Chicago’s homicide rate made international news last year when it reached 506 murders. So did the homicide rate for our neighbor 40 miles to the west, but for a different reason: Aurora, the second-largest city in Illinois, had no murders last year. Zero. (So far this year, it has clocked one.)
Of course, Chicago houses 2.7 million residents while Aurora is home to about 200,000 people. But it wasn’t so long ago that Aurora had a crime problem. In 2002, Aurora counted 26 murders—or nearly the same number per capita as Chicago’s 2012 figure. Aurora police chief Greg Thomas is quick to credit the sharp decrease in violence to the rise of community programs, but the police force also played it smart. Here’s what it has done right:
1 Nurture a network of citizen cops. In some cases, police officers give out their cell-phone numbers to block captains of neighborhood watch groups, Thomas says.
2 Step in before it’s too late. As part of the “Knock and Talk” program, when police officers hear about a teenager hanging around with a gang, they visit that teen’s home to talk with him or her and his or her parents “about the ills of joining gangs,” Thomas says. “We try to have intervention early.”
3 Focus on drug arrests to get criminals off the streets. “It was easier to target drug offenses than violent offenses” during widespread sweeps, and the same perpetrators were often committing both, Thomas says.
4 Be realistic. Just because a policing program in another city sounds promising doesn’t mean it’s going to be the right fit for Aurora. To the north, the city of Elgin has been running the Resident Officer Program of Elgin, in which officers live in distressed neighborhoods throughout the city. A program like that, according to Thomas, wouldn’t have been a great fit for Aurora in part because of the financial resources involved. “Chicago [police have] helicopters,” Thomas adds, “and I’m not going to purchase helicopters.”
5 Consistently talk with residents. Aurora police began holding public discussions about the rising number of shootings and murders. Now, Thomas says, “instead of gangs, drugs and violence, we talk about parking, speeding and loud music.”