Some of the kids weren’t old enough to drive when they died. Some were too young to grow facial hair — baby fat still apparent on their faces.
But despite their youth, they were gunned down in parks and on residential streets, in parking lots and inside homes.
Fourteen-year-old Aiden Lawrence loved Fortnite and joined a photography club at his middle school, his mother said. He snuggled his youngest brother at night until he was shot in the chest in August and died on a street corner.
Seventeen-year-old Diego Marquez played football and brought food to friends who couldn’t afford groceries, his dad said. He was shot and killed in a park, where his body wasn’t discovered until the next day.
Eight teenagers were shot and killed in Denver last year, marking a second year of increased bloodshed among Denver’s young people. Teenagers accounted for 13% of all homicide victims in 2019, up from 4% just five years ago, when two teens died, according to police data analyzed by The Denver Post.
“You just see black and brown boys on TV, in the news, because they’re getting killed and we sometimes just shrug and think ‘Well, that happens,’ ” said Autumn Lawrence, Aiden’s mother. “But it’s not OK. Kids are dying.”
The toll of gunfire harming the city’s teenagers — predominantly black and Latino — are even more stunning when data for nonfatal shootings is considered.
The gun violence among the city’s high school-age children prompted a flurry of efforts to stop the violence in the second half of 2019. City leaders held countless meetings to talk about solutions, and the mayor created a task force. New programs are being developed in the courts and by police. Community organizers hold town hall after town hall. The city distributed gun locks, and nonprofits held support groups for an increasing number of grieving parents.
And yet, three teenagers have already died in homicides this year — half of all victims in the first six weeks of 2020.
Easy solutions to the violence are hard to come by because the causes of the problem are varied and deeply rooted, city and community leaders said.
“A lot of the young people are feeling hopeless,” said Jonathan McMillan, who has worked in youth violence prevention for years in Denver. “They’re feeling overwhelmed. They’re having to navigate this very dangerous world, where firearms and violence are an everyday reality.”
A pot boiling over
The eight killings last year of Denverites between the ages of 13 and 19 is the second-highest number of teens killed in Denver in the past five years, according to Denver Police Department data. Nine teens were killed in 2018, the year with the highest number.
Arrests have been made in all but two of the 2019 cases. In the six cases where an arrest has been made, all of the suspected killers are teenagers. One killing was flagged by police as gang motivated. All of the victims were black or Hispanic boys.
The extent of the violence affecting Denver’s young people becomes even more apparent when looking at data for nonfatal shootings. In 2019, 41 teenagers were shot but survived; in 2018, there were 43. During the two year period, teenagers accounted for 27% of all people injured by gunfire in Denver.
Aurora, too, is seeing an uptick in youth violence.
Four 16-year-old boys and a 17-year-old boy were shot and killed in Aurora in 2019 during an increase in fatal youth shootings that left as many children dead in the city as in the previous three years combined, according to data provided by the Aurora Police Department.
During the last three years, there have been 43 shootings in which a juvenile was either a witness, suspect or victim, department spokesman Matthew Longshore said.
“Back years ago, people used to settle this in fistfights on the playground, and unfortunately with how easily handguns are accessible in people’s houses, instead of resorting to fistfighting, they want to resort to gun violence,” he said.
Public safety leaders and community leaders give a variety of reasons the violence has intensified: more guns, social media, lack of adult support, generational poverty, a shifting gang scene, a warped interpretation of what it means to be a man.
“Taking all that into consideration, when is that pot going to boil over?” McMillan said. “You never really know.”
Jamar Holmes, 19, graduated from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Early College in Green Valley Ranch in 2018 and is a student at the University of Colorado Denver. He has lost multiple friends to violence, he said, including a friend who in 2017 was stabbed to death on East Colfax Avenue, a few blocks east of the state Capitol.
Many of his friends and peers don’t feel like they have a clear future, or a path to accomplish their goals, he said.
“So they’re willing to risk it all for nothing,” Holmes said. “Often for materialistic gains, which are worth nothing in the long run.”
City solutions, city frustrations
City leaders from multiple departments in the last few months have rolled out new programs and ideas meant to stem the violence, though many won’t have results for months.
One proposal by a coalition of agencies would create a new six-month court program for juveniles found in possession of a handgun. Similar to other specialty courts designed for veterans or those with addictions, the gun court would require more frequent visits before a dedicated judge and require therapy and community service. It would also connect the teens with mentors. Each six-month program would have space for 12 participants.
“The more we can do before they get much farther down the criminal justice path, the better,” said Denver District Attorney Beth McCann.
But those proposing the court — a combined effort of McCann’s office, the public defenders, the city’s juvenile court and probation — would need to find at least $200,000 in additional annual funding before it could begin.
Michael Eaton, chief of safety for Denver Public Schools, appointed one of his staff members to work on youth gun violence and to act as a facilitator between the district, schools, police and community groups who want to work with students. He’s also reached out to Chicago’s public school system to learn about the violence prevention programs there.
