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Colorado Springs sees deaths after gang unit disbands

By KAITLIN DURBINApril 28, 2018

COLORADO SPRING, Colo. (AP) — In the weeks before the Colorado Springs Police Department would disband its gang unit, members of the specialized team sat talking with known gang member Diego Chacon as part of a disturbance call.

It wasn’t the first time they’d contacted the then 17-year-old, who was known for his trail of petty crimes, but this time he told them he was done with the South Side Soldados. He wanted out of the gang life, a ranking officer familiar with the conversation said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to media.

Police Chief Pete Carey abruptly disbanded the unit in September 2016 to combat a “critical” staffing shortage that left patrol officers unprotected on violent calls and response times too high. The reorganization meant no one was assigned specifically to check in on the city’s roughly 700 known gang members, like Chacon, or track their activity.

Six months later, Chacon was rearrested on suspicion of murder. He is one of five people accused of leading Coronado High School teens Natalie Partida-Cano, 16, and Derek Greer, 15, to an abandoned field in El Paso County and shooting them over a gang rivalry. An accused accomplice who plans to testify against Chacon identified him as one of the shooters.

“It was a bummer,” the officer said of events surrounding Chacon after the unit disbanded. While it’s not uncommon for suspects to say “whatever they think will keep them out of jail that night,” if Chacon had been serious about wanting out of Soldados, the gang unit was best equipped to help him.

“I’ll never know if we would have been able to pull him out (of the gang) or not because we pulled all the units out that could have worked with him,” the officer said.

The gang unit also had flagged a teenage Manuel Zetina for breaking into cars and throwing gang signs on his Facebook page, though he wasn’t yet considered a full-fledged gang member, the ranking officer said.

When the unit disbanded, Zetina was likely among the many up-and-coming threats that fell off the radar, until two years later on Feb. 5, when he was caught in a stolen vehicle, setting off a gunbattle in which El Paso County sheriff’s Deputy Micah Flick was killed, three other law enforcement officers wounded and a bystander was shot and left paralyzed.

Though Zetina, who also was killed, still has not been identified by police as a full-fledged gang member, the ranking officer said when it comes to stealing cars, “you don’t act that way on your own.”

Whether the gang unit could have prevented the murders is “one of those great unanswered questions,” the officer said. “Maybe, you know? Maybe.”

Colorado Springs police Lt. Rafael Chanza called the officer’s conclusion “unfair” because the department has never stopped tracking gangs, though admittedly not as closely as when there was a designated gang unit.

“They’re both tragic events,” Chanza said.

A CHANGE IN CRIME FOCUS

Police consistently blame gang violence for at least a couple homicides each year. In 2014 and 2015, when the Gang Unit was active, they reported five and three gang-related killings, respectively. In 2016 there were two, and in 2017, three.

Including attempted murder charges for 2017 the number jumps to 15.

Police can’t say whether the absence of the unit led to a rise or fall in gang crime.

Their records show that, overall, gang crime — meaning those either committed by a gang member for the furtherance of the gang, by a gang associate possibly for the furtherance of the gang, or by a gang member but not for the gang - has fallen each of the past four years. Numbers dropped 30 percent in 2015, down from 1,242 crimes the previous year, before being reduced by half in 2016. From 2016, the numbers ticked up slightly to 396 in 2017, the first full year without a gang unit.

Some of the decline in overall numbers can be attributed to a change in crime focus by police, records show.

Where petty crimes and misdemeanors such as vandalism and criminal mischief made up more than half of recorded gang crime in 2014, those crimes were largely eliminated from the total in 2016 and 2017 as police focused their limited resources primarily on violent or more serious crimes - rape, murder, assault, drug and weapon violations. Those designations showed fluctuations from year to year, but no drastic deviation.

But it’s also likely that patrol officers are now too busy running “from call to call to call” that they’re not spotting the gang nexus, are not able to fully investigate the potential link, or are not as “diligent” in marking it on their reports, Chanza said.

While Chanza can’t say that gang crime has worsened since the unit was disbanded, he also disagrees that gang crime has “taken that big of a dive.”

“We may see that number (gang crimes) increase again” as the department increases manpower, he said. The department plans to add at least 120 officers by 2022. The reinforcements also could prompt the return of the gang unit, he said. (As of this month, the department said there are no plans to return the unit, though it was returning smaller versions of its previously shuttered impact team and fugitive unit in May. Chanza was a sergeant on the impact team.)

