Friday, September 28

The gangs of Larimer County

In the last week, both the Coloradoan and Fort Collins Now ran stories supposedly examining gangs in Larimer County. Spurred by the recent shooting death of Steven Marble, they ran very similar articles, mostly based around Sheriff Jim Alderden sounding the alarm over gangs and elevated violence and then using Marc Neal of the Fort Collins Police Criminal Impact Unit as a counterpoint, saying local gangs are mostly graffiti-tagging punks rather than drug-running and gunning thugs.

I wrote an article in March that explored this chasm in views on Larimer gang activity, as well as the sheriff's budgetary motivations for raising people's perceptions of gang threats. A few weeks later, the sheriff began running his Bull's Eye newsletter with this introduction:

"I recently returned from a vacation that was way too short. One of the first things I did upon my return was catch up on the week’s worth of local news, editorials, letters to the editor, and other opinions related to the Sheriff’s Office. In short order, my blood was boiling! What struck me was how ill informed our populace is concerning public safety issues and the reasoning behind policy decisions. Part of this is the fault of the media, part of it is ours. Print media coverage, while occasionally inaccurate, is consistently inadequate with the notable exception of one local paper that I won’t name (but it’s printed weekly in Ft. Collins)."

Hmmm...I had thought about thanking the sheriff for recognizing the Chronicle -- a Fort Collins-based weekly -- but then figured he might be talking about the Weekly (nee Now) because it has cozily run his opinion columns.

So, coming back to the gang "debate" stories that ran in the status quo papers, the approach seems "fair and balanced," but neither newspaper decided to look at the FC Police's recently available report and survey, "Gang Threat Assessment Report" (The Coloradoan did quote city police chief Dennis Harrison mentioning one stat from the report that local students are way more concerned about drinking and driving than gangbangers).

The report is actually full of survey stats on businesses, school employees and students' perceptions and observations on gangs. There's also stats based on surveys of city police officers, many of whom agree with the sheriff that the local gang problem is getting worse.

There is a problem with that assessment though: It's not based on anything. There hasn't been an increase in gang-related crime. Officers say they have been trained to identify gang activity, but, in 2007, less than six cases have been referred to the Criminal Impact Unit as gang-related. The report also notes that there has only been two cases in the last 18 months that the county District Attorney's office has prosecuted as gang-related crimes.

The conclusions from the report aren't that the city needs to catch up with gangs; it's that police officers need better training about the activities of the Criminal Impact Unit.

The sheriff is out of town until next week, but I'm curious if he's seen the report and what his take is on it. Meanwhile, citizens can request an electronic copy of the report from the city police.

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