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.

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Laura Bond
Contact: Laura Bond