At a Denver City Council committee meeting last month, Denver City Attorney Kristin Bronson said the mayor’s task force on youth gun violence had an “aggressive work plan” for 2020. The group would issue an interim report in June and a comprehensive report in December.
“We’re still really standing some of this up,” she said.
One pilot program initiated over the last year in two of Denver’s high schools shows promise, Patrick Hedrick, director of Denver Public Safety Youth Programs, said at the meeting. The program allows students caught fighting or involved in some other disciplinary issue to choose to attend a diversion program instead of getting a citation or being arrested. The program prevents the student from getting an arrest record, keeps them in class and allows the student and their parents immediate access to programming and services, Hedrick said.
So far, the program has dramatically cut citations at West High School and is popular. Some families are volunteering for the program even though their student isn’t in trouble, he said.
But frustration over the proposals and who is being included in the conversation about the violence boiled over at the end of the meeting in a windowless room at city hall.
After more than an hour of presentations by city staff, public comment was limited to less than 10 minutes. Many of the speakers pointed out that the proposed solutions stemmed from the criminal justice system and didn’t address root causes of inequality or the sense of helplessness felt by kids.
“Great ideas, great concepts, but they’re still the same as the conversation we had decades ago,” said the Rev. Leon Kelly, who has worked to prevent youth and gang violence in Denver for nearly 40 years.
When City Council members took the mic, their reactions were mixed.
“We feel neglected in the far northeast,” said Councilwoman Stacie Gilmore. “We don’t have the ear of the city. We need access to resources and money.”
She directed Police Chief Paul Pazen to go back to a slide in his presentation with a graphic of the city’s neighborhoods. The northeast neighborhoods of Montbello and Green Valley Ranch were omitted, Gilmore pointed out, even though three teens had been killed in those neighborhoods in the past two years.
“This is generational, and to think that serving 12 participants through the handgun intervention program is going to mean something in my neighborhood is a slap in the face,” she said. “My community, we can’t go to another vigil.”
Outside of city hall meeting rooms, community leaders and some of the parents of the children who were killed are working on their own solutions.
Joel Hodge founded a nonprofit, Struggle of Love, and in December he started a program called Boots on the Ground where he and other volunteers patrol Montbello and Green Valley Ranch to build relationships with kids they meet. They ask the young people what they need, how they can help. They try to meet the kids’ families. If they see a teenager walking around after midnight, they offer them a ride and try to suss out their home life.
“We’re doing kind of a different approach instead of sitting around and doing these town halls,” he said.
On four occasions, Hodge stopped a fight in progress. Each of those fights could have progressed to shootings, he said.
“One of the biggest issues is there are so many of them and so few of us,” he said. “There are thousands of these babies running around here that need help.”
Holmes, the college student, said many of his friends and peers feel like they don’t have anybody they can turn to.
“It isn’t like we can go to our moms and our dads with a lot of our problems, especially if they have financial burdens,” he said. “People have to understand that there’s a real hustle out here.”
McMillan empathizes with that feeling. He remembers growing up in Park Hill in the early 1990s, another time of increased violence in Denver. There was a narrative then, he said, that young black men were an endangered species. Movies and the news told stories about how people like him were more likely to be murdered, more likely to be incarcerated, less likely to get an education. Parents, teachers and pastors then echoed those statistics as a warning.
“They weren’t saying this to discredit us, but the effect was still the same,” McMillan said. “Out of that hopelessness came a sense of recklessness. It was like a beast that fed upon itself.”
Five months after 14-year-old Aiden was killed, his mother, Autumn Lawrence, is wracked with anxiety anytime she’s away from her three other children. She worries that if she’s away, something horrible could happen again.
“Things will never be the same,” she said.
Since Aiden’s death, Lawrence has become an advocate for change, attending community meetings and speaking to officials. She said slipping into silent grief was not an option.
She called for other adults in the black and Hispanic community to work toward change by volunteering, serving as mentors or being more present in their own homes.
“We need to say as adults, ‘This isn’t OK,’ ” she said. “We need to be role models. It’s our kids being killed.”
Staff writer Shelly Bradbury contributed to this report.
The Denver Post’s crime map: https://crime.denverpost.com/map/
Denver Police Department crime map: https://www.denvergov.org/content/denvergov/en/police-department/crime-information/crime-map.html
Denver Office of the Medical Examiner: https://www.denvergov.org/content/denvergov/en/environmental-health/our-divisions/office-of-the-medical-examiner.html
Aurora crime data: https://www.auroragov.org/residents/public_safety/police/crime_data
Colorado Burea of Investigation crime statistics: https://coloradocrimestats.state.co.us/tops/
FBI crime data: https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2019/preliminary-report/home
Sourcing & Methodology
The Denver Post has tracked and analyzed the city’s homicide numbers since 2015, and The Post’s journalists have noticed an increased in the number of juveniles being killed in the city. Journalists gather homicide data from Denver Police Department, Denver Office of the Medical Examiner and their own reporting. They create a database from these reports and then looked at the number of people killed, their manner of death and other things such as age, gender and race to create a comprehensive report on the violence and who is most impacted.
Source: Read Full Article