Since Denver cop Celena Hollis was shot and killed over the weekend, there has been a lot of speculation concerning the possible gang-affiliation of the suspect -- but according to Mayor Michael Hancock, reporters are asking the wrong questions. In this case, the gang question, Hancock told Westword today, is a distraction.
After the mayor made an appearance this morning at an all-day Denver City Council retreat, Westword asked Hancock what he thought of all the questions and concerns about potential gang violence that have come up since Hollis was killed and the DPD arrested suspect Rollin Oliver.
We first asked Hancock whether he has received any official confirmation that Oliver was affiliated with a gang -- a claim that several news outlets have investigated, digging up various forms of evidence. Among them: a jail-admittance form on which Oliver self-identified as a gang member.
"I have never had it confirmed to me," said Hancock as he prepared to leave the Studio Loft of the Denver Performing Arts Complex, where the council was meeting. "To me, that's not the issue. The fact that we lost an officer, the fact that we have a young man walking around with a gun ready to use it -- those are the bigger issues to me."
So what does he think of media speculation of gang violence?
"It's a distraction issue," he replied. "The issue is we have young people with guns...[who] are willing to use it on the streets. That's my issue. Whether someone was a member of a gang or not is not.... You know, the reality is, we've got to deal with our young people who are illegally carrying these guns on our streets. That's where my focus is. And the fact that we lost an officer."
As we've noted in our previous coverage, the mayor and the Denver Police Department seem reluctant to characterize the problem as gang-related, perhaps hoping to avoid comparisons to the infamous "Summer of Violence" in 1993.
Given the buzz over the last three days about Oliver's possible gang connections, we asked Hancock whether he was concerned about comparisons to the season nineteen years past.
"You know, I'm not going to go there," he said. "I'm going to deal with today -- deal with what's happening on our streets today. If we keep looking back, we're never going to be able to deal with the issues of today. That's where my focus is."
Earlier in the day, the issue of gangs came up during a conversation between the council and the mayor, when Councilman Albus Brooks asked Hancock what the city could do to provide incentives for businesses to hire individuals who have a record or who were formerly incarcerated as a possible way to curb gang activity.
"It's extremely important," Hancock said, noting that those who can't find employment tend to re-offend at a higher rate than those who can support their families. But, he added, the problem has a lot to do with companies' concerns about liability.
He quickly strayed from the topic of employment to talk about what Denver is doing to address youth violence issues.
"The City of Denver is investing a lot of money toward prevention and intervention," he said, adding that he's heard concerns that the city is not focused. "I want to make sure we have our focus and that we do our part."
In describing the city's current actions, the mayor didn't talk directly about gangs. "What we're doing is a full assessment of everything we do with regard to children, everything we do with regard to youth, everything we do with regard to prevention and intervention of youth activity, youth violence."
On a break, Westword asked Councilman Brooks for his assessment of how the mayor's office is responding to the problem of gangs.
"The mayor didn't completely answer the question," he said, but added, "I don't want to say we're not doing enough to respond to it. We're doing good work."
Brooks said that businesses need incentives to hire people with criminal records, since without jobs, it's hard to move away from crime. "That's just the harsh reality.... But we're working hard to make sure people have the opportunities."
Asked for his take on how Hancock has been addressing the gang issue as it relates to the Hollis shooting, Brooks said that it does seem like the mayor is cautious in how he talks about the problem.
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"He gets it that there is a gang problem, but I think he's selective in how he's talking about it," he said. "Because it scares people."
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