As the number of gang-related violent crimes continues to rise in Denver, police officials are reviewing an ambitious anti-gang violence strategy one year after they launched it.
The overall number of cases of gang-related aggravated assault shows a slight increase over last year, but the number of victims of such attacks has jumped nearly 34 percent, department statistics show. Police have also classified 10 of this year's homicides as gang-related, three more than in the first nine months of 2012.
"Obviously we're not where we want to be with gang crime," Cmdr. Mark Fleecs said. "I don't think we're losing the battle by any means."
Fleecs and others in the police department point to some positive signs: Gang violence remains below where it was five years ago, and the overall number of gang-related crimes has dropped in that time.
But the effectiveness of the far-reaching Ceasefire program, which Chief Robert White unrolled about a year ago, is still in question. The approach gathers certain gang members behind closed doors, where law enforcement and community leaders demand they stop their violence and promise steep punishment if they don't. Social services then offers a path toward reform.
"If we're targeting the right groups like we think we are, I'd expect to see, as a gauge of effectiveness, an overall decrease in incidents of violent activity associated with gangs across the board," Fleecs said. Officials will study whether violence has dropped among the gangs whose members have been summoned to "call-in" sessions. They also will look at how many have availed themselves of social services, among other criteria.
Of the 101 gang members notified as part of the program, about 43 have reoffended, Fleecs said. Seventeen of those people violated parole and only three were arrested for new gun crimes, such as robberies or shootings, which are the program's main focus. Two of the gangs brought in for the sessions later committed the kind of violent crimes that police said warranted the crackdown Ceasefire prescribes.
Overall cases of gang-related aggravated assault rose 6.6 percent — from 106 to 113 — in the first nine months of this year compared to last year. The number of victims of those assaults rose from 171 last year to 229 so far this year.
Denver's anti-gang efforts should be studied in a broader way and over a longer period of time, said Paul Callanan, project manager for the Gang Reduction Initiative of Denver, which provides logistical support for Ceasefire.
He pointed to department statistics that show declines in gang violence during the same nine-month period each year since 2008, when the city began taking a holistic approach to combatting the problem.
"There's no program that's going to eliminate gang violence in one year," and no single program can be totally effective on its own, Callanan said.
But both he and Fleecs said they are concerned that individual cases of violence are involving more victims. While overall incidents of gang-related crimes against people remained nearly steady, climbing from 140 between January and September of last year to 143 so far this year, the number of victims in those cases jumped more than 25 percent.
The reasons for the increase are unclear, Fleecs said.
"This year was more aggressive, in my opinion, than I've seen in former years," said the Rev. Leon Kelly, who has done gang outreach work since the 1980s. Some of the summer's most troubling cases happened in busy areas in broad daylight. In August, witnesses said two men threw gang signs before at least one of them fired shots near a crowded bus stop outside the state Capitol, narrowly avoiding pedestrians who milled about.
The same month also included the killing of 13-year-old Reysean Abram, who was fatally shot after a fight among rival gang members outside a Montbello house party. Fears of an escalating gang feud prompted the closure of two high schools and the postponement of a homecoming dance.
In September, Terrance Roberts, one of the city's most prominent anti-gang activists, was charged with shooting a reputed gang member multiple times during a community rally in Park Hill that he had helped organize. And on the west side, 19-year-old Luis Adame-Luevanos was shot and later died after a gang-related fight outside a 7-Eleven store near the 100 block of Knox Court.
"And many other shootings don't make the news," Kelly said. "There are some shootings that haven't even been reported" to police.
Still, he said, he would rather have a program like Ceasefire in place than see it abandoned, as it piggybacks off his own efforts.
Results could be difficult to gauge, Fleecs said.
"Even if you did see a reduction across the board over the next two years, it's still going to be difficult to say, well it was any one program that caused that reduction," Fleecs said. "(Ceasefire) is just one small component of everything we're trying to do."
Sadie Gurman: 303-954-1661, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/sgurman