In 2010, the Safe City Office of Denver, Colorado received funding through the Community Based Violence Prevention demonstration program to enhance the city’s efforts to combat gang violence. Denver’s problems with gang violence had been a growing concern since the early 1990s. In 2009, after a series of meetings and planning efforts, the city launched the Gang Reduction Initiative of Denver (GRID). The City then applied for OJJDP funds to enhance the initiative and to create a sustainable network of community organizations, social service providers, and law enforcement agencies. The goal was to address gang violence in a way that would outlast any short-term grant period and that would inspire long-term, positive changes in Denver.
The Denver area began to confront serious gang problems in the 1980s. Until the 1990s, however, public awareness of the issue was generally low and the attention of law enforcement tended to focus on lower socio-economic and minority communities. In 1993, Denver experienced a wave of violence that became known as the “summer of violence.” Seventy-four people were killed by gun violence, including an infant struck by a stray bullet at the Denver Zoo (Denver Post 2012). The sudden spike in violence led to a package of state and local efforts targeting youth violence, but policymakers’ attention faded as public concerns declined. More than 10 years later, on New Year’s Day 2007, Denver Bronco’s cornerback Darrent Williams was killed in a drive-by shooting outside a local nightclub, only hours after completing the final game of the season (Klis 2014). The shock of Williams’ death reignited public awareness of violence in the city. Over the next several years, community groups demanded stronger action from City and State government.
Denver’s GRID initiative emerged during this time from a series of meetings involving law enforcement, the court system, school officials and social service providers, as well as grass-roots and faith-based organizations. Everyone involved in the meetings was motivated by the desire to find more effective and holistic strategies for reducing violence—especially gang-related violence.
The core ideas for GRID drew heavily upon the Comprehensive Gang Model (CGM), a well-known model supported by the U.S. Department of Justice (OJJDP 2009). The CGM approach focused on mobilizing and coordinating community resources against gang violence, providing legitimate employment and educational opportunities for those most at risk of gang involvement, extending outreach efforts to connect youth with other social supports, and ensuring focused enforcement as needed. GRID targeted at-risk youth even before they entered gangs and became involved in street violence.
GRID faced resistance at first. Some community organizations, particularly gang outreach organizations, resisted what they perceived as the City’s encroachment into their traditional areas of responsibility. Some city agencies did not work effectively with GRID initially because of its lack of visibility and their need to manage other, ongoing projects. In an effort to address these conflicts and to strengthen the City’s overall violence-reduction efforts, GRID leaders conducted a systematic review of programs around the country to discover methods that might fit Denver’s situation, including violence reduction strategies like Ceasefire and Cure Violence. In 2010, after devising their own hybrid approach, GRID submitted the model for review by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP).
GRID leaders were pleased when OJJDP suggested that they apply for funding to support their activities. OJJDP, however, recommended a more focused implementation of CGM. GRID leaders believed the CGM model was a good foundation, but it needed more specifics strategies. After a series of negotiations, Denver applied to OJJDP and received funding under the Community-Based Violence Prevention (CBVP) demonstration program. GRID was to employ its modified version of CGM, with all of Denver’s proposed strategies aligned under one or more of the CGM strategic principles (community mobilization, organizational change, opportunities provision, social interventions, and suppression). The program’s structure was finalized in early 2012 and Denver received $2.2 million from OJJDP to support implementation. GRID was housed in Denver’s Safe City Office (SCO) initially until it became its own entity under the umbrella of the Executive Director of Safety’s Office in 2014.
The Denver program worked on three areas: targeted suppression, gang intervention, and prevention. In addition, GRID expanded the city’s capacity to provide gang intervention services, particularly focusing on outreach efforts. The new funding allowed GRID to hire outreach workers (up to seven at one point in time), to coordinate the project’s Intervention Support Teams, and to support police overtime costs, which allowed police officers to coordinate with probation and parole officers in making home visits with at-risk youth and to participate in monthly gang intelligence meetings. Suppression funding focused on administrative expenses, including staff salaries, adult systems navigation teams, and incorporation of the CeaseFire (or focused deterrence) strategy. A large proportion of secondary prevention funding was devoted to outreach agencies that provided case management services and supporting regional gang prevention coordinators.
At one point during the grant period, GRID operations were supporting seven outreach agencies. The primary prevention portion of the OJJDP grant paid full-time salaries for two juvenile probation officers to implement the Gang Resistance Education and Training (G.R.E.A.T.) program in Denver public schools. Funds were also used to train additional police officers and sheriff’s deputies in the G.R.E.A.T. model.
Despite the wide array of coordination activities needed for GRID, the majority of OJJDP funding was used to support direct interventions. The City of Denver even waived its traditional portion of indirect and administrative costs in order to invest more funds into outreach and community building. The City valued the OJJDP funds for their ability to develop aspects of the GRID model that would be difficult to fund at the local level. For example, GRID received special permission from the State of Colorado to hire probation officers to implement a gang prevention program in schools. Such an activity would have been outside the normal scope of work for probation officers in Colorado.
