The murder of 18-year-old Abigail Villalpando, bludgeoned to death with a hammer last month in the Chicago suburb of Aurora, was distinctive less for its brutality than its rarity. It was the first homicide in Illinois’s second-largest city in 13 months.
Chicago is struggling to get control of a surge in homicides so dramatic that President Barack Obama is returning home tomorrow to speak a few miles from where a 15-year-old girl who attended his inauguration was fatally shot. The old manufacturing hub of Aurora reported no murders in 2012.
While Aurora’s population is less than a 10th of Chicago’s 2.7 million, both cities share a common heritage of industrial decline, dynamically changing populations from waves of Hispanic immigration, and violence driven by gangs such as the Latin Kings and Vice Lords. Their recent experience underscores the importance of police relations with neighborhood groups, which have grown in Aurora and diminished in Chicago.
“We were used to going to those community group meetings and getting beat up about violence and drugs and gangs,” said Gregory Thomas, Aurora’s police chief. “Now you get beat up about speeding in the neighborhood, loud music and parking issues.”
Aurora saw its factories shrivel and its street gangs thrive until the past five years, when its police methodically smothered the criminals by partnering with neighborhood groups as well as state and federal law enforcement. The agencies drew from the playbook used to get the Chicago crime icon Al Capone - - attacking the enterprise, not just the violence it spawns.
Aurora’s violent-crime rate has plunged, even as the city’s population soared 38 percent in the last decade to almost 200,000, roughly the size of Salt Lake City. Aurora’s annual homicide total in the past five years averaged fewer than 3, down from 26 in 2002, according to police. The last year for which the city recorded no killings was 1946.
“Officers now will talk about how boring it is out there,” said Thomas, 52, who joined the department at 18.
Aurora officials are reluctant to assert crime-control lessons for Chicago, their much-larger neighbor to the east. Yet even comparably sized cities have reported much higher homicide numbers. Richmond, Virginia, had 36 in 2011 and there were 27 that year in Akron, Ohio, according to FBI statistics. Aurora recorded two that year.
The Jan. 31 killing of Villalpando, a high school senior, served as a reminder that staying homicide-free isn’t sustainable. Five consecutive years of just a few murders, though, tells them they’re doing something right.
“I would not pretend to lecture or even advise other communities,” said Mayor Tom Weisner, 63, the gray-bearded former Peace Corps volunteer who is finishing his second term in office in Aurora, 41 miles (66 kilometers) west of Chicago.
Aurora’s population is roughly 40 percent non-Hispanic white, 41 percent Hispanic and 11 percent black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Its downtown, divided by the Fox River, is dotted with empty storefronts and dominated by a casino. The city was the fictional home of the 1992 comedy “Wayne’s World,” a film released in a decade of murderous gang activity. “We just had constant shootings going on,” Thomas said.
The city’s turnaround is partly a tribute to police working with neighborhood groups, Weisner said. By contrast, Chicago’s 2013 spending plan reduces its community policing budget from $4.6 million to zero, though it is simply “moving CAPS resources out of downtown and back into the districts where they belong,” according to a budget overview.
While some neighborhood activists have faulted the move, in which resources were deployed from headquarters into districts, Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy said last month that the shift would revitalize the program.
“We cannot apply a cookie-cutter approach to CAPS outreach and services,” he said.
Weisner said Aurora’s force also has boosted coordination with federal and state agencies. Working with the FBI, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, state police and others, they focused on the business of gangs, not just their violence.
“Al Capone wasn’t taken off for any of the violence -- Al Capone was taken off for tax evasion,” Thomas said in an interview at police headquarters. “So we went after the gangs’ criminal enterprises and how they operate. What’s their money-making engine? Drugs.”
From 2005 through 2007, authorities arrested 145 gang members and obtained convictions on federal drug charges and other crimes. That disrupted gang activity, Thomas said, reducing membership from 1,000 in the 1990s to about 300 today.
Aurora’s murder rate plummeted 81 percent from 2001 to 2011. During that time, the rate of robberies dropped 57 percent, car thefts fell 72 percent and criminal sexual assault slid 39 percent, according to FBI data.
“I see cops on the corner and I think they’re doing a really good job,” said Myra Portillo, a 22-year resident of Aurora who works at a downtown dry cleaner near City Hall. “I feel safer most of the time.”
Clayton Mohammad, who helped start the local chapter of the mentoring group Boys II Men in 2002, said youngsters in Aurora can now “grow up not ducking bullets and not knowing a friend or family member who was killed.”
For all its success, Aurora’s strategy might not work in larger cities, said Howard Pollack, co-director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, which assists government agencies in developing programs to reduce violence.
With its 234 square miles (600 square kilometers), Chicago covers five times the area of Aurora, Pollack said. Gangs in the nation’s third-most-populous city have fractured into smaller and less organized units, making them harder to handle, he said.
“In Chicago, a lot of the homicides are linked to other kinds of disputes, not just gangs and territory,” Pollack said. “The violence is more complicated.”
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel in October proposed hiring 457 patrol officers to bolster the 12,500-member force, which was 24 percent smaller than in 2002. In Aurora, the department is at about the same strength, 289, as a decade ago, Thomas said. He says its recent success “is no fluke.”
“It’s a city that keeps on keeping on,” Weisner said. “I know what works in my town.”