Sowing Discontent

The anti-crime Weed and Seed program is leaving behind a lot of scorn and thorns in Denver neighborhoods.

Sam Gomez, former president of the Cole NPT, says that what the first audit found was "embarrassing--nobody had the proper data and tracking of those funds. It was as loose as anything you've ever seen. It turned out to be a bunch of finger-pointing, and no one knew where the funds were going."

Current project director Gwen Koehler says that at the conclusion of the first audit, some $160,000 was unaccounted for, and it took several months to whittle the figure down to $1,500. The second audit, begun this spring as a followup, is still being completed, and officials are not disclosing any findings. Koehler, however, says she anticipates that auditors will identify only $3,500 in unaccounted funds, and others confirm that there seems to be little out of the ordinary.

But while program officials claim they finally figured out where the money is coming from and going to, not all are convinced. "As treasurer, I don't know where the money is going," says Marissa Combs, Highland NPT treasurer. "My complaint is that the funds are granted to the neighborhoods. The city is supposed to be a funnel to the neighborhood--it's an obstruction."

Weed and Seed is a two-part program, and most agree that the Weed--or law enforcement--part has been more successful. Instead of just responding to trouble, two police officers are paid in each neighborhood with Weed and Seed money to try to make a more solid connection: They issue pagers so residents can contact them more easily, they attend meetings, and they make an effort to be more visible in the neighborhood.

"The cornerstone of Weed and Seed, in reality, is community-oriented policing," says Greg Murphy, a former member of Highland NPT. "Unfortunately, it's a concept that when you translate that down to the bureaucratic system of the police department, it doesn't always work. It has worked; it's now slipped off a bit to where there's more lip service than actual community policing."

Murphy knows the other side of police work. Last year he had to leave his post as co-chair of Highland NPT after pleading guilty to a cocaine-possession charge stemming from a 1990 bust in Wisconsin. The case was transferred to Colorado, and Murphy began serving a fifteen-month sentence at the federal prison in Englewood in August 1995. He was released about halfway through his sentence.

Murphy says his troubles were well-known to Denver police officers and many neighborhood leaders and that "nobody had a problem with it." But some say they didn't know about Murphy's record until recently.

"We were shocked and disappointed by the news," says a member of Highland United Neighbors, a nonprofit organizaton that Murphy also served on during roughly the same time. "When everyone stopped seeing him, we were told that he was caring for an ill mother out of state."

Murphy says complaints that he was delinquent from his duties up until he began serving his sentence are "total hogwash."

"I gave it 125 percent up until about the time I went," Murphy says, who now sells real estate. "I put more time and effort into that program than any four or five people you could have talked to."

Many neighborhood leaders still applaud the Weed portion of the grant. Toni Tichy, the Cole NPT's first president, says Weed and Seed helped move the police from a policy of containing the burgeoning gang scene in her neighborhood to actually arresting the gangsters and driving them out.

And D. Piccoli, a member of the Highland NPT, says a combination of community activism and police work has reduced what she says used to be a "quite severe" problem of drug transactions taking place on the street, as well as drugs being used in neighborhood bars.

But according to data provided by the city's Department of Safety, the overall incidence of crime has not significantly declined in any of the targeted neighborhoods. Crime has actually risen in Cole, from 464 incidents overall in 1992 to 537 incidents in 1995. Crime has dropped slightly in the Baker area, from 2,330 in 1992 to 2,169 last year.

The Seed ventures--prevention and rehabilitation programs for adults and academic and social programs for kids--have grown tremendously since 1994. They include Christmas toy giveaways, youth job banks, community cleanups and daycare programs.

Capitol Hill NPT president Mark Nachtigal, in general a critic of Weed and Seed, reluctantly points out that a few Seed programs have worked, including a pet vaccination clinic, historic tours of Capitol Hill, and the use of Morey Middle School as a recreation center a few days a week--the only such center in the area.

Highland NPT co-chair Kim Womantree says her neighborhood has many Seed programs going: a teen health project at La Clinica Tepeyac; GED programs at Ashland Recreation Center; several projects at North High School, including a job fair that provided kids with work in attorneys' offices and cleaning up the neighborhood; and a project that takes ten at-risk kids through a six-month counseling-and-employment program and monitors them after the program ends.

But many others involved with Weed and Seed continue to shake their heads over the financial turbulence and management miscues.

"It's a major waste," says Highland's Combs. "I wish we could cut the deficit with things like this. I have not seen a difference in the neighborhood."

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