GRID relied on OJJDP funding to create sustainable partnerships by leveraging and coordinating $5 to $7 million of additional in-kind services and supports to combat violence. Denver’s goal was to create a consistent framework for change that would evolve into a long-lasting program. The City used a variety of federal and state grants to facilitate partnerships between multiple agencies under the GRID umbrella. Initiative leaders believed that coordinated, financial partnerships would encourage organizations to work together and to minimize competition for funding. Ideally, all the partners would continue to collaborate even after the initial funding ended. Early success in reducing gun violence would catalyze even broader efforts.
GRID’s approach originally centered on four goals: 1) reduce recidivism; 2) reduce violent gang crime; 3) create positive individual behavioral change; and 4) increase the coordinated efforts of local partners to reduce other effects of gang violence. In 2012, at the request of OJJDP, GRID added a fifth goal—change community norms from endorsing to rejecting violence.
The GRID was organized by three collaborating teams: 1) a policy steering committee to develop the initiative’s strategic focus; 2) a project support and management team to implement strategies at the level of communities and neighborhoods; and 3) an implementation team to ensure that all strategies were targeted appropriately in specific neighborhoods. Each team included individuals from local government, faith-based organizations, neighborhood groups, and general community members. The City worked to ensure representation from diverse interests and perspectives.
Denver selected three primary areas for GRID interventions: Westwood in Southwest Denver and Northeast Park Hill and Five Points in Northeast Denver. In addition to these areas, a number of secondary target areas were identified in surrounding communities: Athmar Park, Mar Lee, Ruby Hill, Harvey Park and College View Park in Southwest Denver, and Cole and Elyria-Swansea in Northeast Denver. GRID eventually included participants from neighboring Aurora, Colorado as well. According to City officials, active groups from Aurora were known to target Denver rivals in acts of violence. In addition to this geographic focus, GRID used several criteria to select individuals for intervention. Under the conditions of the CBVP grant, Denver stipulated that roughly 60 percent of new clients be probationers or paroleees. The remainder were to be individuals considered at “high risk” for gang violence, with a key indicator being early withdrawal from high school.
The GRID model was not a simple replication of CGM. It embraced key principles of CGM, including community mobilization, organizational change, social intervention, opportunities provision, and suppression. GRID, however, was a hybrid that incorporated strategies from other programs supported by research evidence, such as the focused deterrence model. The initiative focused on three broad categories of activities as suggested by OJJDP guidelines: 1) suppression; 2) intervention; and 3) primary and secondary prevention.
STRATEGY 1: SUPPRESSION
Suppression included targeting active gang members through offender notification meetings, coordinated multi-agency operations, and agency capacity building. In the first year of the initiative, GRID collaborated with federal, state, and local partners to develop a protocol for offender notification meetings. A working group guided the implementation of the strategy. Each meeting was to alert gang members in targeted areas that law enforcement was aware of their identities and that violent actions would not be tolerated. During the meetings, gang members were informed of the certain consequences of future gang violence. By inviting them to a meeting, the City conveyed to gang members that their communities wanted them to find alternatives to violence, and to advise them in very clear terms that any additional violence would entail “costs” to themselves and their members. Social services were also offered to participants and their families to provide legitimate alternatives to meeting familial needs.
Representatives from the Denver Police Department (Denver PD), the District Attorney’s Office, the US Attorney’s Office, the City Attorney’s Office, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), and the Departments of Corrections and Probation were present to deliver these messages in a collective, authoritative voice. Victim advocates were also present to share victims’ experiences with gang violence and present the social costs to gang members, their families, their victims, and the entire community. Meetings were often hosted by faith-based organizations that provided representatives to speak from a “moral” perspective in opposition to community violence.
Seven notification meetings were held in the first two years. Initially, GRID invited gang members to attend notification meetings with each meeting devoted to a single targeted gang. Members of the gang were served with invitation letters signed by the Police Chief asking them to attend. However, it soon became apparent that this made the meetings look like sting operations. Thereafter, GRID began asking its faith-based partners to invite the gangs instead. Twenty or thirty gang members might be invited to a single meeting. This arrangement proved to be more successful in getting gang-involved individuals to attend.
GRID expected meeting attendees to convey the message of the meeting to the larger gang membership, but this rarely happened with the initial meetings. Some GRID staff believed that the meetings were not drawing the individuals best equipped to spread the deterrence message effectively. In response, GRID began to limit invitations to high-risk gang members and associates who were already on probation and parole. In this way, it could rely on formal authorities to encourage attendance at meetings and to follow up on any issues that arose during meetings.
