A surge of gang violence in Denver has claimed the lives of 16 people so far this year as members battle internally for power and pandemic-induced instability gives gangs more recruiting power.
With more than three months left in 2020, the number of gang-motivated homicides through Aug. 22 topped the number of gang homicides recorded in each of the four prior years, according to Denver police data. In the same time period last year, six people had died in gang-connected killings.
The killings are not necessarily the result of an ongoing dispute between two rival gangs, Denver police Chief Paul Pazen said. Instead, some of the homicides stem from internal conflicts as members vie for control, or from name calling on social media.
“It’s not this team wearing this color battling this team wearing this color, and they’re just going back and forth,” Pazen said.
The gang killings are part of the reason Denver is on track to have its deadliest year since 2004. The 16 gang-motivated killings in the first eight months of 2020 accounted for 24% of the city’s 66 homicides in that time period and already exceeded the four-year average of 10 gang killings a year. Between 2016 and 2019, gang homicides made up about 15% of all killings.
Some of the incidents killed several people, like when gunfire erupted on Aug. 16 at large gatherings along Federal Boulevard. Three people died, including a bystander, and five were injured in the violence, which police attributed to rival groups.
The increased bloodshed puts Denver on track to match the death toll of 2015, when 23 people died in gang-related homicides as the Park Hill Bloods and the Crips from the city’s northeast waged war against each other.
Pazen attributed the increased gang violence in part to increased access to firearms, an uptick in the number of stolen guns and the fact that people have more idle time due to the pandemic.
“It may sound oversimplistic, but it’s the guns,” he said. “We beg people to be responsible gun owners and we can see what happens when people aren’t.”
Some with more idle time due to the pandemic are spending more time fighting on social media, which can turn deadly when the two parties run into each other in person, the chief said.
Others pin the cause of some of the violence on instability created by the pandemic.
Gang violence is not new in Denver, but its nature has shifted. Since the arrival of Los Angeles-style gangs in the 1990s, violence committed by the groups has ebbed and flowed, said Terrance Roberts, a former Blood member who now works as a community organizer.
The COVID-19 pandemic has given more power to gang leaders, he said. As jobs become more scarce and people feel less secure, gangs can seem like a feasible way to earn money, stability and status, he said.
“As long as those systems exist, in the capacity that they do, there will always be thousands of Bloods and Crips in the city,” he said.
It’s not easy to track exactly what is causing the violence, he said. Some of it can be traced to violence between some of the city’s oldest gangs, like the Bloods and the Crips. But gangs have changed over the years. Smaller groups, some only counting a handful in their membership, open fire over seemingly minor disputes. The membership of the groups is fluid, as are their alliances.
“It’s just random and crazy,” Roberts said of some of the violence. “It’s hopelessness. Some of it nobody knows what the hell happened.”
The city and its community partners have been somewhat successful intervening in conflicts between established gangs, Pazen said.
“We try to prevent it from becoming a tit for tat kind of deal, something that creates retaliation,” the chief said.
Overall, solving a gang-related homicide is not too different from solving any other killing, Pazen said.
“It doesn’t matter if someone is involved in a gang or not, that is a human being, they have family, they have people who care about them,” he said.
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