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Monday, 2 July 2012

Denver cop killing returns spotlight to street gangs

10:46 |

The shooting death of Officer Celena Hollis — possibly the city's seventh gang-related slaying of 2012 — has forced talk of gangs, guns and poverty to the fore of public conversation. City leaders say they're taking stock of gang-prevention programs and working to douse dangerous tensions before they escalate into the type of all-out street war that some fear. "I'm tired of this," said Kendra Ephriam-Rudd, who lost her best friend and the father of five children when gang members allegedly gunned down her husband, Deon Rudd, on May 25. "When does this stop? How many people do we need to bury this year? I knew Celena. We worked with her." Hollis' slaying at City Park Jazz a week ago stretched beyond economic  typical gang boundaries at a popular event that draws crowds from across racial and lines. But even before the errant bullet allegedly fired by a member of a Bloods subgroup killed Hollis, community leaders in gang-plagued northeast Denver say they've been under siege by attacks and counterstrikes. "Somebody's child killed my husband. Period," said Ephriam-Rudd, 35. She said police are doing as much as they can. She and her husband worked with programs to keep children off the streets and out of gangs, and she wants members of her community to do more. Mayor Michael Hancock said his office has started discussions with leaders in poorer communities to find ways to better address education gaps, economic woes and access to illegal weapons. One gang-prevention activist credited Hancock for seeking community counsel the day after Hollis' shooting. "Denver has been and continues to be a safe city, but one homicide is too many," Hancock said. "We do a lot in this city. We're taking stock of where we're allocating our resources ... to keep young people from joining gangs." Gang bullets felled six people in the first five months of 2012, one more person than had died by this point in 2011 and double what the city had seen by May in each of the prior three years. The 2012 total does not yet include the death of Hollis. The shootings have sparked fears of another "Summer of Violence," the 1993 rampage that claimed 74 lives. References to gang warfare make Paul Callanan cringe. He leads the Gang Reduction Initiative of Denver, which links metro-area law enforcement with city agencies and community outreach groups. Though Callanan said gang turf battles haven't escalated to that level, he cautioned that cycles of attacks don't just put law-abiding citizens on edge. They scare gang members too. If it's unsafe for gang members "to be in the community, (they're) most likely going to carry a gun and react in a proactive way to any real or perceived threat from other gangs," Callanan said. "We don't need to be fearful; we need to be alert." It was in that environment that 21-year-old Rollin "Boogie" Oliver allegedly fired a weapon during a fight as the music died down during last weekend's City Park Jazz concert. Less than 24 hours earlier and just a block and a half from Oliver's home in the heart of Park Hill Bloods territory, a man walking down the street was shot in the arm during a drive-by. Police suspect gang involvement. And an hour before music started Sunday at City Park Jazz, witnesses said another young man was shot in the face, also near the Holly Square Shopping Center, a known hub of Bloods activity. Police have said they believe lingering gang tensions led to the confrontation that Hollis was rushing to break up when she was shot, though they have not tied the fight to the prior shootings in Oliver's neighborhood. Oliver has been arrested on suspicion of first-degree murder but has yet to be charged as investigators interview witnesses. Former gang member turned activist Terrance Roberts, who leads the Prodigal Son Initiative in Park Hill, said Bloods are so entrenched in his neighborhood that they don't have to recruit. Kids come to them because there's little else. "We don't want a frenzy of people thinking it's a gang war, but for people in northeast Denver, to them, there is an all-out war," Roberts said. "Denver isn't Detroit, but if you're poor, it doesn't matter." A Denver Post analysis of Police Department data shows that despite high-profile incidents, gang members were responsible for fewer crimes in 2011 than they were in 2008. And while crime rates rose slightly in the city as a whole, gang-related property crimes, assaults and violent assaults have fallen off. Aggravated assaults involving gangs, for example, dropped from 304 to 253 over four years, a reduction of 17 percent. Meanwhile, those types of assaults — which include attempted murders and attacks using weapons — rose by nearly 4 percent in the city as a whole. So far, violent assaults appear set to fall by even more in 2012. At the same time, the number of gang-related drug crimes leapt by 38 percent, activity that Police Chief Robert White said can lead to violence and is a particular focus of the police force. And the illegal possession, sale, transportation and use of weapons among gang members continues to be a problem despite a slight dip, accounting for nearly a third of weapon-related offenses in Denver in 2011. White lauded the efforts of not only his officers but the community at large in reducing gang crime. "That is not to de-emphasize the work that still needs to be done. We have a gang issue. While we've had some success, we still have a long way to go," White said. "One incident triggers another incident. A big challenge is to do all that we can to curtail the retaliation." Nita Henry, founder of Girlz Pushing the Button and personnel director for the city of Denver, counted Hollis as a friend. The city springs to action after high-profile incidents but otherwise doesn't talk publicly about the gang problem that Henry watches from the front window of her Five Points house, she said. The 1993 killings prompted tougher laws to punish juveniles and new gun restrictions. After bullets rained into a limo full of Denver Broncos players, killing Darrent Williams in 2007, the city launched GRID to better organize anti-gang efforts and leverage resources. But those types of conversations should be ongoing, in Henry's opinion. "There is this part of community violence that gets so politicized. In Denver, we try to denounce that there even is a gang problem," Henry said. "You have to have real conversations, not tap-dancing around it." In the past, the city has taken flak for failing to publicize gang-related incidents such as the group of dozens of young gang members targeting white and Latino males downtown in the fall of 2009. The public didn't learn they were sucker-punching and robbing victims until most of the culprits had been arrested. After Hollis' death, it took two days for authorities to publicly acknowledge potential gang involvement. Hancock — who said he doesn't "avoid conversations about gangs" — insists focusing on them at this point is a distraction. The real problem, he said, is young people carrying weapons. "I grew up in this city. I was in the heart of the community where gangs started," Hancock said. "(Arguments) used to be settled with fisticuffs. Guns changed the whole discussion." Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey, whose eight-person gang unit prosecuted 305 cases last year, said it isn't public officials who aren't acknowledging gangs. The city has twice given him additional money to bump up gang investigations and prosecutions since 2007, he said. "We take this issue very seriously," Morrissey said. "But really, not a lot of people pay attention. Then, a Denver Bronco gets killed or a Denver police officer."

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