Pandemic, vacancies at gang intervention program stall city’s youth violence prevention plans

A pandemic, city bureaucracy and vacancies in one of the Denver’s key violence prevention organizations combined to stymie citywide efforts to combat rising youth violence over the past year, even as the number of young people killed in homicides this year surpasses the death toll of 2019.

Last fall, city officials released a flurry of statements and convened a series of meetings about the crisis. In September, the Gang Reduction Initiative of Denver hosted a two-day summit with nearly 200 city officials, community leaders and intervention workers to discuss solutions to rising youth violence. The mayor’s office convened top public safety officials and created a task force to respond to the crisis, and City Council held passionate and frustrated meetings about the killings.

But the toll of dead and wounded teens and children keeps rising, despite the task forces and summits. Nearly a year later, community leaders and anti-violence workers question the city’s response, which they criticize as slow and bureaucratic. They’ve stopped waiting and have created their own programs. Meanwhile, vacant positions stymied the city’s primary gang intervention program even as it tried to coordinate a response.

“I don’t feel like they’ve done anything,” said Jason McBride, an anti-gang intervention worker. “We’ve still had kids dying. The only thing that was slowing it down was the pandemic.”

Much of the past year has been consumed by city leaders holding a “massive convening” around coordinating responses and how to make faster decisions, said Denver City Attorney Kristin Bronson, chair of the mayor’s Youth Violence Prevention Action Table.

“What we’re trying to do through this effort is broaden the city’s perspective, bring more public voice and community voices into strategies and streamline our own internal decision making processes,” Bronson said.

The city is working hard on the problem, she said, while having to pivot to also address the simultaneous crisis of COVID-19.

Bronson said she was aware of criticism that the city’s response has been slow and bureaucratic.

“We hear those sentiments too,” she said. “It’s really important that city leaders listen to community frustrations in this area. Youth violence is nothing new to Denver. When COVID hit everyone knew that we’d see an uptick in violence, which we have.”

More changes to come

City agencies will ask for more money for youth violence prevention in the 2021 budget, Bronson said. They want to hire a youth violence prevention coordinator, who will lead the mayor’s task force and solicit philanthropic donations to the cause, and they want to buy a building to set up an entrepreneurial center that will be a safe place for young people and a physical space for community organizations to use, Bronson said.

The goal of the action table, founded in November, is to coordinate response and make sure agencies are talking with each other. More than 100 people are part of the group, representing every level of government as well as the leaders of local anti-violence organizations.

Of the 27 goals listed in a plan for the group, six have been completed: creating a youth advisory council for the task force, drafting an equity statement, developing a 2021 budget request, informing people about community based organizations, creating an action plan and starting a gun safety information campaign.

Incomplete goals include creating a survey on youth violence, addressing gaps in mental health treatment, hosting an art contest and streamlining the grant application process. The mayor’s task force will present a final report with strategies and recommendations to Hancock by the end of the year, Bronson said, though some changes have been made along the way. The task force had to pivot to incorporate the realities of COVID-19, which delayed progress, Bronson said.

“We have not lost sight of the long-term goal,” she said.

But the city’s former top gang and violence intervention leader says few of the listed goals have anything to do with preventing youth violence.

“It is embarrassing that after almost a year since the planning began, the city’s solution to reducing youth violence is limited at this point to remind parents to know where their children are at, handing out gun locks and a short-term violence reduction plan that calls for the establishment of a Youth COVID-19 advisory board and an art contest,” said Paul Callanan, who led the Gang Reduction Initiative of Denver from 2011 until he left in December. “A year ago, there was expressed concern about the number of youth arrested for gun violence; the same level of concern remains today.”

The city has devoted money and resources to other programs meant to engage young people and reduce violence, Bronson said. The city gave away free gun locks and launched a summer employment program that was so popular it had a lengthy waitlist. It also gave microgrants between $5,000 and $8,000 to 17 organizations working with young people, including some organizations that have other violence prevention contracts with the city.

The city has also given nearly $20,000 to a coalition of organizations hosting weekend events, called Safe Zones, that provide young people a violence-free place to be, complete with video games, food and movies. Hundreds have attended the six Safe Zones held so far, said Doretta Tootle, one of the organizers.