During the initial year of implementation, GRID evaluated the success of the meetings and concluded that they were not yielding the desired results. In order to understand what might make the technique work more effectively, enforcement representatives conferred with David Kennedy, a leading proponent of the focused deterrence approach and a faculty member at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. GRID learned that its definition of gangs may have been too broad. It also learned that notification meetings should be restricted to the most influential gang members and the small subpopulation within the gang that was driving the violence. To assist GRID, the Denver Police Department’s Gang Bureau produced a list of known gang members that it believed to be influential group members. This strategy helped the meetings attendance improve.
In 2014, under a revamped meeting format, GRID coordinated the police department’s Gang Bureau, probation and parole, and special law enforcement teams to map all gang activity in Denver by conducting group audits and evaluating past violent gang crimes. Despite the new strategy, the meetings continued to present challenges. More than 100 gangs, cliques and groups were thought to be operating in Denver. GRID attempted to make contact with representatives of all groups to invite them to notification meetings. For those that did not cooperate, GRID was ready to impose suppressive sanctions.
In the second year of implementation, GRID began to meet monthly with partner agencies to share information and coordinate strategies, and participating agencies were invited to share their knowledge of local gang activity and to track current violent crime trends. GRID supported Probation and Parole and the Denver police to implement coordinated probation and parole checks in areas where violent incidents tended to occur. Initially, probation officials had reservations about imposing sanctions or revocations on individuals for crimes that other members of a larger group committed. Some agencies were initially hesitant to share detailed information. GRID leadership worked with the agencies to allay their concerns. As relationships were built and solidified, better information began to flow between partner agencies.
Part of GRID’s suppression strategy was to increase the capacity and effectiveness of all partner agencies. For example, GRID provided support for the departments of juvenile and adult probation in their efforts to conduct home visits and client searches and to focus on specific gangs or high-risk clients that they believed may have violated probation conditions. In Colorado, probation officers do not carry firearms. GRID helped to build a partnership between probation and law enforcement to ensure the security of probation officers during visits to high-risk households. GRID leadership also helped juvenile probation staff to provide gang-affiliated clients with information about community resources, in addition to normal suppression activities.
STRATEGY 2: INTERVENTION
GRID viewed gang outreach work as critical to the success of intervention efforts and the initiative provided funding to a number of community non-profit organizations to provide outreach services. The organizations receiving funding included the Center for Hope, Brother Jeff’s Cultural Center, the Gang Rescue and Support Program (GRASP), Prodigal Son Inc., Impact Empowerment Group, and CrossPurpose Ministries. Outreach workers provided case management, community-based mentoring, advocacy and support, conflict mediation, violence prevention, crisis response, and disseminating anti-violence messaging. During its first year and a half, GRID struggled to get agencies to comply with the CGM approach to outreach work, as part of a multi-disciplinary effort to coordinate services for clients. Over time, the role of outreach workers shifted from a mentorship approach to case management.
This focusing of the outreach worker role resulted in tension and resistance from a couple of sources. At a prominent outreach organization that had been in operation several years before GRID, staff members were initially resistant to change. They believed their outreach approach was appropriate and effective, and they were reluctant to adopt the GRID recommendations. When faced with either compliance or contract termination, the agency reluctantly complied. Some members of the GRID Policy Steering Committee were also reticent at first. The Committee struggled with defining a new role for outreach workers considering that outreach work had been part of Denver’s crime prevention approach for years. Some members resigned from the Committee rather than continue to be part of a process that included threatening non-complying agencies with the loss of their contacts.
Outreach work continued to be a controversial issue throughout the OJJDP grant period. Problematic compliance, paired with poor performance measures and difficulties maintaining programmatic data resulted in a turnover rate among outreach workers of nearly 50 percent annually. GRID leaders did their best to fill the positions and to enforce the approved definition of outreach. Interagency cooperation was a key component of GRID’s outreach effort. When a local gang leader attempted to recruit from a local middle school, GRID outreach workers cooperated with the Police Department to support school resource officers who could work in schools to prevent such recruitment efforts. When a shooting occurred, Denver PD immediately contacted GRID to send outreach workers to the crime scene to prevent further retaliatory violence and to provide victim assistance. In addition to the standard outreach worker response, GRID worked with faith-based organizations to provide secondary trauma assistance and to engage the community in conversations about the negative effects of violence.
Outreach workers often received referrals from Probation and Parole, the Denver Police Department’s Gang Unit, and former and current clients. Probation also invited outreach workers to attend and recruit youth from its officers’ meetings. GRID collaborated with halfway houses and other partner agencies to set up events and barbeques designed to attract clients and educate non-profit partners about evidence-based case management approaches. GRID devised a workload management system that capped outreach worker caseloads at 25 clients. This helped to ensure that outreach workers could devote sufficient time to each client.
