Montbello neighbors and Denver police get candid with each other following a spate of gun violence

“You see these babies walking down here? They live here. In the middle of this war that we need to stop, of gun violence and violent spirit.”

Montbello residents and police hold hands in a prayer circle during a community meeting in Montbello on Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019, in Denver. (Esteban L. Hernandez/Denverite)

Montbello residents and police hold hands in a prayer circle during a community meeting in Montbello on Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019, in Denver. (Esteban L. Hernandez/Denverite)

(Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

staff photo

Joel Hodge is fed up.

It was easy to tell by the way he spoke on Wednesday. Hodge, the founder and executive director of Struggle of Love Foundation, was stern and animated as he served as the unofficial MC for a meeting organized by Denver police in Montbello. The department wanted to meet with residents over the recent spate of violence in the far northeast neighborhood.

“What our mission is today is to show support for the neighbors and show the community that we are quick to respond and that we are behind you 100 percent,” Hodge said.

“We want to show them that it’s okay to speak out,” Hodge added.

The meeting took place in the middle of the street, on Lackland Place, where up the road a man was killed on Tuesday. A day prior, shots were fired on the same street, though no one was injured, Denver police Lt. Glenn West said. Another shooting left a man with an injury to his foot Sunday on nearby North Carson Way.

The fatal shooting earlier this week marked the second one in Montbello in as many months. The department investigated a homicide on East Albrook Drive last month, eventually arresting a man with the help of Shot Spotter, the city’s gunshot location tech. A hit-and-run last month near East 46th Avenue ended someone’s life as well. Police called it a vehicular homicide.

Joel Hodge, of Struggle of Love, speaks during a community meeting in Montbello on Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019, in Denver. (Esteban L. Hernandez/Denverite)

Joel Hodge, of Struggle of Love, speaks during a community meeting in Montbello on Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019, in Denver. (Esteban L. Hernandez/Denverite)

Denver police Lt. Glenn West speaks during a community meeting in Montbello. Sept. 18, 2019. (Esteban L. Hernandez/Denverite)

Denver police Lt. Glenn West speaks during a community meeting in Montbello. Sept. 18, 2019. (Esteban L. Hernandez/Denverite)

Wednesday’s meeting gave folks an opportunity to speak directly to police, including Lt. West and Patrol Division Chief Ron Thomas, who used to be commander for District 5, the police district encompassing Montbello. Some people handed out pamphlets encouraging community involvement. Others swapped stories about similar incidents. A large prayer circle formed with neighbors and cops holding hands.

It was a chance to air grievances but also talk openly about why this is happening here, in a residential area full of families and young people.

“We want the violence to stop,” Families Against Violent Acts Executive Director Dianne Cooks said, standing near a large anti-violence sign held up by children. “We have too many kids out here. Our children shouldn’t have to worry about drive-by shootings or experience seeing someone get shot in their own neighborhood.”

Hodge pointed out children who arrived with their parents. His Struggle of Love nonprofit provides services like mentorship and gang awareness for youth and families. It primarily serves underprivileged kids.

“You see these babies walking down here?” Hodge said. “They live here. In the middle of this war that we need to stop, of gun violence and violent spirit.”

West — who Hodge greeted like an old friend when he first arrived — said the department is out there, despite some people believing the department doesn’t patrol the area.

West said the department typically gets calls about suspicious vehicles and auto-theft recovery in the area. He also said the department knows of one gang member who lives on the street, and that he stays in contact with groups like Struggle of Love and others who work with gang-violence prevention.

“We have actually done quite a bit a work on this street in particular,” West said, standing near a home that was condemned after police busted a meth operation inside earlier this year.

“Our officers are out here and especially our detectives,” West said. “Even though sometimes it looks like we’re not out here, sometimes we have undercover cars. Sometimes there’s work that’s going on behind the scenes with our nuisance abatement unit that’s working on getting some of these houses shut down, or people out of them.”

Children hold up a sign during a community meeting with police in Montbello on Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019, in Denver. (Esteban L. Hernandez/Denverite)

Children hold up a sign during a community meeting with police in Montbello on Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019, in Denver. (Esteban L. Hernandez/Denverite)

There were tense moments. Keith Strickland, who has lived in Montbello for six years, walked out of his home on Lackland Place to join the discussion after a large crowd had already gathered. He asked for increase patrols and called out the cops for not being around enough.

“How are kids supposed to trust you guys if you guys are never here?” Strickland said, speaking directly to West, Thomas and other uniformed officers.  “I don’t know you, you guys don’t patrol around here … Kids don’t trust you. These kids are never gonna trust you unless you’re around.”

Strickland said he had previously made a call about shots fired in his neighborhood, but cops took too long to respond. He showed evidence of the incident: Spent bullet casings, which rattled as Strickland dropped them on the pavement near West’s feet. An officer later collected them, using a piece of paper to tuck them into a plastic bag.

Among the last to speak was Autumn Lawrence of Aurora. Like Hodge, she had clearly had enough of this violence. She spoke passionately about why this needed to stop. Her reason for being there stretches back five weeks and five days ago, when her son, Aiden Lawrence, was fatally shot in Stapleton. He was 14, a month shy of his 15th birthday.

“It has to stop,”  Lawrence said.

Autumn Lawrence speaks during a community meeting in Montbello. Sept. 18, 2019. (Esteban L. Hernandez/Denverite)

Autumn Lawrence speaks during a community meeting in Montbello. Sept. 18, 2019. (Esteban L. Hernandez/Denverite)

She said she knows her son is not coming back. But she urged action to save other children.

“This is serious,” Lawrence said. “We need to be uplifting, finding parents support, finding kids support and coming together and teach (our) kids love and respect. Because love and respect does not end with somebody pulling a trigger and taking somebody’s life.”

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