May 10, 2021 - News
Denver's anti-gang efforts come under fire in new investigation
The book cover for "The Holly."
Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux

An explosive new book, set for publication Tuesday, raises significant questions about how the city combats gangs and the Denver police department's use of informants.

Why it matters: The prior year ended as one of the most deadly for gang violence in Denver, and city officials tell Axios the problem is only escalating in 2021 ahead of what is expected to be a troubled summer.

Driving the news: "The Holly," written by investigative journalist Julian Rubinstein, offers a window into "invisible Denver" as it tells the story of decades of violence and drugs in Northeast Park Hill and Five Points through the eyes of disavowed gang member and activist Terrance Roberts.

  • Rubinstein used records requests and interviews with more than 100 people to put the book together.

Details: He reveals institutional failures in city hall and the police department that contributed to community tensions instead of reducing them. Among the revelations:

  • In recent years, Denver's anti-gang program provided taxpayer money to organizations that employed active gang members and drug dealers.
  • Gang members served as informants for police. In exchange, the informants often avoided harsh sentences for their own crimes.
  • Denver leaders touted the city's approach as a national model even as independent research reached inconclusive findings and violence surged.
  • Shootings that involved gang members often were not categorized as gang-related.

The intrigue: One of the most prominent examples of the city providing money to organizations with active gang members, confirmed by Axios, is the city's support of Impact Empowerment Group.

  • The group lists Pernell Hines as its associate director — but Rubinstein writes that Hines, a well-known Blood gang member, still controlled Northeast Park Hill's Holly neighborhood in recent years and faced 10 criminal charges after repeated arrests in 2019 and 2020.
  • For some of these, he received reduced punishments.

What they're saying: "I won't shy away from denying that concern has been brought up," Nicole Monroe, the director of the Gang Reduction Initiative of Denver, said in an interview about Hines.

  • She added that the city works "with people who are treading the line of being active" in gangs but there is "value in connecting with individuals who have strong ties in the community."
  • Denver police chief Paul Pazen did not have time to answer questions about the city's gang violence, a spokesman told Axios.

What's more: The reporting shows Roberts and others who led recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations and protests in response to Elijah McClain's death were told they have been under surveillance by local and federal law enforcement.

The bottom line: "For the last seven years, people thought I was crazy when I ever talked about my findings because they literally didn't believe it," said Rubinstein, who grew up in Denver and moved back from New York to research the book.

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