The target population for GRID’s outreach work was gang-affiliated youth ages 14 to 24. Many other agencies did not want to work with these youth due to their violent histories, and some agencies involved with GRID’s efforts believed that the age restriction pulled focus away from their work with the older adult population. GRID attempted to address this gap by implementing an age restriction-exemption procedure to allow agencies to work with older clients whenever a clear connection could be made to potential acts of violence.
GRID’s core intervention strategy depended on a multi-disciplinary team (MDT). The MDT identified families and individuals involved in gang culture and provided coordinated case management led by a contracted outreach agency. The team met with clients monthly and developed a case plan for each participating individual and/or family that would facilitate access to services and prevent duplication of effort.
To be eligible for MDT case management, an individual had to meet at least three of seven criteria: 1) gang or crew involvement; 2) key role in gang or crew; 3) prior criminal history; 4) high-risk street activity; 5) between the ages of 14 and 24; 6) recent victim of or witness to a shooting or act of gang violence; or 7) currently under community supervision after release from prison, jail or juvenile detention.
Referrals came from Probation and Parole, the Denver District Attorney, the city’s Safe City Office, Colorado’s Division of Youth Corrections, schools, prevention coordinators, outreach workers, and various community groups.
GRID established a Juvenile Intervention Support Team (JIST) to provide coordinated case management for the highest risk juvenile gang members between ages 14 and 21. JIST connected youth and their families to wrap-around social services and helped to involve participants in developmental and social activities, such as sports and music production classes. JIST members met monthly to allow outreach workers and intervention coordinators to review the progress of ongoing cases and to review intake information for new cases. GRID funds covered a staff member to coordinate funding strategies, paid salaries for outreach workers, and supported a mental health representative for four months, with many agencies providing in-kind services for participants. By April 2014, JIST had coordinated services for more than 200 youth.
In response to the growing concerns that one team could not handle the differentiated needs of juveniles and adults, GRID also established an Adult Systems Navigation Team (ASNT). The ASNT coordinated services for high-risk adult gang members, focusing on those involved in the court system as well as violent offenders coming out of prison. They worked with every justice re-entry agency, teaching gang disengagement strategies with attention to past trauma and individual positions within gang hierarchies. ASNT hosted weekly sessions to provide clinical services and facilitate client meetings with program managers to determine whether other services were needed, including outreach, mental health supports, parenting assistance, and employment readiness. A client could spend up to 12 months receiving services even before they fully disengaged from their crew or gang. GRID helped the re-entry service providers meet the needs of participants and provided funding to the teams. The program funded one full-time outreach worker to work with the team and relied on the City of Denver to cover ASNT’s additional expenses. Staff promoted ASNT as an example of GRID’s ability to leverage and coordinate different funding sources. The leadership of GRID opted to partner with existing reentry programs run by the Department of Labor and to add a gang desistance component rather than create an entirely new reentry program for adult gang members.
GRID utilized state, local, and federal grant funds to fund an Opportunities Provision Coordinator (OPC) to help clients achieve educational and employment goals. Approximately 30 participants were referred by GRID staff and partners during the first year, and up 50 in each of the following two years. Participants received assistance with GED testing, training on how to discuss their criminal records, short term certification training, and job placement services. Businesses were offered wage subsidies to cover 100 percent of each participant’s beginning wages. The OPC enrolled participants in mental health services, conflict resolution training, empowerment classes, drug and alcohol treatment, housing assistance, transportation assistance, clothing assistance, and tattoo removal. In March 2013, the program got a significant boost, when a Denver City Council member connected the OPC with numerous potential employers, expanding access to jobs for all the participants. In 2014, oversight and primary funding for the OPC shifted from GRID to the Office of Economic Development (OED).
GRID established a jobs program by partnering with Denver’s OED and other organizations already providing job readiness workshops. The program was designed in accordance with the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment model and the Work for Success curriculum, which contained pre- and post-employment components. Pre-employment workshops focused on skills such as completing applications, interviewing, and résumé building. Post-employment workshops used mentoring groups to teach workplace communication, workplace ethics, problem solving, and advocacy skills. At the end of the program, each participant earned $50.
To supplement these services, GRID applied for Workforce Investment Act funding to co-enroll participants in training programs and one-week employment preparation workshops. GRID also contracted with several local organizations to provide education and employment assistance for its clients. One of these organizations, Center of Hope, provided education assistance, therapeutic treatment, job training, mentoring, and DUI classes, for 75 GRID clients. In return, GRID supported Center of Hope with an outreach worker who shared information about gang activity, street-involved youth, and potential retaliatory acts, especially at the Center’s funeral services. After demonstrating its ability to host funerals free of violence, Center of Hope was designated a safe zone.
