Gang-related crime in Colorado Springs unique because of lack of territories

August 18, 2013

Bullet holes are visible on the outside of a house in the 700 block of Winnepeg Drive, evidence from one of two shootings within a week on the street. A third shooting occurred about four blocks away, on Mono Place.

The unassuming neighborhood in south-central Colorado Springs has caught the attention of the Police Department and its gang-related violence unit, the Community Impact Team (COMMIT). And residents are worried about the violence.

When shots rang out the night of July 21, several residents called 911 and reported seeing two vehicles leave the shooting scene. Witnesses told police they believe the incident was gang-related. Two gunshot victims were found that night, one of them a juvenile who had driven himself to a residence on East Dale Street.

Two days later, on July 23, an officer on patrol heard gunshots about 2:30 a.m. - and 911 callers pinpointed the location: Winnepeg Drive. No one was injured, but bullet holes were found inside and on the outer walls of a house, police said.

The following night, four people were walking down Mono Place, about a quarter-mile east of Winnepeg Drive, about 8:45 p.m. when one was shot in the leg. Neither the victim nor the three witnesses would give police a description of the shooter.

Sgt. Josh Benner, who has headed COMMIT since its inception about six years ago, said there are 1,061 known gang members in Colorado Springs, adding that their activities are unique to what he has seen in other cities.

"It's not like what other police enforcement units see in other cities, where gangs take over certain parts of cities; in Colorado Springs we see gang members who'll strike business deals for the narcotic trade," Benner said. "It is a little unique to our situation, and it makes it a little harder because there's no typical "gang-on-gang crime" meant to further the status of the gang."

A lot of the armed robberies, motor vehicle thefts, assaults and even home burglaries that police handle on a regular basis can be attributed to gangs, Benner said, in that the people who commit these crimes happen to be gang members

Gang numbers are comparable to cities similar in size or demographics to Colorado Springs, Benner said, with the biggest difference being that their activities and numbers fluctuate considerably. Gangs are transient, and there are no significant home-grown groups in Colorado Springs, he added.

The six-detective COMMIT unit has shrunk in numbers since its creation in 2007, but its smaller size allows it to partner easily with federal agencies such as the FBI, DEA and ATF.

Part of COMMIT's work involves cooperating with the other police department units, as criminal activity in the city tends to be interrelated.

"We work with the homicide unit, the property crimes unit, major assault and major crime units, and what we've seen in the last couple of years, is that a lot of the gang activity is related to methamphetamine use and trafficking," Benner said. "With meth use come the property crimes, stolen vehicles and burglaries. Burglars steal weapons from homes, which end up in the hands of drug users and, in turn, gang members."

A resident near the home where the July 23 shooting took place, told The Gazette that he feels safe and knows the shootings were isolated incidents.

"I've lived in this house for 28 years, it was my parents' house and my grandparents' house, this is my neighborhood," said the man, who declined to give his name. "The shootings were gang-related and sometimes that happens when two groups run into each other and a fight breaks out, but it's got nothing to do with the neighborhood."

Up the street, a stay-at-home mother of an8-month-old and a3-year-old, said this was the first time she experienced violence in a neighborhood where she and her family had felt safe for two years.

"It happened around 2:30 a.m., I was up nursing my baby," said Cathy, who declined to give her last name. "I looked out the window and saw two or three cop cars pulled up to a house, then they all suddenly turned on their lights and drove off. Now I feel somewhat uneasy, to tell you the truth."

Fernando Vigil , a 47-year resident of Winnepeg Drive, said he heard shots the night of July 21 and police arrived within minutes. Shootings and crime aren't uncommon on his block, he said, but he is physically and emotionally attached to his home of nearly half a century.

"I wouldn't know where to go, I've lived here half my life," Vigil said. "Besides, it seems like this is happening all over the city. All of us around here don't feel too good about this, but the police respond quickly and seem to get things under control."

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