Months of increasing gun violence in the region, culminating in two shocking school-related shootings in Aurora last week, have made clear that the community must collaborate and focus on the problem, and it’s currently lacking the leadership to do that.
Aurora and Denver are both rudderless when it comes to navigating through the complex causes of rampant youth violence and finding solutions to address and end it.
There might, however, be an answer to that predicament.
Denver and Aurora city councils have both become quagmires of political chaos and inertia on a bevy of critical matters: police reform, homelessness, affordable housing, containing the pandemic, poverty and increasing crime and violence.
Aurora, especially, has become a dysfunctional abyss for ideas and momentum, unable to find its way to the end of a meeting on some nights because of polarizing animosity and naked partisan politics.
The victims of this political malfeasance are the millions of people who live in the greater metro area, subject to the whims of these two cities because of their sheer size and the momentum they create, or resist.
It isn’t that both city councils don’t enjoy smart, dedicated and passionate elected members, eager to make progress in a growing number of regional problems. But the good, the marginal and the pathetic are all trapped in a political boat being rowed to nowhere.
While a new city council in Aurora will be seated in the next few weeks, it seems unlikely so far that substantive change is imminent.
Aurora, Denver and the rest of the region can’t wait for group therapy or good sense to improve the situation among elected local government leaders. The growing incidence of gun violence is dire and must be addressed now in ways these governments can’t muster.
Just as important, this is a problem that goes far beyond city borders and crosses every political line. A joint effort would provide real and widespread results.
Instead, Aurora and Denver should create a select commission addressing youth violence.
Such a commission, relatively small and limited in time and scope, could rise above the apparently inescapable politics to provide meaningful answers for a region desperate for action.
The commission would be charged with only two goals: providing an understanding of why gun violence has become so prevalent in the region, and offering a short list of immediate and long-range ways to effectively address the problems that are identified.
While having Gov. Jared Polis create the commission would sidestep the inevitable compulsion for Denver and Aurora city councils to stack the panel with political rather than meaningful members, it could alienate needed buy-in.
Rather than focus on solving the problem, both Denver and Aurora could work to create a 10-member commission that is populated with thoughtful, realistic and practical members of the community who can help each other, and all of us, understand what’s at stake and what’s realistic. These would not be people who in the past have been unable to avoid posturing for political gain.
Here are just a few of the logical, local potential nominees:
Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson: Wilson has already made it clear she knows what the police can and cannot do to address the problem of youth and gun violence. “We can’t police our way out of this problem,” Wilson said this week at a town hall meeting. “The pipeline to prison is real, and I don’t want to be a part of it. We need to find community solutions so we can save our youth.” Wilson, however, has made clear that police play a critical role in bringing lawbreakers to justice. Wilson is in a difficult place, leading a police department itself under scrutiny for mistreating minorities while at the same time having to dive into the challenging problem of youth and gun violence. Her department will be key to solving the problem, and Wilson has shown unwavering courage and leadership on every front so far.
Aurora activist John Ronquillo: Ronquillo recently lost a bid for an at-large seat of the Aurora City Council. During his campaign, it became clear he’s an astute student of the community and offers a thoughtful and diplomatic approach to community problem solving. Ronquillo is an assistant professor of nonprofit and public management at CU Denver’s School of Public Affairs. He has held positions on a variety of civic boards, including Servicios de La Raza. He has already provided keen insights and willingness to find consensus on controversial issues.
NAACP President Omar Montgomery: Montgomery didn’t become Aurora’s mayor in 2019 by only a few dozen votes. His popularity and trustworthiness among a bevy of other community leaders is a testament to his brand of cordial candidness and integrity. After last week’s shootings he was quick to point out that much of the current problem rises from absent parenting by families too distressed or too disinterested in keeping guns from kids, and keeping kids from situations involving guns. He’s shown that he understands how critical a trusted and dependable police force is, and how problems like youth violence must be addressed by everyone involved and affected.
Aurora City Councilman Curtis Gardner: Gardner has made it clear he’s a conservative outlier in an all-too-predictable local political scene. He regularly shuns partisan politics, allegiances and expectations to stand behind his principles while earnestly working to find common ground with those he disagrees with. Just days after the recent spate of shootings, Gardner became partners with Denver City Councilperson Amanda Sawyer to propose a regional gun-buy-back project for next year. He’s shown a genuine interest in finding ways to elevate people in critical or pervasive trouble, rather than simply pitching for political gain.
Maisha Fields: Fields is the daughter of Aurora state Sen. Rhonda Fields, who launched a career in politics and civil service after her son and his fiance were murdered by criminal gunmen trying to prevent court testimony against the shooters in another case. Maisha has followed in her mother’s footsteps, spending endless hours on a variety of causes in the community, many focusing on uplifting people often overlooked or weary of fighting against a world stacked against them. She has a keen understanding of how complicated reaching out to troubled youth can be and how even more complicated it is to get teenagers to reach for an offered hand.
Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn: Munn is an anomaly among community and education leaders. He’s a lawyer, an activist, a professor, administrator and nerdy pragmatist. He drives a jeep with a Batman symbol on the spare tire. Quick to relate to students and parents alike, he takes to solving problems with persistence of a hunting dog. His observations have already shown his keen wisdom about how critical and complicated the issue is. Munn cited three factors that reveal that the problem is really a symptom of bigger issues: “young people not seeing opportunity for themselves, an ‘epidemic’ of easy access to guns and youth not being taught to resolve conflict in constructive ways,” The Sentinel wrote this week.
There are dozens of other similar Denver and Aurora community activists and leaders who could provide targeted, limited and timely momentum to examine the scope of the problem and offer a handful of short-term and long-term possibilities. It would ultimately be up to city councils, state legislators, county commissioners, school board members and police administrators in the region to enact recommendations. But it would be nearly impossible for those officials to ignore the advice of a solid group of smart, rational and genuine residents uninterested in politicizing an issue that will go nowhere if left to the current systems in place.