Noted anti-gang activist talks suburbia

Rev. Kelly says violence heading north and south

Rev. Leon Kelly has been a dedicated anti-gang activist in Denver since the 1980s. He says there's been an increase in suburban gang activity in recent years. Courtesy photo
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Unlike some people, Rev. Leon Kelly wasn't surprised when he heard Littleton might have had its first gang murder. When he first began his work in the mid-'80s, nobody thought there were gangs in Denver, either.

"Something major has to happen before it becomes newsworthy," said Kelly, executive director of Open Door Youth Gang Alternatives. "… There are some things that can’t be covered up."

Littleton got that wakeup call on Oct. 19 when Options High School student DeVon Flores, 18, died in a gun battle that also left a 17-year-old boy in the hospital. Littleton police arrested Dion Rankin, 20, on Oct. 24.

Neighbor kids say the three were gang-bangers with "previous beef” that blew up at an out-of-control party, and a Facebook search indicates they could be right.

Now removed, Flores’s page showed him with a blue bandanna covering the lower half of his face. Rankin’s references "CMG," which is short for Crenshaw Mafia Gangsters, affiliated with the Bloods. Kelly says CMG first took hold in Denver’s Park Hill neighborhood about 27 years ago.

So how did its tentacles end up in Littleton’s northeast neighborhood?

Kelly says inner-city parents often move to the suburbs to get their kids away from gangs and other negative influences, but the kids might already be affiliated. And while they might not have had much clout in the big city, they can become larger than life in suburban neighborhoods.

"The gang ‘wannabes’ are eventually going to be gang ‘gonnabes,’" said Kelly."… They might be posers, but in their mind they feel like they have to represent."

Kelly has talked to the wounded teen’s mother, who says he’s physically OK but bitter and angry.

"His attitude now is just hardcore," said Kelly. "And now he thinks he’s invincible."

Kelly says the trend is similar to what happened when Bloods and Crips started moving to Denver from California in the 1980s. At first, he said, city officials warned him not to talk too much about it publicly, to not cause panic or give Denver a bad name.

"You can continue to try to keep your head in the sand if you want to, but it doesn’t mean the problem is going away when you look up," he said. "The mayor, the city officials, they work for the people. They can demand some action. The people should not have to live in fear."

Until last summer, LPD maintained a special-enforcement team focused on gangs, drugs, graffiti, sex offenders and similar crimes. The team was disbanded due to vacancies in the department, and the officers were reassigned to patrol.

"Specialty units such as the special-enforcement team are designed to support, not replace, the patrol division’s mission," reads a statement issued in response to questions from the Littleton Independent. "… When fully staffed, the chief will re-evaluate the need for a specialized unit. There has been no reduction in enforcement since the suspension of the SET."

The Neighborhood Watch program was also eliminated in 2011 due to budget cuts, though the Littleton Police Citizens Academy Alumni Association is working to revive it. And Sheriff Grayson Robinson announced last month he’s disbanding the South Metro Drug Task Force; those officers will be reassigned.

Kelly said it’s important for residents to feel safe and to be taken seriously when reporting signs of trouble. He counsels people not to panic or overreact, but to stay concerned and keep their eyes open.

"Graffiti is the newspaper of the street," he said. "...There are some things that can’t be disputed."