RESPONSE TIMES IMPROVE

Even without a specialized unit, tracking gang activity in the city has not fallen completely by the wayside, Chanza said.

The Gang Intervention Network, or GangNet, is a long-standing partnership between police and the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office to train officers to be more attuned to gang activity, track basic gang data and turn it into “actionable intel,” Chanza said.

But it operates supplemental to officers’ regular duties.

It took a full-time gang unit eight months to make 122 arrests, recover $3.5 million in drugs, and seize 110 firearms, 15 of which were assault-style, the unit’s last report in 2016 showed.

They knew “exactly who to go talk to ... to develop some of the leads that help bring a lot of those cases to a quicker resolution,” Chanza said. So, restoring the unit “can only benefit us,” he said, adding, but not if it comes at the expense of other essential police operations.

The caveat echoed Carey’s reasons for dismantling the unit: The city needed to commit more officers to responding to calls to drive down response times and improve officer safety. And it worked, Chanza said.

In the past two years, response times dropped three minutes, to 11 minutes and 27 seconds, though still well above the goal of 8 minutes, and officers say they feel safer on the job, Chanza said.

One patrol officer, who praised Carey’s reorganization to The Gazette in 2016, calling specialized units “luxuries,” still believes it was the right move, but argues Carey’s decision to now pull 10 officers away from the street to stand up the impact and fugitive units is premature.

“In a time when our crime rate is on the rise, violent crime is on the rise, we almost had a record year with homicides (in 2017), we did have a record year with traffic fatalities, and robberies are going through the roof, are we smart in reconstituting officers?” the patrol officer asked.

If gang crime also is on the rise, it’s “not to the point where we need to reconstitute a gang unit,” the patrol officer said.

GANGS SMALL PART OF CASELOAD

On that point, the officer and Chanza agree.

While Colorado Springs is home to dozens of gangs, it doesn’t have “a gang problem,” Chanza said. There aren’t turf wars like those in Chicago or Los Angeles, membership estimates are less than 1,000 in a city with a population of close to 500,000, and gang crime routinely represents a minuscule portion of the department’s total caseload.

There are fewer than 1,500 gang crimes documented each year, whereas other crimes, including those such as domestic violence, are reported around 15,000 times. “Maybe our resources should go to that first,” Chanza said.

The opinion clashes with that of other officers and city officials who say there might be more gang crime happening beneath the surface that numbers and statistics aren’t capturing.

While Department of Youth Corrections Director Anders Jacobson says they don’t track gang membership and numbers show youth crime in El Paso County is down, what’s trending up is the number of juveniles being arrested on serious felonies, including murder, as reported by The Gazette’s Debbie Kelley in a report headlined “Severity of youth crimes around Colorado Springs cause for worry.”

Estevan Medina, a former gang member turned mentor who works directly with those youth through his ministry, Second Chance Through Faith, said he believes youth gang involvement is partly to blame for the spike in “outrageous” juvenile crime. Kids are getting hooked on heroin, stealing guns from cars and doing “whatever it takes to impress ‘big homie,’” Medina said. “That’s how it works.”

Medina didn’t have to wait for officials to confirm the Coronado teens’ killing was related to a gang rivalry; He’d worked with each of the accused killers while they were jailed as younger teens. He blames gang culture for introducing young people to a violent lifestyle and a lack of reluctance to kill.

Officer Sean Frazee, of the Sand Creek Division, also told The Gazette in November that he thought the loss of the gang unit “made crime increase,” because without dedicated gang detectives monitoring them, they are freer than ever to cause trouble.

He worried the lack of sharp focus could lead police to miss developing crime trends.

“I don’t see trends developing from my perspective just because we go to everything,” Frazee said, referring to the department’s constant stream of 911 calls.

It’s the same worry the ranking officer had after learning of the gruesome deaths of the two high schoolers and a sheriff’s deputy. Did officers miss the warning signs because no one was looking? Could the gang unit have stopped it?

It’s a big “what-if,” the officer conceded, but the department takes risks and makes decisions based on what-ifs “all the time. They have to.”

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Information from: The Gazette, http://www.gazette.com

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