GRID also partnered with Brother Jeff’s Cultural Center to hire an outreach worker for youth outreach and community mobilization. The Center was a particularly suitable partner, having been established to provide a safe social center for youth after 1993’s “summer of violence.” The Cultural Center focused on education and used poetry and the spoken word to help promote literacy and create a sense of accomplishment among youth. The GRID-funded outreach worker concentrated specifically on gang-affiliated youth and promoted community mobilization during team incident responses to shootings. As with all partners, the outreach worker also discussed each case at a weekly meeting with staff members from different GRID partners to connect clients with additional services.
GRID funded the Mental Health Center of Denver (MHCD) to provide direct mental health services and assisted the agency in securing a federal SAMSHA grant to expand their efforts. After consulting staff members at MHCD, they created a trauma-based treatment plan for high-risk gang members. This program, in combination with the additional federal funding, allowed GRID to provide mental health services to over 600 youth. Project RISE (Resilience, Independence, Strength and Empowerment) provided individual and group therapy to gang-involved youth who experienced severe trauma. Participants were referred from Denver Public Schools, both Probation departments, the Department of Human Services and other community organizations.
GRID collaborated with Denver Health Medical Center’s (DHMC) juvenile emergency room to launch the At-risk Intervention and Mentoring (AIM) program. Full-time outreach staff worked with gang-involved individuals admitted to the DHMC. They discussed the life-long consequences of gang involvement with youth, provided mentorship, and helped clients to qualify for financial assistance from the victim services system to cover their medical expenses. Outreach staff followed up with clients after their discharge from the hospital. As part of the program, GRID also developed a protocol for emergency room workers to connect youth involved in shootings with outreach workers. In 2014, the City secured an OJJDP Field Initiated Research and Evaluation grant to continue the program.
STRATEGY 3: PREVENTION
City officials in Denver believed that youth violence was often associated with the illegal drug market and the influence of gang culture in families. With a familial history of incarceration, many youth assumed that their lives would lead to the same outcome. GRID sought to change these perceptions and to persuade participants of their ability to alter the trajectory of their own lives in positive directions. GRID assigned Prevention Coordinators (PC) to the target the highest risk areas in Northeast Denver and the Southwest. The PCs provided case management and treatment services, and GRID paid to train five Denver police officers and one sheriff’s deputy to teach G.R.E.A.T. classes in those neighborhoods.
GRID used community network teams and public education campaigns to raise awareness about violence. The Southwest Denver Coalition met once a month to share information, seek resources, and plan community events, among them the Safe Summer Kickoff. The Kickoff was often the largest community event of the year. It introduced service providers to the community and offered free food and entertainment to engage youth. Many agencies donated food and provided healthy alternatives like veggie burgers to promote healthy eating. Others sent representatives to consult with local residents and to offer assistance with clothing, food, utilities expenses, and housing expenses. By 2013, the event grew to include more than 50 registered agencies and attracted 500 attendees.
During National Night Out, another large community event, communities around the country organized neighborhood residents in high-crime areas to clean up trash and reclaim their communities. As part of Denver’s National Night Out, the Coalition worked with police and outside agencies to focus their efforts on an abandoned bar. Community members put together an event with food and speakers to raise funds and sponsor a coffee shop to replace the bar. The Coalition gathered at the site one year later to celebrate the newly successful coffee shop. Through these and other efforts, GRID promoted a broad strategy of prevention to engage the targeted neighborhoods. GRID became a prevention hub for police officers, community members, social service organizations, and city council members.
The Gang Resistance Education and Training Program (G.R.E.A.T.) placed two Juvenile Probation officers—fully funded through the CBVP grant—in selected Denver elementary and middle schools. Supported with OJJDP funding, G.R.E.A.T. taught participants about the negative consequences of violent crime, strategies to resist gang involvement, how bullying relates to gangs, the community effects of drug use, and the value of various intervention programs. The G.R.E.A.T. program held graffiti cleanup activities in collaboration with community organizations and sponsored parent nights to empower youth and families to work together to address issues related to crime and violence. Through G.R.E.A.T., GRID was able to develop partnerships with the schools to coordinate classes for parents, host training series, and sponsored community events. In addition to teaching youth, G.R.E.A.T. officers served as a school resource, advising teachers on gang-related issues.
G.R.E.A.T worked in 10 elementary schools and seven middle and junior high schools. The elementary school curriculum lasted six weeks and was repeated in the fourth and fifth grades while the middle and junior high curriculum lasted 12 weeks and only occurred once in sixth, seventh, or eighth grade. The program allowed students to participate in the program more than once. Community residents often welcomed G.R.E.A.T. because it provided at-risk siblings with a supportive place to discuss their experiences, helped to change their negative views toward authority figures (e.g., probation officers), and provided youth with the confidence they needed to avoid gang involvement.
The National Gang Center (NCG) visited Denver several times during the CBVP initiative to train GRID providers and outreach workers on everything from drug recognition to mental health and mandated reporting. Each provider also held its own trainings to help staff members maintain professionalism. Training topics included gang identification, gang structure, and working with clients who exhibited gang behavior. In addition to training sessions, NCG staff remained available to mentor outreach workers over the course of the grant period.