That’s exactly what the city should be doing — giving resources to community organizations already doing the work instead of trying to replicate what already exists, said LaKeshia Hodge, CEO of community group Struggle of Love.

The city pays for two of the nonprofit’s positions and the group received one microgrant, though the money is still not enough to cover all the needs, she said.

“We’re trying to take on every challenge and meet the community’s need,” she said.

Cuts and vacancies

Throughout the continuing violence over the past year, the city’s primary gang-intervention agency has been riddled with vacancies, including in its top positions, that have stalled progress.

Not all youth violence is gang violence, but GRID serves as a coordinating agency for youth violence prevention that connects community organizations to city resources, GRID’s interim manager Sherry Jackson said. GRID’s outreach workers respond to neighborhoods after shootings to talk to those affected, help gang members leave groups and work with young people who are at risk of joining.

The program hosted that September summit where attendees created a list of 58 recommendations.

“I don’t know that it got much traction” since Callanan left, Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Kelli Christensen said of the goals developed during the summit.

Over the past year, three of the program’s seven positions have been vacant, some for more than nine months. The program’s second-in-command position, the intervention coordinator, became vacant in September and wasn’t filled until early August, Jackson said. Callanan left in December and the job remains open, though the city hopes to fill it by September. A position for an outreach worker — the frontline people who work with gang members and communities — also has been open since July.

Jackson fills in as interim director, but still retains responsibilities from her previous job inside the Department of Public Safety. She never moved offices, she said, and hasn’t made any major changes because she’s temporary.

Hiring was put on hold when the pandemic wreaked havoc on the city’s budget and holding the positions open helped GRID make the spending cuts necessitated by the pandemic, Jackson said.

“We’re trying to do the best we can,” she said.

Two other positions connected to the city’s youth violence prevention efforts were eliminated in June when City Council members declined to continue a state contract for funding for probation officer positions. One position was dedicated to teaching violence prevention to classrooms and the other worked with juveniles facing gun possession charges as well as other tasks related to GRID.

  • Daniel Brenner, Special to the Denver Post

    Ann White during prayer at a gathering hosted by Families Against Violent Acts Sunday, Aug. 30, 2020 at Montbello High School in Denver. Clergy led the group in prayer and provided information on community resources.

  • Daniel Brenner, Special to the Denver Post

    Clergy, educators, students, and community members gathering for prayer hosted by Families Against Violent Acts Sunday, Aug. 30, 2020 at Montbello High School in Denver. Clergy led the group in prayer and provided information on community resources.

  • Daniel Brenner, Special to the Denver Post

    Clergy, educators, students, and community members gathering for prayer hosted by Families Against Violent Acts Sunday, Aug. 30, 2020 at Montbello High School in Denver. Clergy led the group in prayer and provided information on community resources.

  • Daniel Brenner, Special to the Denver Post

    Clergy, educators, students, and community members gathering for prayer hosted by Families Against Violent Acts Sunday, Aug. 30, 2020 at Montbello High School in Denver. Clergy led the group in prayer and provided information on community resources.

  • Daniel Brenner, Special to the Denver Post

    Now Faith Christian Center Church Pastor Kenneth Greene leads a prayer during a gathering hosted by Families Against Violent Acts Sunday, Aug. 30, 2020 at Montbello High School in Denver. Clergy led the group in prayer and provided information on community resources.

  • Daniel Brenner, Special to the Denver Post

    Adorable Mitchell participates in prayer during a gathering hosted by Families Against Violent Acts Sunday, Aug. 30, 2020 at Montbello High School in Denver. Clergy led the group in prayer and provided information on community resources.

Eight council members who voted against the contract cited concerns that it sent probation officers into schools and a failure by city staff to bring the contract to them in time to negotiate details.

Those positions were important to gang prevention and had been part of the city’s work since 2018, Callanan said.

Overall, the city’s actions have not effected much change in the year since the first big citywide conversations about preventing youth gun violence, McBride said.

“Denver has an opportunity right now, and Aurora, to nip it in the bud for future generations,” McBride said. “The level of violence is going to go up. The frequency is already high.”

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