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Aurora’s SAVE Program Charts a New Path for At-Risk Youth

March 2024
Aurora Police Department Captain Mike Hanifin, Aurora Youth Violence Prevention Program Manager Joseph DeHerrera and James Thomas of The Road Called Strate participate in a mock custom notification, a main outreach strategy of the Aurora Standing Against Violence Every Day (SAVE) initiative.
Aurora Police Department Captain Mike Hanifin, Aurora Youth Violence Prevention Program Manager Joseph DeHerrera and James Thomas of The Road Called Strate participate in a mock custom notification, a main outreach strategy of the Aurora Standing Against Violence Every Day initiative. As of March 2024, the city has completed 50 actual custom notifications, which provide contacts with access to services such as job training, housing, education, peer support groups, and substance abuse counseling.

For a young person whose world is dominated by connections with a violent street group, making a change can seem impossible, but with the right intervention team offering resources and mentoring, a new path becomes a reality.

The city of Aurora, Colorado, is a 2021 Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) Public Safety Partnership (PSP) site, receiving training and technical assistance from the National Public Safety Partnership through a three-year initiative, from June 2021 through September 2024, to help the city of Aurora and the Aurora Police Department (APD) build capacity to address gun crime among active violent street groups and enhance community safety.

A key result of PSP’s Aurora support initiative is the Standing Against Violence Every Day (SAVE) program, which operates through a collaboration between the APD, the city’s Youth Violence Prevention Program (YVPP), and Aurora community partners.

Responding to an Urgent Need

Data used by BJA to select Aurora as a PSP site in 2021 included a five-year (2015–2019) violent crime rate (per 100,000 residents) of 2.72 times the national rate and a 10-count increase in the homicide rate in the 18–28 age group between 2018 and 2019, according to FBI data in National Public Safety Partnership’s 2023 site briefing for Aurora.

Since 2021, PSP has helped the Aurora Police Department organize and coordinate violence prevention efforts. According to the APD’s Crime Statistics website, between 2022 and 2023, aggravated assaults decreased by 30.6 percent, homicides by 14 percent, and robberies by 33 percent.

Targeted Approach

When PSP first came to Aurora, the city had experienced a series of juvenile gun-related violence incidents that prompted urgent action, says Chief Susan Manheimer (Ret.), PSP Strategic Site Liaison for Aurora. In the first listening session between BJA and PSP in December 2020, the APD and Aurora city partners highlighted gun violence—particularly among those in the 14–25 age group—as a critical focus and stressed the need to come up with strategies to reduce gun crime.

“We were able to answer the need, and I think it got Aurora SAVE launched as an even more thorough program with a due diligence and a commitment level from all the partners that wouldn’t have been possible without having that guided PSP listening session,” says Manheimer.

Adopting the Right Plan

The blueprint for SAVE came from John Jay College’s National Network for Safe Communities (NNSC) Group Violence Intervention (GVI) strategy, which uses a proven model for reducing violence through intervention with street groups at high risk for violence. The NNSC defines a “group” in its “Aurora, Colorado Group Violence Intervention Problem Analysis Report” as “two or more people who engage in violence and/or criminal activity together . . . and who may or may not meet the statutory definition of a ‘gang.’”

Implementing the GVI model was a recommendation from Chief Manheimer, says Aurora Police Department Captain Mike Hanifin, Aurora SAVE Co-Director.

“From the very beginning, we wanted to make sure we had the right violent crime reduction strategy and that we could build SAVE the right way so that it was sustainable and could garner trust in the community." Captain Mike Hanifin, Aurora Police Department

The intent of GVI is to keep those at highest risk “alive, safe and free,” according to the SAVE site.

SAVE had a head start because the city of Aurora already had a violence prevention emphasis, as well as partnerships between law enforcement and community organizations in place to support the new initiative, according to Manheimer.

As part of the program set up, PSP assessments identified gaps that needed to be filled. “We recognized early on that the APD needed a very focused architecture for addressing gun crime,” says Manheimer. “They did not have a CGIC [Crime Gun Intelligence Center], and they did not have shooting reviews. They did not have a non-fatal shooting focus. All these things were needed to contribute to effectively identifying and going after the shooters.”

To help achieve these goals, the NNSC and the APD worked together to generate data and a demographic analysis of Aurora’s street groups. The analysis showed 36 active groups in Aurora, totaling approximately 1,355 individual group members, and identified relationships between these groups, their leadership, and who the most violent members were.

