As many as eight shootings have taken place near the booming RiNo area over the past two weeks or so, according to Mark Ungar, president of the Whittier Neighborhood Association, including a thus-far-unsolved broad-daylight gun-down near 31st and Gilpin on March 18 that resulted in serious injuries for two men. Neighbors also say shots were fired during a disturbance on March 24, in the vicinity of Martin Luther King Boulevard and Marion Street in the Cole neighborhood.
The violence has led to the scheduling of a meeting on Thursday, March 30 (details below), at which representatives of the Denver Police Department will attempt to reassure the community and provide resources to deal with what residents hope isn't the sort of rising gang violence that took place in March 2015, when three gang-related murders took place during a single weekend.
The Whittier and Cole neighborhoods are both experiencing gentrification related to a shifting demographic in and around River North that's produced a super-heated real-estate market and new businesses aplenty. Reverend Leon Kelly, a longtime anti-gang activist, has talked about how, in his opinion, these changes are squeezing gangs into smaller territories — a process that tends to increase the tension between sets, with increasing conflict the natural consequence.
While Denver Police Department District 2 Commander Michael Calo, a scheduled speaker at the March 30 meeting, praises Kelly, with whom he's maintained a friendship for thirty years, stops short of echoing this theory, Ungar says, "I don't have enough knowledge about how gangs operate and which people have been moving in or out of the neighborhood to pass judgment on gentrification as a driver of this." But he knows what he's been seeing.
The number of shootings "has increased in Whittier and Cole" over the past two weeks or so, Ungar notes, "and it appears to be gang-motivated violence, which isn't strange for our neighborhoods. The neighborhoods have a long history of gangs and gang activity going on, but usually not of this frequency. Off the top of my head, I can think of seven or eight shootings, some of them in the middle of the day, which usually doesn't happen."
The 31st and Gilpin shooting is an example of the daylight-violence phenomenon: It took place around 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 18. No arrests have been made in the case, but Calo, who was the captain of the Denver gang bureau from 2000 to 2006, says it "is very much a concern for the Denver Police Department."
After the incident, Calo goes on, "the community reached out to me immediately. Mr. Ungar and the Whittier Neighborhood Association and the Denver Police Department have a very strong collaborative relationship; we communicate all the time, when things are peaceful as well as when we have tumult. They wanted to meet with us to see what they can do to assist and get information out to neighbors and friends — and when they ask us to come, we come."
At the same time, Calo doesn't confirm Ungar's estimate about recent shootings ("I can't really put my finger on the numbers Mr. Ungar utilized," he says), and he declines to endorse the theory that gang tensions are up despite an additional piece of evidence — a police officer recently visited a school in the area to warn staffers about this very issue.
For his part, Ungar offers praise for Calo: "He's been very easy and great to work with." But he was troubled by a report about members of the gang unit having been reassigned to work an anti-Donald Trump rally on a late July 2016 evening when a gang shootout in an 18th and Market parking lot left one man dead. He thinks the deployment of more resources against area gangs is the best way to stem the tide of violence.
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"At the beginning of 2015, there was a sharp increase in gang violence, and we had a sit-down meeting with District 2 police and the gang bureau," Ungar recalls. "We discussed what was happening and tried to come up with how residents and neighbors could help. And in that particular instance, there was a large-scale effort to suppress gang activity in the area. I don't remember off the top of my head the numbers of guns that were seized and felony arrests that were made, but I can tell you that it was substantial."
True enough, the DPD's Calo says: "After the last bout of what I'd call a spike in gang violence about two years ago, we had a very robust response. But this year, the shooting on the 18th is one of the first incidents that really came to the forefront — and that day, the Denver Police Department and other agencies, from faith-based groups to the Impact Empowerment Group to GRID (Gang Reduction Initiative of Denver), responded. We're working with partners in the community to find out what caused this incident. We're tracking down every lead to make sure we assuage any anxieties in the community."
The aforementioned meeting is slated to begin at 6:30 p.m. on March 30 at 2900 North Downing Street, and Calo and other DPD representatives, along with Denver City Council President Albus Brooks, are among the anticipated speakers.
In the meantime, Ungar, who moved to Whittier in early 2014, is trying not to let the shootings change his lifestyle too much — though he acknowledges that they have to some degree. One day last week, he says, "I was out walking my dog for an hour in the neighborhood, and I didn't feel uneasy. But I was probably a little more alert than usual — just kind of watching my surroundings."