Denver, CO

Denver tackles youth violence problem

David Heitz

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Violence is killing young people nationwide and causing lifelong trauma, and Denver is no different. But Denver now has a plan for addressing this societal ill.

The city recently unveiled its 35-page Youth Violence Prevention Action Table comprehensive plan. The plan is the result of a year’s worth of work by the table’s members. Representatives of local, state and federal government, the courts, the school system, housing authorities, healthcare, and youth organizations collaborated on the plan.

According to the Chicago Center for youth violence prevention, violence is the top killer of young people.

“Among young people ages 10-24, homicide is the leading cause of death for African Americans; the second leading cause of death for Hispanics; and the third leading cause of death for American Indians and Alaska Natives,” the center reports. “Among high school youth (grades 9-12): 22.6 percent report being in a physical fight, 16.2 percent reported carrying a weapon and 7.8 percent reported carrying a weapon on school property.”

That’s almost 1 in 10 students bringing weapons to school. The report does not specify what kinds of weapons are carried.

In some communities, every child is exposed to violence, according to the Chicago center. In others, as many as half of children experience violence.

“Up to one-third of urban male youth report being the victim of violence including beaten or mugged, attacked with a knife or stabbed, or shot by another person,” according to the center. “Among adolescents ages 15-17, African American youth living in high-burden urban communities … are at the greatest risk for being exposed to community violence than any other population in the United States.”

Mayor calls youth violence ‘a public health crisis’

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock calls youth violence “a public health crisis that continues to inflict a devastating toll on our community” in a statement included in the comprehensive plan.

“Building out the local infrastructure to support these prevention strategies cannot be accomplished by city government alone,” Hancock said. “It will take a significant community-wide commitment and private-public partnerships.”

Denver City Attorney Kristin Bronson echoed the mayor’s sentiments. “From the outset, our team recognized three keys to success – each strategy needed to be city-supported, community-led and youth-informed,” Bronson states in the plan. “We were inspired by the message of youth leaders: ‘If it’s without us, it’s not about us.’ We took that to heart.”

Bronson said the city “relied on the wisdom and guidance of our partners at Cities United who served as a valuable resource, held us accountable, pointed out our gaps and lauded our achievements.”

Bronson said there is no one-size-fits-all for preventing youth violence. “There is no right, or exact, combination of strategies that, if implemented citywide, will end youth violence. What we have learned is that most of these approaches must be tailored to the unique needs and challenges of individual neighborhoods – what works for one area of Denver may not work for another.”

She said the city also must consider budget constraints, the interests of philanthropic groups and the ability to seize opportunities when they arise.

Addressing youth violence in the short term

The past year has been especially difficult for children. The COVID-19 virus took away the best support system that many children have – school.

“With families dealing with sudden loss of income, facing possible eviction and/or food shortages and loved ones becoming ill or passing away, youth experienced anxiety, social isolation, depression, lack of hope, trauma and grief,” according to the plan.

Protests in cities nationwide, including Denver, over the George Floyd death in the custody of Minneapolis police led to even more violence.

Members of the table hosted several meetings in May and June to brainstorm solutions for the short term for addressing youth violence. The six-part plan includes:

1. Youth engagement and messaging.

2. Juvenile justice.

3. Community involvement and outreach.

4. Race and social equity.

5. Data sharing.

6. Mental health services.

Long-term strategies to prevent youth violence

The table produced a litany of long-term strategies, too, for suppressing youth violence. Many of them center around an increased commitment by the city to dedicate staff to the issue. Some of their ideas include:

· Promoting safe firearm storage in collaboration with youth, community, public and private partners. “Locally, the Denver Police Department has included safe storage as a component of their Lock Out Crime initiative to reduce the number of firearms that are stolen from homes and vehicles,” according to the report. “In collaboration with DPD, the city has distributed gun locks free of charge to promote safe storage practices. Pursuant to this strategy, the city’s safety agencies should continue to promote safe storage awareness campaigns.”

· Expand the Youth Violence Prevention Micro Grant Program.

· Increase access to mentoring for young people through the implementation of a city employee mentoring program.

· Create a City Corps program that employs young people between the ages of 18 - 24 to serve as peer mentors for other young people and youth.

· Expand the Safe Zone Project to increase the frequency of events in communities where youth violence is more likely to occur.

“Safe Zone events are popular universal prevention activities that support youth, families and the greater community. Sacramento and Chicago are two cities that have implemented similar strategies in their communities,” according to the plan report. “Sacramento experienced no youth-related homicide over a three-year period and attributed this success in part to the implementation of Safe Zones.”

· Create a network of Youth Centers in communities where young people face barriers to success.

· Engage local public health agencies to support implementation of strategies focused on supporting youth violence prevention efforts.

“This model uses aggregate data sets that excludes personal identification information,” according to the report. “Furthermore, this model provides a platform for healthcare and public health agencies, law enforcement and the community to work collaboratively to prevent violence.”

· Work with Denver Parks and Recreation to support programming and operations that enhance safety in and around recreation centers.

· Work with other metro cities/counties to identify opportunities to work collaboratively.

· Work with the municipal and district juvenile court systems to support strategies that reduce the number of youth entering the juvenile justice system and improve outcomes for youth who have entered the juvenile justice system.

“Specialty courts rely on a multi-disciplinary team that includes court staff, treatment providers, and community providers to holistically respond to individuals struggling with specific issues like substance misuse,” according to the report.

“Problem-solving courts can be implemented following best practices and can be established to address a variety of issues such as substance misuse/abuse, human trafficking, and gun violence.”

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I have been in the news business more than 30 years, spending much of my career at some of the best local newspapers in the country. Today, I report on Denver City Hall, homelessness and other topics for NewsBreak, much like I did in my twenties covering Newport Beach, Calif. for the Daily Pilot. I consider myself a lucky guy to still be doing what I love after so many years.

Denver, CO
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