The NNSC study also included a law enforcement violent incident review of 93 homicide and nonfatal shooting incidents from 2022 through 2023. This review indicated that at least 36 percent of homicides and 28 percent of nonfatal shootings involved group members as suspected perpetrators, known victims, or both.

Implementing the Process

The SAVE initiative is set up as a series of six process steps: (1) intelligence analysis, (2) recipient and group selection, (3) custom notification and call-in, (4) services and support, (5) prosecution, and (6) successful transition. The SAVE site has an infographic illustrating these steps.

Intelligence analysis includes weekly shoot reviews, detective referrals, school resource officer (SRO) referrals, and data mining. During shoot reviews, law enforcement assesses every non-fatal shooting and homicide that occurred in the city the week prior, says Hanifin, a 26-year veteran of the APD. “We look at who's involved in those,” he adds, and whether the shooting is “group-involved,” which means that the “trigger-puller suspect or victim is group-involved or is group connected.”

Hanifin’s team also gets referrals on individuals from the gang robbery investigative team, gun violence suppression team, and the homicide team, since these are the teams that primarily handle gun crime cases. “SROs are a huge help to us as partners, since they have a real feel for what’s going on with group dynamics in the schools,” he says.

The SAVE law enforcement team also uses special software to analyze calls that come into the computer aided dispatch (CAD) system and to scan case reports for specific keywords, such as the names of groups and group-involved individuals active in the city.

Selecting Participants

These combined intelligence sources provide a comprehensive view of group activity that is then used to identify individuals and groups who will be contacted by the SAVE team.

“If all we do is look at the shootings, we are going to miss an opportunity to prevent the next tragedy in the community. Our primary goal is to try to stop that next individual from pulling the trigger or being the next victim of gun violence." Captain Mike Hanifin, Aurora Police Department

SAVE primarily focuses on 14- to 25-year-olds because in the last few years, “we have been significantly affected by that younger age group having access to guns and becoming group-involved, so they are our primary focus, although we don’t exclude people outside that age group,” Hanifin adds.

Giving Notice

After each weekly shooting review meeting where violent activity is tracked, the SAVE team uses the collected data to identify juvenile candidates who are at high risk for being shooters or victims of gun violence. These juveniles are then selected for face-to-face meetings known as “custom notifications.” The SAVE team sets up weekly notification meetings with selected individuals and has completed 40 such meetings since starting in September 2023.

During a custom notification, the SAVE team—which includes a law enforcement officer, a social services representative, and a street outreach worker—visit the candidate’s home in the evening, when the candidate is likely to be in the residence. The purpose of the encounter is twofold: (1) to put the high-risk individual on notice that the police are aware of their activity and (2) to present voluntary options for reform.

“We go out and have a conversation with the person, either in the living room or on the doorstep,” says Hanifin, who goes to every custom notification. These encounters last from 15 to 45 minutes. Hanafin notes, “We give that individual the ‘anti-violence’ message, which is we know who you are and what you’re doing and are not going to tolerate the violence anymore, so we will stop you if you make us. But we’re also here to let you know that there’s an ‘off-ramp’ we want to give you through social services and community support to help you.” Choosing this alternative is a voluntary option and is not forced on the individual after contact has been made, he adds.

The initial reaction to the custom notification visit is usually distrust due to the candidate’s previous history with law enforcement, says Hanifin. Once the individual and others at the residence—even those with generational history of group-involved activity—understand that the team is there because of concern for a child who is at high risk for violence and could use a mentor or community services, there are very good conversations, he says.

The Call-In

SAVE also conducts “call-ins” in which adults 18 or older who are group-involved and on probation or parole are called in for a joint meeting with the U.S. Attorney, the District Attorney, the Aurora mayor, law enforcement, and social services partnership leaders.

Selection for call-ins is not an arbitrary process, says Hanifin. Groups are scored based on the weekly shooting review data law enforcement uses to track who’s most active and most violent. This law enforcement “microscope” approach is the foundation of the legitimacy and credibility of focused deterrence programs, he adds. This method zeros in on the very small percentage of individuals in the community who are committing the most violence.

The call-in message is similar to the anti-violence warning of the custom notification with the added expectation that the individual will take the message back to the group about new rules in place for group-involved violence, and that if another crime incident is initiated by the group, no matter how insignificant, law enforcement is going after both the shooter and the entire group.

