s first steps. Instead, Burton was gunned down and killed on Colfax Avenue a month after his 19th birthday — one of 88 people killed in homicides in Denver last year.
“Someone looked at my baby and decided his life wasn’t worth living,” Watkins said. “My baby became a crime scene.”
The number of people killed in homicides in Denver in 2022 represents a decrease from the near-record highs recorded in 2020 and 2021, but it’s still significantly higher than the number of killings in the 2010s. In 2021, 96 people were killed in Denver, the highest number of homicides in the city since 1981.
Denver’s 2022 rate of 12.4 homicides per 100,000 residents remains much lower than the homicide rates recorded in the early 1990s, when the rate exceeded 18 homicides per 100,000.
“Eighty-eight homicides last year is a slight reduction from the previous year, but still not something we’re happy about at all,” Denver police Chief Ron Thomas said. “One homicide is obviously too many.”
Despite the fall in homicides, the number of people injured but not killed by gunfire increased last year. And the violence impacted Denverites of all ages — the youngest homicide victim was 4 years old and the oldest was 74.
But Denver police noted a troubling continuous increase in the number of teens and children being killed and wounded in the city’s violence.
Burton was one of 17 teenagers killed in Denver last year — about a fifth of all homicide victims and nearly double the number of teen victims recorded five years ago. Seventy other teens were shot and injured. Most of the teens were injured or killed by fellow teens.
“Not only did he kill two men, he destroyed their families,” Watkins said of the 18-year-old charged with shooting her son and her son’s friend.
“He killed me. I died that day.”
“I didn’t want that for my children”
Watkins raised Burton and her two daughters in North Carolina before moving to Denver six years ago.
As a single mom, Watkins scrimped money to make sure her children lived outside of the neighborhood where she grew up. She didn’t want them to grow up amid gangs and drugs.
“I didn’t want that for my children,” she said. “You get stuck.”
When she didn’t have money to pay the electric bill, she’d take the kids to the grocery store and tell them to pick out anything from the freezer section so they could heat it up in a gas station microwave. She tried to make it a fun game. She didn’t want her kids to understand the stress she was feeling.
Once, when Burton was 5 or 6 years old, he noticed Watkins hadn’t picked out anything for herself. He then refused to choose anything.
“He told me, ‘If you’re not going to eat, I’m not going to eat,’” Watkins said.
Burton was simultaneously the man of the house and an unabashed momma’s boy, she said. He was the clown who loved to push his family member’s buttons. He wanted to play arena football, despite Watkin’s warnings that a career in professional football was unlikely. He was ambitious and headstrong, she said.
Watkins never worried about where her son was or what he was doing. Her sacrifices to move her family outside of the neighborhood she grew up in had paid off — she raised a good kid who stayed out of trouble.
“Everything I went through, everything I did, all the sacrifices I made so we wouldn’t be in the ‘hood — it was in vain,” she said. “It just so happened that what I feared most and what I tried to prevent still happened.”
Resolving conflicts with bullets
The most common cause of homicides in Denver last year was arguments that spun out of control, Thomas said. Police linked 28 killings to an argument, 11 to drugs, nine to gangs and eight to domestic violence.
“The ability to resolve conflict in a peaceful manner is something that is lost on society today,” he said. “We are seeing more and more often people resolving conflict with guns.”
Police have also linked a number of homicides to house parties. Drinking, drugs and personal conflicts can erupt into deadly violence when guns are present.
Thomas encouraged people to call the police about unruly house parties so an officer can be dispatched. The department made calls about house parties a higher priority in the department’s dispatch system, which means officers will arrive more quickly.
Denver police made arrests in 78% of the 2022 homicide cases, Denver police Cmdr. Matt Clark said. The department expects the clearance rate to top 80% in the near future, Clark said.
“We’re interrupting that violence,” he said. “We’re doing everything we can to interrupt future violence and we’re holding them accountable so these offenders can’t continue to victimize people in our community.”
Seventy-five percent of all homicide victims and 83% of all non-fatal shooting victims were Black or Hispanic, Denver police data shows. Black and Hispanic people make up 39% of Denver’s population, according to the State Demography Office.
“It’s clear to us that there is a significant impact on minority communities… which is a concern for us,” Thomas said.
Police identified the relationships between suspected killers and victims in 54 of 2022’s killings. Of those, the vast majority — 44 of the 54 — of victims knew the person suspected of killing them.
More than a dozen young children lost a parent in the killings, according to families’ obituaries and fundraisers.
Emmanuel Amani and his wife in 2014 moved from Congo to Denver, where they raised two children, according to his family’s fundraiser. A former educator, Amani volunteered extensively with Denver Public Schools. He was shot and killed outside his apartment complex on April 4. His children were in fifth and seventh grade.
Lanny Nelson, 34, was shot and killed March 4, leaving behind a wife and six children.
“I hope you’re doing better up there and that you’re watching down over me,” his oldest daughter wrote in his obituary. “I love you soo much and I’m sorry pops but I’m gonna be a great daughter for you.”
Although the number of homicides fell, the number of people who were shot but survived their injuries increased in 2022. At least 292 people were injured by gunfire in Denver last year — up from the 228 victims in 2021 but down from the 305 victims documented in 2020.
Since he took over the chief’s position in September, Thomas has assigned more officers to respond to calls for service in an attempt to lower crime and response times. Two or three officers in each of the department’s seven districts have been reassigned from proactive community work to responding to calls, Thomas said.
Many researchers and law enforcement experts attributed the recent spike in violence in Denver and many other American cities to the economic and social disruptions caused by COVID-19. But it’s too early to know whether the spike in violence is ebbing as the impacts of COVID-19 wane, Thomas said.
“I’m hopeful,” Thomas said. “I think that there still are economic stressors that are impacting people… I don’t know that we’ve truly recovered from all of that.”