The Mental Health Center of Denver (MHCD) trained providers on recognizing trauma and properly addressing it to enhance GRID partners’ community education and training on family dynamics, parenting, and mentoring. GRID hosted additional trainings on Denver gang structures and the dynamics of gang violence. By April 2014, GRID had trained over 5,000 case managers to work with gangs or provide mental health services. To augment these trainings and subsequent outreach work, the City of Denver provided all their outreach workers with laptops and cell phones.
GRID partnerships brought organizations together to improve communication. All agencies had prior experience with gang involved populations. GRID helped to improve the coordination of the police department, adult probation, and juvenile probation. Prior to GRID, it was often difficult for probation staff to obtain current information about their clients and about gang activity in Denver. Juvenile and adult probation offices were in separate locations and the workers did not communicate routinely. Through GRID, all three agencies came together at least monthly to discuss the current state of gang violence in the city and to develop intervention strategies. The agencies began to share information to develop joint case management plans and to address emerging gang issues. While GRID facilitated this work initially, justice agencies in Denver began to increase information sharing outside of GRID-sponsored meetings.
GRID collaborated with the Denver Police Department to suppress gang activity through offender notification meetings. Seeking to create partnerships among all criminal justice agencies, GRID built a system that assigned specialized officers to gang caseloads and paid for agency capacity building. According to GRID staff, its work with the police, especially with the Gang Unit, created its most successful partnership. From all accounts, attitudes about information sharing improved tremendously due to GRID’s work. GRID also helped the Department of Corrections to develop a sustainable Gang Unit composed of parole officers that supervised only gang members.
Possible Effects on Violent Crime
As part of the evaluation of CBVP, the John Jay research team collected crime data from the Denver Police Department. The information covered 2005 through 2015, including six years before Denver’s receipt of the CBVP grant, three years during the grant period, and up to two years after the grant. The data included homicides, aggravated assaults, and robberies in the areas of the city affected by GRID as well as other, non-GRID areas. The research team examined trends in these data and looked for any changes that began around 2011 when CBVP-funded activities began.
Violent crimes in Denver generally increased between 2010 and 2015, but increases were larger in areas served by GRID. There were 3,268 violent crimes citywide in 2010, growing 27 percent to 4,140 by 2015. In areas served by GRID, however, violent crimes grew 47 percent. Violent crimes increased between 2010 and 2015 in all three primary GRID areas, including Five Points (up 37%), Northeast Park Hill (up 30%), and Westwood (up 61%).
If it were reasonable to expect the efforts of GRID to have city-wide effects on general violence (and the study team would not suggest that it is), the data from the Denver Police Department failed to show it. Violent crimes declined between 2005 and 2008 before increasing through 2015. Areas of the city served by GRID grew more than non-GRID areas relative to 2005 levels.
In 2005, GRID’s primary target areas experienced 421 violent crimes. By 2015, the number had climbed to 527, an increase of 41 percent. Secondary GRID areas saw violent crimes grow 54 percent, from 409 crimes in 2005 to 504 crimes in 2015. In other areas of the city, violent crimes grew just 21 percent, from 2,891 to 3,109 crimes between 2005 to 2015.
The number of gang arrests in Denver was fluctuating before the launch of GRID. Between 2007 and 2010, the police department made between 10 and 30 gang arrests per year. After the city received its CBVP funding, the number of gang arrests began to grow, reaching nearly 100 per year by 2015. Although the effect of GRID on total violence is not clear, the new funding may have allowed the police to combat gang activity more aggressively. On the other hand, when arrests are separated by age, gang arrests appeared to grow among 25-34 year olds just as much as among 16-24 year olds. Since the OJJDP-funded effort focused on youth gang members, it is difficult to know whether the sharp increase in total gang arrests was due to the effects of newly funded activity supported by GRID.
GRID’s suppression model was integrated with prevention and intervention efforts. For example, the Denver Juvenile Probation Department’s Impact Unit dealt with approximately 120 at-risk youth, most of whom were also supervised by GRID outreach workers. Probation and parole clients were informed about the availability of GRID services, including individual therapy and resource supports. These service-oriented interactions were a necessary pairing with GRID’s suppressive efforts. Each needed the other to be successful. By considering what worked and what did not, GRID built on the strong points of each strategy, reevaluated its weaker points, and created a sustainable network of service providers and partners.
The City of Denver and GRID leadership worked to change and adapt the original GRID model to meet the needs of the targeted client base. While the initiative pursued a number of different strategies, the majority of its efforts focused on direct gang intervention and crime prevention. Over time, it committed more of its resources to developing partnerships with community organizations and residents. GRID leaders believed it was better to let community partners develop and implement the program on their own to ensure the long-term stability of the effort. GRID also shifted its original strategy to rely less on the Cure Violence model (with dedicated “violence interrupters”) to an approach that depended on law enforcement along with outreach workers to provide case management services. The shift came about after discussions with OJJDP, Cure Violence, and the National Gang Center.
