Hunger for iPhones drove a 12.7 percent increase in violent crime in Denver last year, police officials said Tuesday.
Street stickups in particular were the source of a 23 percent jump in robberies in 2011 from the year before, an increase so stark that detectives wanted a closer look.
They found that of the 1,143 robberies reported in 2011 — up from 926 the year before — 83 were street robberies either committed by juveniles or in pursuit of coveted iPhones.
"We had a couple of groups that were victimizing people," said Denver data analysis unit director Chris Wyckoff. "We have arrested some people in the groups, but there are others out there."
For the fifth straight year, violent crime — murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault — in the U.S. fell, by 3.8 percent. But Denver logged spikes in nearly every major crime category, according to FBI statistics released this week. The steepest increase was in robbery, which often carries a city's overall violent-crime rate.
Incidents of violent crime in Denver hit 3,708 in 2011, compared with 3,291 in 2010.
Denver Police managers in April transferred detectives who investigate street robberies from headquarters into the six district stations, in part so they could work more closely with commanders who are familiar with crime trends and patterns in specific areas, Cmdr. Magen Dodge said.
They hoped the move would drive down the robbery rate. But department statistics show robberies so far this year are already nearing last year's total. As of Saturday, Denver had logged 1,114 robberies, compared with 969 by that day last year. There were 946 holdups in all of 2009.
Street robberies tend to be concentrated in particular areas, and downtown Denver — where shoppers wander, fixated on their smartphones — has been hardest hit.
Dodge said other large cities have the same problem. In Los Angeles, for example, police have warned of "Apple picking," in which young bandits identify potential victims by looking for white earbuds. They ask the unsuspecting people if they can borrow their phones and then make off with them. Robbers use the same technique in Denver, Wyckoff said.
Denver's population increases with commuters during the workday, but the FBI's crime rates are based on the number of people who live in the city. That could make the data look worse than it is, said Callie Rennison, an associate professor in the University of Colorado Denver's School of Public Affairs.
The FBI's Uniform Crime Report tracks only the offenses reported to police agencies, so Denver's numbers also could mean more diligent reporting of robberies, which are already the violent crimes most likely to be disclosed tp cops.
Other crimes in 2011 rose in Denver, too. Aggravated assaults were up about 8 percent, from 1,976 in 2010 to 2,135. And violent crimes involving a firearm, including robberies, increased 19 percent, from 872 to 1,037, Wyckoff said.
Property crimes — burglaries, thefts, auto thefts and arson — rose 8.8 percent in Denver, although the nation overall saw a 0.5 percent drop, the FBI report shows.
But crime in Denver was unusually low two years ago, police said. The 22 homicides in 2010 — compared with 34 last year — marked a 10-year-low. Last year's statistics are more representative of a typical year in Denver and are lower than they were a decade ago, police said. Experts say crime always ebbs and flows in major cities.
"If you look at just one year, you can have a skewed snapshot of what is occurring," Dodge said, adding that commanders review data daily in search of ways to lower crime. "We're within a relatively acceptable range for where we're at."
Sadie Gurman: 303-954-1661, email@example.com or twitter.com/sgurman