Rash of Random Shootings in Denver Stirs Residents, Officials to Seek Answers

THE 65 residents gathered in Chaffee Park as a late evening sun slanted through the Dutch elm.

Carrying placards and hopes of reclaiming their streets, they marched through a "Boyz N the Hood" section of northwest Denver, past rows of squat brick houses, where residents pressed their faces against screen doors to hear what all the commotion was about.

"We will not be silenced," the marchers chanted to the cadence of a bullhorn. "Put an end to the violence."

The marches have become a weekly ritual in a city looking for solutions to random shootings and youth violence. They have occurred in this metropolis on the edge of the snow-gauzed Rocky Mountains, but they could have echoed from almost any place in urban America.

From Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles, authorities are struggling to cope with murder and mayhem being committed by, and against, teenagers. United States Attorney General Janet Reno calls youth violence the "greatest single crime problem in America today."

Denver's crime rate is no worse, and actually better, than some similar-sized cities. In 1991, Kansas City, Mo., posted 135 homicides while Denver had 89. The city tallies fewer than one-tenth as many murders annually as Los Angeles. Even this year, serious crime in Colorado has been down.

Yet those numbers pose little comfort to an area that has just come through an unusual rash of shootings in which innocent bystanders were too often the victims - and the blame too often rested with members of youth gangs.

An infant was struck by a stray bullet during a visit to the Denver Zoo. A six-year-old boy was injured when caught in gang cross-fire. An elementary-school teacher was the victim of a random shooting this month.

The violence has stirred intense introspection in a city that prides itself on a high quality of life. Residents have begun to arm themselves and organize neighborhood patrols.

Communities are imposing curfews. Gov. Roy Romer (D) has called a special session of the state legislature to deal with juvenile crime, and educators are reviewing security options for schools, including metal detectors. Though fewer shootings have punctuated the night recently, no one is saying the city has turned the corner.

"There is a randomness to the violence this year that has made people feel unsafe," says Richard Lamm, director of the University of Denver's public-policy center. "It has focused attention in a way that hasn't happened in the past."

Like other communities, Denver is trying to probe what underlies the violence. Answers run the gamut: too many one-parent families, lack of inner-city jobs, inadequate schools, a culture that glamorizes violence, gun availability, a juvenile justice system that doesn't work.

The city counts as many as 8,000 gang members - far less than Los Angeles, with more than 100,000. Even so, competition for drug trafficking has escalated the warfare among rival factions, and gangs are finding new recruits, or at least sympathizers, in an alienated generation searching for control, identity, and self-esteem.

"Many kids are not involved in gangs but find themselves getting caught up in the aggression," says the Rev. Leon Kelly, who runs a gang intervention program here. "They are frustrated."

There are as many suggested solutions for juvenile crime as there are explanations - and usually more controversy. Denver is searching for toughness and prevention that will meet the problem and assuage diverse political elements. As befits the independent West, the formula will probably include self-help.

"There is a greater demand today for kids to take responsibility for their own lives," says an aide to Mayor Wellington Webb (D), who has organized police "impact teams" to stem gang violence and is urging the Clinton administration to locate a job-training center here.

On Governor Romer's agenda for the Sept. 7 special session is a ban on handguns for anyone under 18. He wants to create a new system within the courts to handle older, violent teens. He suggests expanding juvenile detention facilities and creating a special incarceration system for 14-to-18-year-olds.

He won't get everything on his wish list. A no-gun law for kids has been rejected in the past by the Republican-controlled legislature.

Indeed, some critics question the need for a special session, arguing that youth violence has been overplayed and would be better handled in the less-panicked atmosphere of a regular session.

Conservatives want teens who commit serious offenses to be tried as adults; conservatives also want stiffer sentences imposed. Civil libertarians worry that youth rights will be trampled in the "climate of fear."

David Kopel, research director of the Independence Institute, a Golden, Colo., think tank, says more government and more police are not the answer. He suggests neighborhood watch groups and private-sector antigang programs.

Some of that is happening: One prominent black-owned company, John-Phillips Printing, has launched a program to encourage businesses to recruit and train troubled teens.

Mr. Kelly, too, urges less emphasis on the nightstick and more on family counseling and programs that address root causes.

Within besieged neighborhoods, residents aren't waiting to see what lawmakers come up with. Margaret Mora is one organizer of the weekly "parents for peace" marches. She says she decided to take to the streets because her teenage son "would go to the library and get hassled by cops, and go to the 7-Eleven store and get hassled by gangs."

The group is organizing photography, poetry, and other activities for youths. Steve Paladro, a building engineer, drove across town to join the modest but earnest crowd on this night.

His plea: "Give us back our neighborhoods so we don't have to live behind our own walls."

Lorraine Sisneros, a 17-year-old, says the gang and violence problem is "everywhere. It's on every corner." She gives up her Friday nights to take part in protests. "If I can help just one person drop out of a gang it will be worth it," she says.

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