The voluntary “off-ramp” option offered during call-ins is the same as the one offered during the custom notification. Both groups and individuals can take advantage of social services support and are assigned case managers to direct their progress.

The point of the call-in is to spread the word to the groups that there is a way out. “We're all there to say we don't respect what you've done, but we respect you as an individual, and we're here because we support you in becoming a self-sufficient, highly functioning member of the Aurora community if you'll let us help and support you,” says Hanifin.

Managing the Response

The outcome of these meetings with individuals has been positive. The process continues with case managers following up after the face-to-face encounter and encouraging individuals to connect with the SAVE team within seven to ten days so that social services can complete a needs assessment, according to Joseph DeHerrera, Youth Violence Prevention Program Manager and Aurora SAVE Co-Director. The case manager’s needs assessment identifies what’s going to help that individual and other family members stop the path of violence that they’re on, he adds.

During custom notifications, Hanifin has been in living rooms where the 15-year-old group-involved individual is the man of the household, and you have mom and grandma admitting that. “We look at the adults in the house and make sure the entire family is set up for success,” providing very specialized services, such as relocation if needed, transportation assistance, and substance use and mental health treatment resources, says DeHerrera.

In addition to the case manager interaction, individuals receive guidance and support from credible messengers who have been part of street groups, understand the unique challenges facing these youth, and can act as mentors to redirect individuals.

By reinforcing that the assistance is voluntary and individuals are not obligated to participate, SAVE makes the program a choice rather than a requirement. “Our NNSC consultants recommended that if we try to reach out a couple of times and an individual doesn’t want to be part of the program, we put them on a shared tracking list of inactives,” says DeHerrera. He adds that SAVE has had an individual on the inactive list reach out to a case manager and say, “I’m ready now.” There are also individuals who say they are definitely not interested and don’t reconnect, and that gets communicated back to law enforcement.

Cultivating Success

The length of stay in SAVE depends on the severity of the individual’s needs, says DeHerrera. Some are just on the cusp of group-involvement and only need some redirecting to get them on a better path, while others are heavily involved and need intensive case management. The case manager is available to provide assistance such as transportation to appointments and making sure they’re engaged at school.

“We don’t abandon them if they make a mistake. We know it’s going to take time and effort and dedication to our message. If they reoffend, there will be swift and certain proportional consequences, and they will be adjudicated for what they did, but we will revisit them and ask if they’re ready to participate.” Captain Mike Hanifin, Aurora Police Department

Measuring success for a young and developing program like SAVE takes time because the process involves building credibility and trust with group-involved individuals. “One challenge with these emerging practices rather than the evidence-based ones is that we’re not going to get longitudinal data and that kind of research for years,” says Manheimer.

It’s very much a marathon and not a sprint, says Hanifin. Thus far, 15 of the 40 custom notification participants are actively engaged with the case manager in needs assessment or are receiving community-based services since starting five months ago. “That’s a big number,” he adds, “especially since we can’t force them to engage.”

Thinking about impact in terms of the effect on individuals puts a different spin on “success.” “If we can turn one life around, that’s an indicator of success,” says DeHerrera.

Saving Action

All of the SAVE partners are committed to reducing gun violence and are working toward the same goal, confirm Hanifin and DeHerrera.

“I love this community. SAVE is an opportunity for me and those of us involved in this program to have a significant impact on public safety and quality of life, and that's why we do it. What we’re seeing is what is possible when cities and law enforcement commit to this type of approach and can start preventing tragedy in the community. That’s why I am so passionate about this program.“ Captain Mike Hanifin, Aurora Police Department

What also comes to light is the overarching need for access to trusted adults and resources that can put these young people on an alternative path, says DeHerrera. It’s so easy for individuals to be group-involved and so hard to get out of that pattern.

“My message to everyone in the community is to just be that trusted adult for an at-risk youth and engage with an at-risk youth as much as you can, whether that's in the schools or in the community,” says DeHerrera. “Be there for them.”

Note: Joseph DeHerrera, Youth Violence Prevention Program Manager and Aurora SAVE Co-Director, is now the Executive Director at the 1st Judicial District/Jefferson County Juvenile Assessment Center. Andrea Wright is the new Interim SAVE Co-Director and Interim Youth Violence Prevention Program Manager. Learn more about SAVE leadership.

Date Published: March 28, 2024