When a young person is shot or killed in Denver, the impact goes well beyond the individual who triggered the bullet and the person it strikes.
"It very much affects everyone around that violence," says Maritza Valenzuela, youth health manager for Denver Public Health, whose new report about gun-related bloodshed and metro-area youth is the most comprehensive study on the subject done in the Mile High City to date. "These shootings have ripple effects that include the families, the young people who knew them, the neighborhood and even the community as a whole. There's a process of community trauma that can actually disempower — take some of the power away from — that community."
In addition, she goes on, "young people who witness violence are much more likely to be involved in violence later in their life, and it can have an immediate effect on them. We've spoken to young men in the East Colfax neighborhood who were afraid to go outside because of shootings. They talked about not wanting their little sister to go outside. They basically had to stay in their apartment because they didn't feel safe, and hearing that is really shocking to me."
This reaction is understandable given the findings of the report. Data shows that around 700 young people, defined as those under age 25, were killed or injured by guns or were the victims of gun-related crimes per annum in Denver over recent years. From 2012 to 2017, the period covered by the analysis, 74 youths died in Denver by gun — and for each one of those cases, seven others were injured badly enough to need medical attention. Over that span, 311 young people wound up in Denver emergency rooms and 175 were hospitalized as a result of injuries from guns.
Other findings demonstrate major disconnects related to the ethnicity of crime victims. The report divulges that 45 percent were Hispanic, precisely matching the percentage of Denver's overall population filled by the group. But while whites make up 38 percent of the folks who live in Denver, they constituted just 23 percent of those who experienced crime. Conversely, blacks represented only 12 percent of the local citizenry but 29 percent of victims.
"When you look at how small the black population is in Denver, the disparity really becomes clear," Valenzuela says.
Likewise, she allows, "some communities are affected by gun violence more than others," as depicted in the following Denver neighborhood map.
The graphics show a higher density of gun crimes in neighborhoods that have traditionally been home to people of color, including Montbello, Green Valley Ranch, the East Colfax area, Five Points, Cole and Whittier, where gang activity remains an issue.
The Denver Public Health report makes a point of putting stats like these in context. "To us, it was really important to explain it," Valenzuela emphasizes, "because people can have their own associations with those types of things and come to the wrong conclusions."
The research included in the study — "and there's plenty more than is cited," she stresses — "shows that this can be traced back to historical policies of segregation in Denver. There were African-American-only neighborhoods, where they were basically placed in certain neighborhoods, and over the years, those communities didn't get the same resources as other areas because of discrimination and institutional policies. That builds to the disadvantage of community members and can result in food poverty, unemployment, low-wage jobs and a number of other things. If you have any of these things individually, that's not good. But put them together and they can have a powerful impact, particularly on the young people growing up there."
At the same time, gun violence can strike anywhere in Denver, especially when it comes to teens and those even younger. Westword highlighted this issue via a pair of posts framed by the February 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. We revealed that between July 2017 and April 2018, the same number of Colorado teens were killed by guns as died in the Parkland shooting. And exactly one year after Parkland, we noted that fifteen children or teens in Colorado had been shot to death during that twelve-month span.
Still, in Valenzuela's view, this bloodshed doesn't get nearly as much attention as it should. "We occasionally hear about shootings that involve young people on the news. Sometimes they're reported and sometimes they're not. But this is really an endemic problem that's happening week after week. It's a serious problem that really hasn't been recognized as such by the city or leadership in Denver."
This last assertion is unexpected given that Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, who was recently elected to his third term in office, took part in the roll-out of the report and provided a quote underscoring its importance. "Gun violence is plaguing our cities, our nation and the very soul of our society, and it’s even more devastating to our communities and families when it impacts our children and youth," he stated. "The city is committed to promoting the policies and deploying the resources necessary to keep our young people safe."
In response to our inquiry, Hancock's office provided this list of administration policies and tactics designed to address the scourge of gun violence victimizing young people in Denver:
• [Denver Police] Chief [Paul] Pazen has put an emphasis on taking guns off the street. Through August, DPD seized 1,042 guns — a 3.3 percent increase compared to our three-year average.
• As pointed out in the report, disadvantaged neighborhoods experience the effects of gun violence more than the general population. Following Mayor Hancock’s lead, Chief Pazen has a focus on addressing social harms and the underlying causes of crimes like gun violence. By taking the long view and helping to provide access to food, shelter, education and healthcare — specifically mental health and substance abuse — we feel we will have a lasting impact.
• Our Citywide Impact team responds to areas impacted by gun violence and addresses trauma in the community, as well as provides access to wrap-around services.
• DPD added a CRO [community resource officer] to their gang section specifically for outreach efforts, and the section as a whole is taking a more holistic approach to working with youth and their families.
• Our school resource officers work with students, faculty, and administration to address concerns or to work with students who may be exposed to guns or other traumatic incidents. DPD also has a mentorship program in DPS high schools.
The mayor's office sent along an additional comment: "Youth gun violence is a concern for Mayor Hancock and the Denver Police Department, and our officers are working diligently to not only take guns off the streets, but to support our youth and families affected by this nationwide problem. The Mayor defends the state's efforts to prevent gun violence and has long advocated for Congress to step up and make the needed reforms that will greatly help us reduce gun violence in our community. This report provides important insights into where we can do more and make a bigger impact on this issue moving forward. Just this week, the Mayor was part of a panel on this topic on MSNBC — again, calling for broader criminal justice reforms to correct these inequities on a national level."
Valenzuela concedes that some observers feel solving these problems is impossible. But she rejects such views, and so does the report, which lauds a number of innovative approaches.
As an example, Valenzuela points to "initiatives like the hospital-based intervention program at Denver Health, an at-risk intervention and mentoring program that started in 2010 and has been nationally recognized. When a young person comes into the hospital emergency room with a violence-related injury and is in stable condition, an outreach person co-employed by the hospital and GRASP [Gang Rescue and Support Project] meet with that young person and use it as a teachable moment. They talk about what happened and how the young person might want to reconsider their choices, and they also connect them with outreach workers, who work in the community to defuse situations and prevent retaliation. They're actually intervening in a hospital emergency-room setting, and that's proven to be really valuable."
Likewise, she advocates for deploying best practices established by youth-violence-prevention initiatives from around the country. A Denver Public Health document shared at the bottom of this post lists dozens of them, with two specifically highlighted in the report: One Love Louisville, in Louisville, Kentucky, and Oakland Unite, in Oakland, California.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
The latter's website points out that Oakland Unite is "unusual because it was one of the nation’s first violence prevention programs to be started by voters taxing themselves. Through the 2004 Measure Y voter initiative, Oakland residents approved a parcel tax along with a surcharge on parking in commercial lots in order to support violence prevention programs, along with police and fire services. In 2014, the Oakland voters approved Measure Z, the Public Safety and Services Initiative, to continue this funding for another ten years to support violence intervention programs, as well as police and fire services. The Human Services Department (HSD) has been able to leverage a significant number of funding sources to leverage this local public investment with state and federal grant funds to build upon Oakland Unite strategies. Oakland Unite has raised 15.8 million additional dollars over the past six years to help address violence in the city of Oakland."
In addition, Oakland has created a Department of Violence Prevention.
To Denver Public Health's Valenzuela, the scope of gun violence when it comes to Mile High City youth cries out for this level of commitment. "One young person dying every year is too many, but we have an average of about thirteen, and 700 victims of gun crimes. We know the trauma that can cause. And we hope this report can help call attention to it."
Click to read the Denver Public Health Youth Gun Violence Report 2019 and details about U.S. cities with youth-violence-prevention initiatives.