01/19/2007

Colorado has 110 gangs, 12,741 members, says CBI database

By Chris Barge And Daniel Chacon
Rocky Mountain News

Colorado is home to 12,741 confirmed gang members who are affiliated with 110 street gangs, the director of the Colorado Bureau of Investigation said Thursday.

And while most of those gang members - the ones who are being tracked - live in Denver, experts suspect many more live in communities across the state not included in this count.

For the past two years, the CBI has maintained a Colorado gang database. Currently, only 70 of the state's 320 or so law enforcement agencies participate in the program.

"We'd love to have 320 agencies participate in Colorado," said CBI Director Robert Cantwell. "We'd like 100 percent participation."

While Denver appears to be home to the most gang members in Colorado, those gangs are mobile, and their members spread drugs and violence into the suburbs, said Aurora Police Lt. Jim Welton, who is also commander of the Metro Gang Task Force.

"They are every community's problem," he said.

Welton's task force, 33 agents strong, works to develop prosecutable cases against the most violent criminal gang enterprises operating in the metro area. It was convened after Denver's 1993 "summer of violence" and now operates on a grant-funded budget of nearly $1 million per year.

Denver police Chief Gerry Whitman did not return repeated calls for comment Thursday. But earlier this week, he called Denver's gang problem "considerable."

The last gang census released publicly by Denver police, in 2003, counted 220 gangs with 14,000 members in the city alone.

Those numbers would eclipse the total statewide in the CBI database.

While no one from Denver police returned calls Thursday to explain that discrepancy, CBI Director Cantwell speculated that many factors could have contributed to it.

For one thing, the standards for confirming a gang member to the database are strict. To be confirmed, a gang member must either admit to membership in a criminal street gang; commit a gang-motivated crime; be previously confirmed by another law enforcement agent as a gang member using similar criteria; or exhibit a combination of two or more of the following: wear gang clothing, display gang mannerisms, admit detailed knowledge of criminal street gang activity, write about being in a gang, admit using a gang name, or have tattoos indicating criminal street gang membership.

Also, some of the people listed as gang members by Denver police in 2003 could since have gone to prison or died, Cantwell said.

The Colorado Gangs database is an important law enforcement tool because it allows agencies to see the big picture when it comes to what gang members are up to and where they are living.

Authorities say that's important because a significant number of the Aurora gang members, for example, were not contacted in Aurora, but have Aurora addresses listed as their last known residences.

There are 1,460 gang members identified whose last known addresses are in Aurora. Those members belong to 36 known gangs, Aurora Police Chief Daniel Oates said.

"I think it's fairly obvious to anyone that there's a gang problem in the Denver metro area," Oates said. "Our problems in Aurora are no different than what's out there elsewhere."

The Colorado Springs Police Department does not report its gang activity to the CBI database. However, according to a September report by a gang analyst in the department, "For the past five years, the total numbers of Confirmed and Associate gang members has remained consistently in the mid four hundred range."

One of the problems Aurora's Oates and other chiefs face is that most departments don't track the activities of gang members comprehensively enough. Oates knows, for example, that four of the 16 homicides in Aurora last year were gang-related. But he doesn't know how many of Aurora's 604 robberies were.

In an effort to fix that, Oates has instituted a new initiative this year to collect and analyze gang-related information.

Oates hopes to add two more officers to his seven-person gang unit in February and possibly more at year's end.

"We're determined to change the way we do business collecting information around gangs," he said.

Copyright 2007 Denver Publishing Company

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