The phone call
Watkins’ phone rang just before midnight on Jan. 29, 2022. It was Burton’s girlfriend — the teen had never come home after stepping out for baby Tylenol around 8 p.m. The couple had shared their phone locations with each other and Burton’s phone was showing his location as in the Denver jail.
Watkins immediately went to the jail and asked for her son. Deputies told her he wasn’t there, but that she should keep checking the online inmate roster to see if he would be booked later.
Watkins spent the next four hours obsessively refreshing the page. When his name still didn’t pop up by 4 a.m., she called Denver police to file a missing person report. They said they’d send an officer to talk to her.
When no officer showed up, she called back. The call taker told her she would be contacted by a detective instead of an officer.
That’s when Watkins knew something was wrong. She’d seen a news report that two men were shot and killed on Colfax Avenue earlier in the evening, but hadn’t thought it had anything to do with her son. Now, she worried.
By 6 a.m., Watkins couldn’t wait any longer and went to police headquarters. As she was walking through the door, a detective called. He told her Burton wasn’t missing — he had been killed. His phone had pinged in the jail because it was in an evidence locker.
Watkins didn’t hear anything after that. She passed out in the police station.
Kids killing kids
The number of teenagers killed in Denver has risen nearly every year since 2015, when two teens were killed in homicides. That year, young people represented 4% of homicide victims.
The 17 young people killed in 2022 made up a fifth of all homicide victims.
The killing of a 16-year-old girl was traced to a fight about guns and a vehicle. Another 16-year-old girl was shot and killed after a fight at a downtown concert venue. Two boys — 13 and 14 years old — were gunned down while traveling down Peoria Street in a vehicle. The boys were best friends.
Six of the seven suspects arrested in connection to killings of young people are also teens. Overall, 13 teenage suspects were arrested in connection to homicides last year.
There is no single solution to keeping kids from violence, said Patrick Hedrick, director of Denver Public Safety Youth Programs. Every kid and family is different.
Many young people have told Hedrick that they and their peers simply don’t have hope for a better future. That means they live day by day with less regard for the future.
“Some of these kids don’t feel like they have a pathway out of the situation,” he said.
The sharp rise in killings prompted calls in 2019 and 2020 for change by activists and city leaders.
Mayor Michael Hancock convened a working group to address the problem and appointed a youth violence prevention coordinator. The city helped fund “safe zone” events where young people could gather safely and promoted safe gun storage. The working group’s long-term goals included expanding access to parenting resources and creating more job opportunities for young people.
The juvenile courts and Denver District Attorney’s Office launched a program to intervene in the lives of juveniles caught with guns and programs in area hospitals work to intervene after a young person is injured in a shooting.
Yet the number of teens dying continues to rise.
Gun possession by a minor has become the most common charge in Denver’s juvenile pre-trial services in recent years, Hedrick said. One of the most common reasons kids give for carrying a gun is self-protection, he said.
“There was a kid in one of our programs a few years back who said, ‘If I get caught with a gun, I’ll be put in detention for a little while and then be released. If I get caught in the community without a gun, I might end up dead,’” Hedrick said. “What would you do? I think it’s hard for us to look at that kid and say, ‘I would do something totally different.’”
Denver is not the only city where teens are being hurt or perpetrating an increasing amount of violence. Aurora has also seen the number of teen homicide and shooting victims skyrocket in recent years.
More juveniles were shot in New York City in 2021 than in 2018 and 2019 combined, according to the Wall Street Journal. In Philadelphia, 81 children were murdered in 2022 — up from 52 in all of 2019 and 2020.
Keeping kids from turning to violence requires addressing root causes like family instability, economic needs and substance use, Hedrick said. Having a single responsible and trusted adult role model can work wonders in a young person’s life.
“This is preventable,” Hedrick said.
“I’m a proud momma”
Watkins later learned that her son was on Colfax with a man he’d met a few weeks prior, Elijah Kelly. Burton had taken Kelly under his wing and was trying to help him, she said. The suspect shot Kelly first and then turned the gun on Burton, Watkins said.
She’s still not sure why Kelly and her son were on Colfax that night.
“He always wanted to help everyone,” Watkins said. “I tried to tell him you can’t help everybody.”
She didn’t get to see her son’s body for four days. Burton was killed on a Saturday and the medical examiner’s office wouldn’t let her see him until Wednesday.
“For four days I’m looking at the door thinking it was a lie and my baby’s going to walk through any minute,” she said.
Reminders of her son are impossible to escape.
There was a simple question on her tax form this year: She claimed Burton as a dependent last year — had anything changed? The question made her gasp and spiraled her into an anxiety attack.
At a medical appointment a few months ago, the doctor asked her how many children she had. She froze. She didn’t know how to answer.
Driving past the intersection on her way back from therapy once caused her to stop her car, get out and scream. She doesn’t remember how she got home.
Everyday tasks like laundry and dinner seem impossible. Most days, she just goes to work and comes home.
“I’m really just existing,” she said. “I’m doing the bare minimum to survive. It’s not fair to my girls, they don’t have the momma that they had before. My husband doesn’t have the wife that he had before. My grandchildren don’t have the grandmother that they had before. And they never will — it’s not fair.”
Raising Sekani, now almost 2 years old, is hard. But he keeps her going, she said.
The baby screamed all night, every night, for the first months he stayed at her house after Burton died. Sekani had always slept with his dad.
“He wanted his daddy,” said Michael Watkins, Casandra’s husband.
Despite the grief and the pain, Watkins knows the sacrifices she bore to raise her children right weren’t really in vain. She sees her son’s smile in her grandson’s smile.
“I’m a proud momma,” Watkins said. “I just wanted to raise a good man. And I did that.”
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