Aurora, CO

Aurora replaces youth violence project with gang program

David Heitz

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By David Heitz / NewsBreak Denver

(Denver, Colo.) The Aurora City Council decided Tuesday to scrap its much-promoted Youth Violence Prevention Program in favor of gang-focused interventions.

City Council member Angela Lawson came to the meeting with a proposal. It calls for a new version of the former A-GRIP program, with 80 percent of funding going to intervention and 20 percent to prevention.

"I wanted this to be A-GRIP 2.0. I said that from the beginning," Lawson said. "It provides that foundation and there was success with it."

But council member Juan Marcano disagreed. "I'm hearing that A-GRIP was more limited in its scope and less effective in some ways."

A-GRIP stands for Aurora Gang Resistance Intervention Program. The city ran the program from 2011 to 2018 until its funding sources dried up. Aurora uses $1.1 million in marijuana tax money to pay for the program.

Marcano objected that most of the money would support intervention programs.

"What do they say? An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."

But Lawson said the Youth Violence Prevention Program was "too massive."

"A lot of these youths are not going to a lot of these programs that you have. They're not even going to school. They're out on the streets selling guns for $1,000."

A-GRIP falls short of goals

According to a staff report, A-GRIP fell short of its goals. Many youths were denied help, or their parents did not attend meetings.

Mayor Mike Coffman repeatedly asked a police department public information staff member if the A-GRIP program was audited.

The staffer was unaware of an audit but would continue to look through file cabinets. Coffman asked whether he asked the audit department if it ever reviewed A-GRIP. He said he did not.

By the end of the meeting, a separate city staff member said there had been an audit of A-GRIP. He said he would email the audit to council members.

The council spoke passionately about Aurora's youth. One side said it is wrong to say gangs cause all violence in Aurora.

Council member Danielle Jurinsky said the council can't ignore "the elephant in the room: That there is a gang problem in this city."

During the study session, Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson admitted that the city has a gang problem. But she noted that other issues stem from exposure to violence and learning to live with it.

Partisan council exchange swipes

The council will vote on the proposal at its next City Council meeting on Jan. 24. The council is split down party lines, with the mayor casting the tie-breaking Republican vote.

Lawson said she has spoken to many Aurora youth affected by violence who the Youth Violence Prevention Program hasn't helped. Lawson's side believes the Youth Violence Prevention Program is too broad and offers too many programs. Jurinsky repeatedly made jokes about gang members not being interested in attending "pop-up yoga events."

Although Council member Ruben Medina voted against A-GRIP, he praised some aspects of the program. "We always went by what the outreach workers wanted to do," he said of the way conflicts were managed. He said an organization called HoodMonsters provided sports to younger children.

The council faction that supports the Youth Violence Prevention Program emphasized it's important to reach younger children. The A-GRIP program targeted children as young as 5, according to a staff presentation.

Program falls under police department

Several council members voted for Lawson's proposal because the police department will oversee the program. The Youth Violence Prevention Project fell under the umbrella of community services.

"I think there's an advantage to having it in the department with the gang unit," said council member Dustin Zvonek.

Wilson spoke of the need for "violence interrupters," which the Youth Violence Prevention Project would have funded. Violence interrupters go into a community and use calming strategies to prevent retaliation. "We try to go out into neighborhoods and meet folks where they're at," she said of current policing tactics.

It's essential for outreach in neighborhoods where violence erupts, Wilson said. "Services need to be available. We must send outreach services out to families and see what they need."

Wilson said outreach workers are more impactful than the police. "For the short term (outreach workers) definitely have an impact, from what I've been reading."

Debate becomes heated

The conversation on the dais grew heated at times. Several council members accused one another of choosing a specific program based on people they know winning city contracts.

Marcano said the Youth Violence Prevention Project used people "who look like the community and speak their language." He said switching programs is like pulling the rug out from under people who got excited about it in a different form.

Council member Jurinsky replied, "If people are saying they need to look like them and sound like them, that's a pretty bold statement that police officers come from a privileged life and can't speak their language. I find that pretty offensive."

Marcano replied that he did not say that and asked Jurinsky not to put words in his mouth.

A similar shouting match ensued between Murillo and Lawson. Wilson held her head in her hands during the squabble.

"I feel like we've gone from a gold-standard, evidence-based program with the last presentation and then to scale it back all of a sudden, it's frustrating," Murillo said. "Youth violence does not equal gang violence. It's so much more complicated."

Mayor Pro-Tem Francois Bergen said the time had come to act, and she prefers to build on an existing program.

"Right now, we have teens that are shooting each other, and it's a crisis."

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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.

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