DENVER — Gang activity has increased in younger kids during the pandemic, with new members averaging between 13 and 14 years old, according to Denver Police.
Last year was the deadliest year in Denver in three decades. Murders are up to near historic levels in 2021.
Without the structure of school during the height of the pandemic, Denver’s expanding network of gangs grew younger.
DPD statistics don’t link that growth to the rise in homicides.
“My son Eric was in a gang,” Denver resident Loretta Powell said. “It’s the longest wait in a mother’s life to wait for a doctor to come out. She starts to describe where my son was shot at, and I had to stop her. ‘Who shoots someone that many times?’”
Powell’s 23-year-old son, Eric, was shot nine times by a rival gang member in a revenge killing.
“It takes a big toll. It takes everything as the parent. My life has changed. I’m not the same person anymore. Anger sets in,” Powell said.
Eric’s brutal death at the corner of Colfax and Wabash never made the news.
“It’s a war and it’s the kids. It ain’t the OGs. It’s the kids,” Pastor George Roberts said from his Northeast Denver apartment.
Roberts is the father of Terrance Roberts, a former gang member turned anti-gang activist who was acquitted of shooting another man eight years ago.
Laying souls to rest has been a calling for Roberts for 42 years.
He said 2021 has been one of his busiest years to date.
Of the 95 homicides in Denver in 2020, 16 were labeled gang-related. Three of 75 have that distinction so far this year.
“Nothing has changed. The only thing that’s changed is it’s not the OGs [original gangsters] no more. It’s the young kids that never left. That’ve never been to Boulder, that never been to Colorado Springs, but you killing somebody, about to go to Cañon City, about to go to Limon for the rest of your life,” Roberts said.
Tori Watts manages family relations for Pipkin Braswell Funeral Home in the Park Hill neighborhood of Denver. Watts estimates the funeral home has buried close to two dozen homicide victims in 2021.
“The past two years have been year-round,” Watts said. “We’ve done three youth homicides in a week [to] where we had to call police to be on standby.”
DPD said there’s a complicated threshold to label a murder gang-related. For one, the suspect must self-identify as a gang member.
“Gangs have become an acceptable part of our culture,” Rev. Leon Kelly, Executive Director of Open Door Youth Gang Alternatives, said.
Kelly has used his nonprofit as a method of gang intervention for 39 years. He started documenting gang casualties in 1988.
“We don’t want to hear about it anymore. Just because you don’t want to hear about it anymore doesn’t mean that it stopped,” Kelly said.
The Denver Police Department no longer has a traditional gang unit. For the last three years, the department has employed a new approach with the SORT team. Seven officers and mental health professionals work with Denver Public Schools and dole out resources. They do not have a formal method to measure their success, but say the program is working.
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