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Gang activity, violence leave mark on Westwood

Neighbors differ on whether crime impact is getting better or worse


Two months after 15-year-old Kashmier Lujan-Taylor was fatally shot while asleep in her home, the Rev. Scott Carranza said despite that incident, gang activity has declined in the 15 years he's been in Denver's Westwood neighborhood.

"I think it's actually gotten better," Carranza said. "But you have these recent things happen, all of a sudden, and that makes people think (it's worse)."

Carranza's Grace and Life Church held community meetings May 4 and 5 regarding the Lujan-Taylor shooting. The meetings were put on by Gang Reduction Initiative of Denver, an organization started by clergy members in response to what they said is a rise in gang violence, mostly in the Montbello area. Carranza said he used to see more gangs in the Westwood area.

Lujan-Taylor was shot in the early morning hours of May 3, when multiple bullets hit her family's home in the 4200 block of West Dakota Avenue. Denver police said they believe the house was targeted and that there have been no arrests made related to the incident. The investigation is open and ongoing, police said.

Of 11 neighborhoods in southwest Denver's police District 4, all but two have seen less gang-related or gang-motivated crime from January through May 2017 compared with the same time frame in 2016, according to Denver police data.

Declines ranged from 17 percent to 65 percent, while two neighborhoods - Barnum West and Bear Valley - saw increases from two to four incidents and from one to four incidents, respectively. Westwood, the neighborhood with the most gang-related crime incidents in both years, saw a decrease from 21 to 17. The data did not include the Fort Logan and Marston neighborhoods. Citywide, Denver has seen a decrease of 14 percent in the same time frame.

While Westwood's homicide rate is higher than the average among Denver neighborhoods, police statistics do not show a trend of increased killings in recent years. The number of homicides has fluctuated between one and three since 2010, except for 2013, which saw no homicides.

While the numbers tell one story, some neighborhood residents tell another.

A woman who lives on the same street as Lujan-Taylor said she heard gunshots one night last month and said criminal activity has increased since the teenager was killed in May.

"Before that, everything was OK," said the woman, who wished not to be named and said she's lived in her house for more than five years. "It seems like there's a lot more going on now."

Jan Marie Belle, executive director of the Westwood community organization Southwest Improvement Council, said people are sometimes intimidated in reporting crime in the area.

"Sometimes fearing retaliation, people do not call the police when they suspect something, see something, experience something," she said.

The organization has posted notices on its front door saying it is a "Denver Police Department Safe Place," Marie Belle said, which means it calls 911 for people and waits with them for police assistance when a person does not want their voice to show up on 911 recordings or to have their information on crime reports.

Robert Vigil, a Westwood resident who lives a few blocks away, said there were more gangs in the area when he was younger, but now, "it's slowing down."

"There were a lot more shootings back then," said Vigil, 19.

Vigil mentioned that gunshots also rang out the night of June 26 near South Stuart Street and West Virginia Avenue. Denver police said there were no calls related to the gunshots, but it was picked up by the ShotSpotter microphone technology that the police use to detect gunfire.

TJ, a mid-20s Westwood resident who wished not to give his last name, said he's heard shots in his three to four years in the neighborhood, but hasn't heard of much gang violence.

"Our garage got tagged after we moved in," TJ said. "But the city came in and painted over it, no big deal."

Molly Garcia, a 70-year-old resident who's lived just a block away from the Lujan-Taylor shooting location for nearly 27 years, said gun violence has gotten worse in the last five years and that there's been some conversation about the issue among residents.

"I just see it as violence all over," she said. "Where you thought it was a good neighborhood, it seems to be getting worse all the time."


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