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For the first time in six decades, Aurora ends year with no murders

AurorPolice Chief Greg Thomas (left) speaks crowd along with Commander Exchange Club President Joe Groom during annual Exchange Club AurorPolice

Aurora Police Chief Greg Thomas (left) speaks to the crowd along with Commander and Exchange Club President Joe Groom during the annual Exchange Club of Aurora Police Officer of the Year luncheon at the Gaslite Manor on Tuesday, May 15, 2012 in Aurora. | Kevin Stahr~City of Aurora

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Updated: February 3, 2013 6:13AM

For the first time since 1946, the city of Aurora ended the calendar year without a single murder.

The last murder in Aurora was Dec. 21, 2011, when a 21-year-old woman who was killed in a domestic violence incident. A year without a homicide marks a major change in a city that was once plagued by gang violence.

In the 1990s, the city averaged more than one murder per month. Crime reduction became a top priority for police, city officials, schools, community groups and even the clergy. Over the past 20 years, the number of murders, violent crimes and shootings have all steadily decreased, even as the population surged.

“That’s amazing,” Aurora Police Chief Greg Thomas said Tuesday afternoon. “We went through a lot of stuff to get there.”

In 1987, there was one homicide in Aurora. Murders were not uncommon at that time, but the city had never had more than nine in one year. Most the deaths were domestic disputes or robberies. But there were 10 homicides the next year, and the numbers continued to rise, fueled by intense gang rivalries in the city.

In the 1990s, the city had more than 20 murders a year during a five-year stretch — peaking with 26 murders in 1995 and 1996. As recently as 2007, the city averaged more than one homicide per month.

Since the violence was a cancer affecting all aspects of the state’s second largest city, so many different organizations worked on a cure. Community groups focused on keeping young people off the street. Districts added after-school programs. Priests held prayer vigils at every murder site.

In the police department, a philosophy change helped bring in new resources and manpower from the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms. Aurora officers teamed up with federal agents on massive sweeps, arresting dozens of gang members on drug or murder charges. Federal charges meant longer sentences, so some men were imprisoned for decades and others were motivated to cooperate on other investigations. The sweeps culminated in 2007 with Operation First Degree Burn, which charged 31 men with 22 unsolved gang murders.

There were two murders in 2008, then two in 2009, four in 2010 and two in 2011. For the families involved, each of those deaths was devastating. But for the city as a whole, it marked significant progress toward a safer city.

“It’s great work by the officers on the street,” Thomas said. “A lot of things had to come together inside and outside the department to make that happen.”

The latest crime statistics show Aurora is as safe or safer than most Illinois towns the same size.

For every 10,000 residents in Aurora, there were less than 15 violent crimes over the first six months of 2011. Only Elgin had a lower rate in the six-month FBI report. Rockford and Springfield’s rates were more than triple Aurora’s. (Naperville did not submit six-month statistics.) For every 10,000 residents in Aurora, there were 86 property crimes. Only Elgin had a lower rate. Property crime rates in Chicago, Peoria, Rockford and Springfield were twice as high as Aurora.

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