by Christopher N. Osher, The Denver Post, December 03, 2010
A $2.2 million federal grant to combat gang violence in three Denver neighborhoods could help to one day reduce violence elsewhere in the nation, according to city officials.
The grant is the result of nearly four years of work from a consortium of civic and religious leaders, social workers and former gang members who came together after the 2007 gangland slaying of Denver Broncos cornerback Darrent Williams.
The collaborative approach first zeroed in on Westwood and then, to a more limited degree, on Northeast Denver. With the grant, the effort will expand and be targeted to the Northeast Park Hill, Five Points and Westwood neighborhoods.
“We didn’t have the luxury of committed dollars for a citywide initiative,” said Pat Hedrick, supervisor of Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper’s Safe City Office, who helped write the grant proposal. “This allows us to incorporate targeted areas and expand the project more than we had anticipated.”
A research team led by sociologist Jeffrey Butts, executive director of the research and evaluation center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, will monitor the work in Denver and in four other communities that recently received funding from the U.S. Department of Justice.
Butts said the results could help craft strategies in hard-hit cities like Detroit, where crime stubbornly refuses to ease. “The whole idea is to find a way to tackle what we call a hardened base of crime,” he said.
Screening for youths
In Denver, officials plan to use the money to tackle three neighborhoods where gang violence persists despite an overall drop in crime levels throughout the city in recent years.
According to Denver’s grant application, young people living in those areas reported that they felt so besieged that “parts of their neighborhoods feel like Juarez, Mexico, in regards to the violence and tension.”
“While many Denver residents would consider this comment to be far-fetched, it is the perception of a young person living in a community where gang violence alters everyday decisions regardless of gang membership status,” the application stated.
The Colorado Bureau of Investigation reports that Denver is home to 8,811 gang members affiliated with 78 gangs.
To help break the cycle, Denver officials now plan to screen youth between the ages of 7 and 14 living in the three targeted neighborhoods to determine whether they are at risk of joining gangs. Those who are will get steered to services aimed at ensuring they become productive students instead.
The grant also will allow the city to hire two new “violence interrupters” to join the four that currently go to gang strongholds when violence flares. They are mentors, often former gang members, tasked with urging peace when drive-by shootings start.
“Gang violence is a very public form of violence,” said Regina Huerter, executive director of the Denver Commission on Crime Prevention and Control. “Without it being managed and contained, it can spread.”
An extra probation officer also will be hired to join the two who currently shadow adult gang members and tailor services to them.
Police are pledging to conduct home checks and community outreach three times a month to increase supervision of gang members. The extra work means more home visits to determine whether those with felony convictions are hiding guns at their homes.
A new social worker also will train and steer people living in the areas toward jobs.
“It’s only a start”
All this collaboration has caught the attention of two California criminologists, Cheryl Maxson and Malcolm Klein, who have developed a screening system to predict those youth at risk of becoming gang members.
The screening program rolled out in Los Angeles last year. Now Denver has secured permission to become the second test-pilot site for the screening tool.
Cisco Gallardo, who counsels gang members in Denver, said he welcomes the extra money for the fight against gangs but wishes more money was aimed at intervention and prevention efforts.
“There are 42 police officers dedicated to the gang unit,” Gallardo said. “And now this will allow us to have only six outreach workers. It’s a good thing, but it’s only a start.”