In the initial stages of implementation, GRID focused very little on reentry programming with formerly incarcerated youth. The initiative primarily targeted youth involved in the criminal justice system through diversion programs as well as probation and parole, believing that the program could more adequately address the needs of these youth. As time passed, GRID expanded its work with previously incarcerated individuals.
Denver’s participation in the CBVP demonstration program helped the City to revamp its approach to violence prevention. The leadership and staff of agencies involved in GRID created new and expanded relationships between agencies at the federal, state, and local levels. Collaboration between the Mayor’s office and other city officials increased and managers and supervisors of public safety agencies embraced the GRID project more fully. Partner meetings featured representatives from mental health, education, and probation and diversion services and allowed all participating organizations–even those not providing direct services–to provide feedback to the City.
GRID focused on developing partnerships and improving the capacity of organizations to address gang violence. When GRID started, the city identified only a handful of relevant agencies to participate. GRID was able to bring over 150 partners together to address different aspects of the gang issue. Prior to collaborating with GRID, for example, the Office of Economic Development did not have a program in place to work with high-risk gang members. Many of the newly enrolled partners contributed funding to implement the strategies, allowing GRID to expand its efforts beyond what was possible with OJJDP funds. Staff from the partner organizations told researchers that GRID was well-run and cohesive because the structure included various checks and balances that ensured broad participation. Furthermore, GRID leaders were respected because they did not dictate how service providers should work in the field, and they always asked partner agencies for feedback and input on important decisions.
GRID’s model incorporated aspects of focused deterrence, Cure Violence, and the Comprehensive Gang Model (CGM). This presented a number of challenges. Early in the initiative, OJJDP suggested that Denver incorporate more of the CGM into the GRID model and to align their strategies with CGM principles (community mobilization, organizational change, opportunities provision, social interventions, and suppression). This resulted in some theoretical dissonance. In particular, the service provision component was sometimes difficult to manage when GRID’s offender notification meetings affected the same youth and groups of youth.
GRID was effective in leveraging funds from multiple sources to focus on suppression, intervention, and prevention. The number of funding sources made it hard to credit the effectiveness of any one program component to a specific funding source. Suppression strategies, for example, were primarily funded through local sources (with only 6% of OJJDP grant funds used in this category), but suppression strategies were one of the main tenants of the GRID model as proposed to OJJDP. The complicated funding structure made the initiative more difficult to evaluate.
GRID was careful to ensure that partner agencies hewed closely to its model. At one point, GRID funded two “community liaison” staff members to help coordinate its work with other agencies. However, GRID soon found that these positions were “not the right fit” for the project and at the end of the contract period the positions were reallocated to provide more outreach workers at partner organizations. GRID included a successful job placement and training program, but this required guidance from someone with expertise in job development and the business community. Some partners looked to GRID’s Opportunity Provision Coordinator for this, but the position was not consistently funded, which meant that GRID did not always have a full-time staff member devoted to opportunities provision.
GRID also had to contend with staffing changes. Sometimes the changes were helpful. The relationship between the Police Department’s Investigative Support Division (ISD) improved with a shift in the unit’s leadership. The new Commander placed a higher value on collaboration and began to attend monthly operations meetings. In other cases, staffing changes presented a challenge. For instance, in April 2014, the Office of Economic Development Youth Services revamped its entire training curriculum with a new partner. Instead of providing the trainings directly, they began to contract out training to Denver non-profits which altered the content of the limited curriculum.
Shifting outreach work to align more with the CGM approach led to some inconsistent staffing and delays for GRID. At first, some of the outreach workers who contracted through other organizations pushed back against GRID’s attempt to brand all outreach work as its own. GRID was able to change this resistance, persuading staff members that a unified brand would help their recognition across Denver neighborhoods.
GRID also struggled to find the right outreach workers and went through an exhaustive process to determine the most effective personality type and background. Many young men released from correctional institutions expressed interest in becoming outreach workers, but they were not always ready to handle the work. Hiring former gang members also occasionally presented security concerns. Before taking on former gang members as outreach workers, GRID had to understand each applicant’s level in the gang hierarchy to see if they could safely conduct outreach work in the community. In 2012, GRID stopped focusing the recruitment of outreach workers on former gang members and shifted instead to hiring neighborhood residents who grew up in the target areas, knew of the gangs, and had successfully avoided gangs when they were younger. Soon, half the outreach workers had college degrees. Some workers told researchers that this reduced GRID’s effectiveness.
Coordinating the outreach component was often a significant challenge. Some youth involved with GRID had family members who were still active in gangs. Service providers had to approach the gang involvement of youth carefully while focusing on suppression and family engagement. GRID took a multifaceted approach, working with probation and parole to communicate with the parents as well as relying on family therapy and varying suppression techniques. GRID also tried to have an outreach worker or G.R.E.A.T. officer linked with generational gang families who were more likely to trust people outside law enforcement.
