Longform

HOW TO CODDLE A CRIP

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In April 1992, Glendale police arrested Little O and two of his friends for investigation of attempted first-degree murder and attempted assault after a drive-by shooting at a local apartment complex. (No one was injured.) "When the officers responded to the scene," says Glendale police lieutenant Dean Fountain, "witnesses said they'd seen a vehicle take off down the street. As the officers pursued it, the suspects threw weapons out the car windows." When the driver stopped the car, Fountain says, the suspects ran. Officers caught up with the youths--Orlando and two others--and recovered two weapons, a Winchester rifle and a shotgun.

The charges against the trio were dropped when witnesses failed to positively identify them and the physical evidence proved inconclusive. But Orlando closed out 1992 with another arrest on a weapons charge.

The following year would prove a turning point for Denver gangs in general and for Little O in particular. The city was about to embark on its "Summer of Violence."

Between 1985 and 1993, gang membership and gang rivalries had increased to the point that residents of some neighborhoods--north Park Hill and Curtis Park, in particular--felt they were under siege. But it wasn't until May and June 1993 that events galvanized citizens and politicians.

On May 2 of that year, a ten-and-a-half-month-old boy was struck in the head by a bullet while watching the polar bears at the Denver Zoo. Police later determined that the bullet had been fired by feuding gang members in neighboring City Park.

At the end of the month, two people (including a 62-year-old grandmother) were killed in drive-by shootings in northeast Denver. On June 8, Governor Roy Romer called for a special session of the General Assembly to consider legislation regarding kids and guns. The following day, six-year-old Broderick Bell was shot in the head and critically wounded after being caught in the crossfire of a gang shootout. That was the final straw.

The day after Bell was shot, Mayor Wellington Webb declared war on gangs, promising more cops and more money to fight the scourge. (Bell survived but lost some movement on the left side of his body.)

At the time of the Bell shooting, police chief Michaud was attending a chiefs' conference out of state. A major topic of conversation at the gathering was whether it was possible for law enforcement agencies to convince rival gangs to call truces. Gang summits were being planned or discussed for Chicago, New York, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and Kansas City.

"When Broderick Bell was shot, it was pretty ugly," Michaud says. "So I thought about what was said at the conference. Can we get these dudes together and talk some common sense into them?" Upon his return to Colorado, Michaud asked Kelly to round up influential gang members and invite them to a meeting in the conference room adjoining his office. Little O was among the forty or so gangsters called to the table.

Michaud aide Judy Will, a police sergeant, also invited select members of the black community to attend. Barry Frye, a businessman and ex-con who later helped establish a controversial anti-gang program called Operation Reconstruction, was among those who gathered for the meetings.

Not surprisingly, the meetings took on a hostile edge. "What I tried to say to them," Michaud says, "is that I don't get it. I said, `You're all in the same boat. You're all dropouts, none of you have jobs, and you've all got [criminal] records, or you're on the verge.' I said, `A lot of you went to school together. What the hell are you fighting about?'

"And it was, `Well, he dissed my sister' or `He dissed my friend.' Stuff that just defied common sense. There was so much animosity, I realized that this approach would never have much success." Nonetheless, Michaud handed out his business cards to some of the gang members. On them were the chief's phone number and pager number. He encouraged them to call him with problems and crime tips, promising to keep their names secret.

Michaud says he met with the de facto gang council at police headquarters on two occasions before calling it quits. Will recalls the number of meetings as closer to five. No matter the number, the short-lived attempt at reconciliation had three tangible effects: The gang members decided they wanted to continue meeting on their own to work out their differences; a few of them, including Orlando, quickly grew to appreciate the power and panache of having city officials' ears; and some of Michaud's troops turned against him for what they saw as an attempt to cater to criminals.

"Some people were very down on us for the meetings," Will says. "At the time, though, I think the mayor said we'd meet with the Devil if necessary to attain peace. We decided to be risk-takers.

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Karen Bowers