Q&A: Denver DA Mitch Morrissey

A day after a major gang bust in the Denver metro area-which included the participation of local and federal authorities and netted piles of illegal contraband-Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey took the time to talk with Colorado Confidential about gang crime and prevention.

Before being elected, Morrissey headed a gang unit in the Denver DA’s Office where he gained experience prosecuting and investigating gang cases with other law enforcement agencies

But the Denver really have a gang problem? And if so, what can be done about it?Q: How much planning and coordination went into the most recent raid?

A: Just yesterday alone was over 450 law enforcement officers all on the street, executing search warrants, arresting people that were wanted under the indictments. That’s a huge undertaking. It takes meetings and the key is to be able to do it without anyone getting hurt. [Officers] were going into places where there were guns, large amounts of cash, and large amounts of drugs, and luckily yesterday no one got seriously injured.

Just a day like yesterday takes an incredible amount of work, because no one law enforcement agency can do it. So you have to bring in officers and SWAT teams from different agencies and they all have to work in concert because they want to do it in a period of time where you round up the most people you can, where they have no notice that you’re coming.

Q: Do you think there’s a gang problem in Denver right now?

A: There has been a gang problem in Denver just like every city in the United States for decades. Gang issues in Denver have never gone away. We had the “summer of violence” in [1993], we did very proactive things to attack the gangs.

We were very successful in using our organized crime statutes to disorganize them. There was a point in time when budgets were tight and the gang unit in the Denver DA’s Office got cut, and it was just a matter of finances more than anything else. When I started we didn’t have a specialized gang unit although we had a lot of people that really worked hard fighting gangs for years. I’ve been able to build that gang unit back up and we’re seeing the fruits of that.

Q: Now, do you think the gang problem is getting worse or getting better in Denver?

A: I don’t think the gang problem is necessarily getting worse. I think that it is pretty steady. I know there are times when the media paid more attention to it. I know there are some times when there are more celebrated cases in the media, but anybody that works gangs in the state of Colorado, in the United States and Denver, knows that there is a gang issue almost all the time, and it’s something you have to focus on.

Q: Moving on to that, is it illegal to be in a gang?

A: No. In the United States you have the ability to associate with whoever you want. I think the point instead of the gang problem being bigger, I think what we’re seeing is that it’s more sophisticated then we’ve seen in the past. Yesterday’s work was an indication of just how sophisticated we’re talking about because it was a number of different groups-some gang members, some non-gang members, some drug traffickers-they’re all working together as a criminal organization to make an awful lot of money.  So I think it’s actually a degree of sophistication that we’re seeing.

In Part 2, Morrissey discusses gang prevention and intervention.

Erin Rosa was born in Spain and raised in Colorado Springs. She is a freelance writer currently living in Denver. Rosa's work has been featured in a variety of news outlets including the Huffington Post, Democracy Now!, and the Rocky Mountain Chronicle, an alternative-weekly in Northern Colorado where she worked as a columnist covering the state legislature. Rosa has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for her reporting on lobbying and woman's health issues. She was also tapped with a rare honorable mention award by the Newspaper Guild-CWA's David S. Barr Award in 2008--only the second such honor conferred in its nine-year history--for her investigative series covering the federal government's Supermax prison in the state. Rosa covers the labor community, corrections, immigration and government transparency matters. She can be reached at erosa@www.coloradoindependent.com.