Outreach workers struggled to balance their relationships with participants and law enforcement. Some workers reported that trainings conducted by law enforcement officials were not as helpful as trainings by other outreach workers. Law enforcement officers also disclosed to researchers that outreach workers sometimes provided information about their clients, risking their trust. One official blamed this for the difficulty the group faced in reducing recidivism rates. GRID was alerted when this occurred and took immediate steps to correct it by providing more training on program protocols and appropriate information sharing.
Probation officers were also sometimes hesitant to trust outreach workers. Officers were concerned about what would happen if pertinent client information fell into the “wrong hands.” At least one outreach worker told researchers that probation officers looked down on outreach staff. Outreach workers reported that the effort to build relationships with probation officers was never ending.
Engaging community support was a difficult process at times. Faith-based organizations were not as supportive of GRID as initially hoped. Local schools referred families to Prevention Coordinators believing they could benefit from the services provided but some families (i.e. generational gang families) were suspicious of the program. Some employers were very interested in partnering with GRID to help individuals succeed and find employment while others were not.
Inevitably, each partner agency understood its own work better than it understood the GRID strategy as a whole. GRID tried to bring all relevant agencies into the project, but it was sometimes difficult to reach consensus. Diversion providers did not focus on suppression work, so it was difficult to engage them in call-ins. Police at the district level did not always appreciate the need to work across districts. Eventually, GRID leaders learned to focus on their partnership with police at the administrative level and then coordinate efforts from the top down.
GRID leaders soon realized that focusing on smaller communities within the greater Denver area allowed partner agencies to cultivate stronger relationships. Efforts similar to GRID had been attempted before and proved unsuccessful due to lack of support from the community. Denver relied on its new program manager to navigate the politics necessary to develop important relationships with agencies in these smaller communities and to maintain the purpose and focus of the initiative. GRID and the Denver Police Department relied on social media to spread the message of gang violence reduction, but they needed to improve how they disseminated the message to the community at large. The Denver Police Department actually began to build its own TV studio during the CBVP project.
Several agency representatives told researchers that the training of outreach workers would have to be improved in the future. Establishing clear roles and expectations for workers was essential. Other partners, such as Denver Human Services, juvenile probation, and the Gang Center, needed to come together to share information on how they worked with clients. Some staff thought it would be useful to learn more about how social workers operate as an example of how to structure outreach work. It would also be beneficial for GRID to expand the services and resources available to partners and participants.
Staff members from one outreach provider wished they could offer short-term shelter for families to help them get back on their feet, but the agency did not have the resources for this. They frequently received calls from homeless families and had to refer them to other agencies. They wished they had the capacity to create a drug-free safe zone for families and to connect them with housing and employment. GRID leadership believed it would be helpful to create a network of project managers around the country to share information in a structured way. Without this, project managers could feel isolated in their experiences implementing these types of strategies.
The funding received from OJJDP helped GRID to build its city-wide presence. With the new resources, GRID was also able to fund projects that would have been difficult to support through local sources alone. OJJDP funding allowed GRID to pay for the Multi-Disciplinary Team (MDT), to support the Gang Resistance Education and Training (G.R.E.A.T.) officers, and to address the needs of clients receiving services through the Juvenile Intervention Support and Adult Systems Navigation Teams. Understanding that community organizations might be reluctant to undertake new efforts without guaranteed financial support, GRID also utilized some of its funds to support organizations such as Brother Jeff’s Cultural Center and the Center for Hope. Through these efforts, GRID produced stronger partnerships that may last and may sustain gang prevention work over time.
The CBVP funding was a critical source of support for violence reduction efforts in Denver. Program staff and city officials reported the successful formation of new and stronger relationships between agencies and community stakeholders due to the atmosphere of collaboration fostered by GRID. During the course of the OJJDP grant period, GRID leadership exhibited the ability to adapt and improve its CBVP demonstration efforts, learning from previous experience how to better target youth violence. By focusing its program target areas and shifting focus from intervention to prevention, GRID developed over time into a more important resource for Denver’s efforts to combat youth violence. The impact of the effort, however, could not be confirmed with local crime data. Violent crimes in Denver generally increased between 2010 and 2015 and the increases were actually larger in the areas served by GRID. Whether GRID helped to aggravate or attenuate established crime trends could not be determined without a more rigorous evaluation design. The possible absence of an effect, however, was also indicated by the household surveys conducted in Denver.
Tomberg, Kathleen A. and Jeffrey A. Butts (2016). Street by Street: Cross-Site Evaluation of the OJJDP Community-Based Violence Prevention Demonstration Program. New York, NY: Research and Evaluation Center, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York.
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