The Gangs All Here

In 1987, the Colorado General Assembly authorized the Colorado Bureau of Investigation to collect and track intelligence information on gang members and their associates. At the same time, metro police departments began compiling their own databases -- and a person didn't have to commit any crime in order to make most of those lists. In Denver, for example, a person needed only to have some affiliation with a street gang, which under Colorado law is defined as "three or more individuals with a common interest, bond, or activity characterized by criminal or delinquent conduct."

Under the gang-response protocol developed by the Denver Police Department six years later, a variety of superficial indicators -- including tattoos, hairstyles and clothes -- can indicate gang affiliation. Absent any of the above criteria, the police still have broad discretion to identify someone as a gang affiliate. "When there are strong indications that an individual has a close relationship with a gang, but does not exactly fit the above criteria, he/she shall be identified as a 'gang associate,'" the policy reads.

In a 1998 letter to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, Mark Silverstein, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, pointed out that the state's criteria on gang affiliation could easily be applied to a group of three people smoking marijuana, or three protesters engaged in civil disobedience at Rocky Flats. "This is just one example of the phenomenon of using criteria for intelligence-gathering that is vague, unreliable and subjective," Silverstein says now. "If they really use the criteria that they claim to use, it would be getting a lot more white kids in trouble."

But historically, college kids, potheads and protesters aren't the people who wind up on the DPD gang list. In 1993, Denver made national news with the revelation that the police department's gang list -- which then had more than 6,500 names -- included the equivalent of two-thirds of all the city's black males between the ages of twelve and 24. The following January, the DPD cut more than 3,700 names from the list, paring it down to hard-core and active gang members.

It didn't take long for the numbers to creep back up, though. Last July, the DPD reported that there were 11,112 names on the list -- a number that, when adjusted for population increases, includes a higher percentage of young males of color than did the controversial 1993 gang list. By one report, the number of names on the list spiked even more dramatically over the next five months: In a November interview with the Denver Post, Denver Gang Bureau sergeant Vince Lombardi placed the number at 17,000.

Using that 17,000 number and additional data provided by gang-bureau officers, Robert Duran posited that one out of every two Latino males in Denver between the ages of twelve and 24 was on the list; using the same formula, he found that two of every three African-American males were included as well. Under this same extrapolation, only one of every 57 white males made the list.

In February, the DPD backed off from the 17,000 figure, estimating the number of names on the gang list at just over 9,000. According to Division Chief of Patrol Steve Cooper, even that number is wildly inflated: The list had swelled because people who'd died, moved away, gone to prison or otherwise not had police contact in five years had not been expunged.

"People tend to let their imaginations run wild when it comes to the number," he says. "Those numbers were given before we went to a purging system; the officers who gave those numbers may have been talking about old, inactive files for people who were in jail, or duplicates, or long-inactive individuals. Those names have all been wiped out of the system since then."

The Denver Gang Bureau began cleaning up its database late last year, working to comply with intelligence-gathering guidelines laid out by the ACLU as part of the settlement of the infamous DPD "Spy Files" case. Back in March 2002, the ACLU had sued the city on behalf of several individuals and organizations (including ones as suspect as the American Friends Service Committee, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize), charging that the DPD's intelligence bureau had been keeping files -- and tabs -- on them illegally. Under the settlement, the bureau's files were to be purged. New rules calls for keeping files only on those individuals and groups that warrant "reasonable suspicion" of criminal activity.

Until the entire intelligence database cleanup is finished, the DPD has sealed any files related to the gang list. Cooper won't say how many names remain on the latest incarnation.

At a time when Mayor John Hickenlooper is looking to improve relations between the community and the police -- through both the Denver Police Task Force and a series of forums to follow -- the secrecy of the gang list intensifies confusion and mistrust. People worry that if their names are on it, that might affect their ability to get employment and housing.  

But according to Captain Joseph Padilla, who heads the DPD bureau, anyone who is on the gang list today knows it: The bureau mails letters to individuals, notifying them that they've been entered into the database. Anyone wondering if he's made the list can contact his office to find out for sure, Padilla adds.

"A lot of what gets referred to as the 'gang list' is really the initial contact we make with our contact cards," he says. "But just because we fill out a contact card on someone, that doesn't mean they're on the list. There's a whole criteria that has to be met before they're added. If they are, we almost plead for them to contact us for referrals -- to community programs and diversion." The real list is distributed only to law-enforcement agencies and the Denver district attorney, Padilla adds.

"The question really is, what do they do with the list, who gets it, and what decisions are made based on who's on it?" says the ACLU's Silverstein. "The consequences can be more far-reaching than just having your name on a list. If it begins with a police officer having a belief that a person is a gang member based on vague criteria, it could have an influence every step of the way: whether to prosecute, how to handle parole and probation. All of it could be influenced by whether or not that person was on the list in the beginning."

Tim Twining, who's headed the Denver DA's gang-specialty unit for eight years, minimizes the list's role in his work. "Frankly, I really don't care whether they're on the gang list or not," he says. "It's not really something that we look at all that much. What drives our designation, often in the vast majority of cases, is self-admission of gang membership -- an individual self-proclaiming, 'Yes, I am a member of a criminal enterprise, and that is why I committed this particular crime.'

"Even if you are placed on that gang list, it's of no consequence until you commit a crime," Twining adds. "The only way it's of consequence is if we decide to prosecute and there's evidence of your gang membership that's admissible in court."

The DA's gang unit was disbanded in late 2002 because of budget cuts, then reconstituted last year, partly because the DA's office felt that gang-related crimes were slipping through the cracks. "Prosecuting crimes as gang-motivated is extremely labor-intensive and costly," Twining says. "Considering the city's budget woes, it makes absolutely no sense for the police to inflate the problem. It's actually more logical to think that they'd want to downplay it."

In a 2000 memo, Officer Daniel Rubin, a gang-bureau member, suggested that the department do just that. At the time, he said, there were 11,000 names in the database, including approximately 500 "hard-core" members who would meet "the average person's definition of a gang member." Rubin suggested that only those hard-core members be considered as actually on the list. "I think that telling the public we have 10,799 names on our gang list strains our credibility," he wrote. "The public is not really afraid of 10,299 of them."

Rubin also advocated making those 500 names public. "Facing possible criticism is a reason to make the list public, not a reason to keep it secret," he wrote.

Every time the Denver gang list grows or shrinks significantly, a copy is delivered to Tim Twining's desk. "They continually monitor and update and groom that list, because it's no good to anybody if it's not reasonably reliable based on objective criteria," he says. "Otherwise, you're collecting a bunch of names that are meaningless, that pay no dividends. You're wasting everyone's time."

Now, along with forty other law-enforcement agencies across the state, the DPD is getting ready to export its gang intelligence files for use in a statewide criminal database overseen by the CBI. Advocates say the program has wide-ranging applications for more effective policing and prosecution, streamlining the process of dealing with gang criminals from the street to the courtroom.

The statewide system, approved in 1999, was supposed to be up and running this year. The original prototype, GangNet, was modeled on California's CALGANG database and administered by Orion Scientific Systems, the company that designed the ill-fated Spy Files software. Now the GangNet prototype has been dumped, and the Colorado Attorney General's Office is negotiating with another distributor for a replacement program. The AG's office expects the new system to be operable sometime early next year.

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >