Police work, community involvement lead to murder-free Aurora in 2012
by Matt Hanley
AURORA — Father David Engbarth slipped the heavy bullet-proof vest over his chest, then put his long robes on. Finally, he stepped out into St. Nicholas Church. It was time to start the funeral Mass.
This was the second funeral Engbarth officiated in two days for gang members shot in Aurora. Police were stationed outside the church. More officers were standing inside. Word had spread: there was a contract out on the life of the mild-mannered priest who spoke out against violence
Of all the terrible days in Aurora, this was the low point for Engbarth. Not because he was in danger, but because the city seemed out of control. Every time he turned around, there were shootings and murders. Every day, there was a loss of hope. And even in the house of God, there was no sanctuary.
And so Father Engbarth dreamed of a new Aurora.
“Lord,” he prayed, “this is my greatest prayer for Aurora: that someday we can have a year with no homicide.”
Even for a man of great faith, this seemed like a fantasy.
City in chaos
In the late 1990s, gangs had become a cancer in Aurora. On a normal day, the city had at least one call for shots fired. Many hit their target. In the mid 1990s, the city averaged more than 20 murders a year.
Aurora had always been a blue-collar city: big heart, a little rough around the edges. In the 1930s, John Dillinger hung out in downtown Aurora. In the 1970s, bar fights and underground gambling were common. But for the most part, random violence was the exception. In 1987, there was a single murder in Aurora.
But over the next five years, gangs invaded. Turf wars broke out. Aurora became a hub for drug sales. Murders peaked with 26 in both 1995 and 1996.
“It was affecting morale in the neighborhoods,” said longtime Aurora minister, Rev. Dan Haas. “It was affecting real estate prices. It was affecting people moving to Aurora. It was affecting businesses coming to Aurora. It was definitely having an impact that was unjustified. But it was happening, nonetheless.”
Many people felt the situation was beyond repair.
But then came the news last week that Aurora — the state's second largest city — had ended 2012 without a single murder. No little boys shot sleeping while at their grandparent's house, no women killed standing up to an abusive boyfriend, no teenager gunned down when a pool party was sprayed with bullets, no honor roll students with their pick of basketball scholarships mistaken for a rival gang member. For the first time since 1946, the city was homicide free.
A year without murder is certainly reason to celebrate, but it is also a time to reflect. What changed? Dozens of people weighed in this past week on how the city has transformed. Most agreed three changes made the biggest difference: community involvement, police strategy and opportunities for youths.
Perhaps the first step Aurora had to take in its road to recovery was to admit there was a problem. While the number of dead and injured would seem to force the perspective, it wasn't always easy convincing people to talk about the violence.
Haas and Engbarth decided to start holding prayer vigils wherever anyone was killed. Some religious leaders, family members of the victim and a handful of concerned community members would gather to pray. The spiritual aspect of the vigils was obvious, but the pastors also wanted public acknowledgement of the deaths.
The Prayer Coalition for Reconciliation faced pressure from the business community and some city officials to stop the vigils, especially for gang members.
“I would invite community leaders to the vigils and they would decline,” said Cheryl Maraffio, who started attending the vigils after her son was shot while helping a neighbor fix a water heater.
Denial became anger. Everyone had a tipping point: a burglary in their neighborhood, a friend killed or just a sense of disgust.
“These people who grew up in Aurora, they had an opportunity to leave but they didn't,” said Kane County State's Attorney Joe McMahon, who worked gang cases in the late 1990s. “Really, they fought back. You had a very proud community with a very long history that said they'd had enough.”
Aurora police officers never had the luxury of denial; they were too busy running from call to call. It became clear early on that they would need to change tactics. In the early 1990s, Police Chief David Stover embraced community-oriented policing. Traditional police work had been patrolling the streets, writing tickets and reacting to crime.
“We were really just policing them rather than policing themselves with our help,” said Aurora Police Chief Greg Thomas.
Under a community-oriented model, officers attended community meetings with residents. Officers heard first-hand accounts of the root cause of problems. And residents who might be hesitant to talk felt comfortable with an officer they'd met. The street-level intelligence was priceless.
And the second crucial decision was when Larry Langston, police chief from 1996 to 2002, decided to bring in help. Langston knew the federal government could bring in manpower, dollars and technology. For instance, state law would only allow Aurora police to secretly record a conversation if both parties had agreed — unlikely if you're investigating a gang member. But the federal government needed only one-party consent.
The FBI, ATF, DEA and IRS were brought in to assist on long-term investigations and make mass arrests. Violent people were targeted for federal drug charges. While a county drug conviction might merit a 10-year sentence (of which the suspect might only serve half), the federal government minimum on conspiracy charges was 20 years. After conviction, inmates were shipped nationwide, removing them from families — and fellow gang members.
These steep sentences helped shift gang members' loyalty from the gang to their own hide. They were willing to talk about other crimes, which brought more charges and information. The federal-local sweeps peaked in 2007 with Operation First Degree Burn, which charged an incredible 31 men with 22 unsolved Aurora gang murders.
“The same way things spiraled out of control, they spiraled back into control,” Thomas said.
The police work and community groups were short-term solutions. In order to truly turn the city around — to break a cycle — kids needed more options. School districts and local government officials helped get more funding for programs like Weed and Seed, the Quad County Urban League, the Junior ROTC, TripleThreat Mentoring and more.
“For some kids in the neighborhoods, they felt their only option was to go into the gangs,” said Sal LoPiccolo, today a prosecutor in Boone County, who worked in the Kane County State's Attorney's Office for two decades. “Now, they have somewhere else to go.”
For East Aurora educator Clayton Muhammad, the eye opener was in a meeting at the Quad County Urban League.
At that meeting, then Police Chief Bill Lawler said that 150,000 people were being held captive by 12 gang leaders. Muhammad thought if 12 bad people can have that big of an impact, what can 12 leaders do? Muhammad, who is now the spokesman for the East Aurora School District, formed Boys II Men, made up of high school boys who wanted to be leaders. Ten years later, it's one of the groups giving kids another choice.
“Now you see the black and brown faces — they would have had these stories (of violence),” he said. “Now we have a generation of kids removed from the violence.”
Police tactics, community groups and alternatives for kids. Three crucial changes that had to move in unison to make Engbarth's dream come true.
Making it through a year with no murders is partly good fortune: Aurora had 61 shootings in 2012, but none happened to cause a fatality. So, zero murders in a town of almost 200,000 residents may be luck, but trends are not arbitrary.
In 2011 (the most recent statistics available), for every 10,000 residents in Aurora, there were less than 32 violent crimes. Rates in Rockford, Peoria and Springfield were more than twice as high. Aurora had fewer crimes committed in 2010 than 1978, when the population was half what it is today.
“I'm exceedingly proud,” said Aurora Mayor Tom Weisner. “That number (zero murders) is a symbol of what we've been doing for several years.”
“The officers stepped up and did what they were committed to doing,” Thomas said. “Hopefully, this is going to be the new norm.”
For Thomas, there is still work to do. Sixty one shootings are too many. People were robbed, burglarized and raped in Aurora last year. Yes, zero murders is a reason for joy. Engbarth calls it “miraculous.” But it does not mean crime is solved.
“One of the greatest dangers is that we could lull ourselves into complacency,” Engbarth said. “Even though there are less homicides — thank God and police — this could change. There's still many forces of evil in the world.”
Letter to the Editor
How about turning police into teachers?
To the editor:
Perhaps a rational discussion between law enforcement and educational personnel is in order.
I believe safety in schools can be addressed in a meaningful way. How about having a law enforcement representative(s) become a member of a school's teaching staff? We can address the concern of safety by teaching it, strengthening a culture where children learn early on that police officers are helpful, knowledgeable, approachable and provide a needed service besides instruction. You'd have an armed, trained, fully equipped professional with a uniform and a marked squad car in front of the school and, most importantly, you'd establish a cultural change that impacts all concerned. They could have access to weapons they are trained to use (if needed) besides their sidearm, radio contact for assistance and a presence that speaks for itself.
Simply having an armed guard does not change a culture in a positive manner, but rather adds to the perception of fear-based solutions. Having law enforcement personnel partner with educational personnel sets up an entirely different perception and likely easier acceptance even among the liberal segment of society.
Much like community policing has demonstrated a more positive and accepting view of police presence, so, too, would a police officer teaching classes and offering students insights, education, support and guidance. We could begin to teach future generations about how law enforcement is an integral part of our society, along with specific courses that clearly would add to the curriculum and help children view police with a respect not seen for some time - with safety issues addressed from Day One.
A murder statistic to applaud and improve upon
Policing, trends help Charlotte hit 24-year low in homicides
In 2012, fewer people were murdered in Charlotte than in any year since 1978, almost a quarter century ago. It's an improvement to applaud, and it certainly comes in part from successful police strategies, but it also provides a window into how our city can do even better.
The numbers: 52 people were killed in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, down from 75 in 2007 and 122 in 1993. Cities across the country, with some exceptions, have experienced similar declines as the nationwide homicide rate has dropped to its lowest point in 50 years. What's behind the drop? Experts say several factors are likely contributors, UNC Charlotte criminology professor Robert Brame told the editorial board Friday.
High on the list is a five-fold increase in incarcerations since the 1970s. “A lot of dangerous people are locked up in prison,” Brame said. Another possibility: The population has gotten older – the U.S. median age of 37 years is seven years older than it was 30 years ago – and homicide offenders and victims are disproportionately younger. Also, trauma care has improved so dramatically that a homicide from 40 years ago is sometimes just an aggravated assault today.
While those factors might explain the long-term homicide trend, the more recent and dramatic drop might also be due to changes in policing strategy and technology. In Charlotte and other cities, police have placed an emphasis on disrupting gangs and taking habitual criminals off the streets, and officials have become more adept users of technology to monitor high-crime areas and learn predictive crime patterns.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Rodney Monroe also has smartly adopted a neighborhood-driven approach since he arrived in 2008, assigning more officers back into Charlotte's communities, where they can build relationships and more intimately know their territory. That couldn't happen without more money from the city – CMPD's budget has increased 23 percent since 2007, helping the department to grow to 1,788 sworn officers, almost 250 more than five years ago.
All of which, of course, doesn't ease the hurt for families who've lost loved ones to murder. “We still consider the loss of even one life one too many,” Monroe said in a statement last week. Homicide rates also should be kept in perspective; they don't paint the whole picture of how safe a community is. But because murder rates are not subject to the reporting ambiguities of other crime statistics, they can provide a clearer clue of how police – and a community as a whole – are doing.
Charlotte's numbers also were a reminder of troubling reality: Two divisions in high-crime communities – North Tryon and Metro – accounted for more than a third of the city's 2012 killings. That shouldn't be surprising; studies show that the most serious crime problems are concentrated in areas where residents have limited opportunity to break out of poverty.
If we want homicide and other crime rates to continue to improve, the answer lies not only in good policing, but a strong public commitment to sound schools and other opportunities. This week brought numbers – and good police work – to applaud, but they're also a reminder of the work we have left to do.
Third prayer walk held to stop violence
About 100 people marched for peace and against violence during a Stop the Violence Prayer Walk Saturday in north Lawton that started at a church and ended in the parking lot of a bar that was the scene of a recent homicide.
The march began at the Mind of Christ Church, located at Northwest 13th and Cache Road. It covered an area of several blocks, followed Northwest 13th Street from the church and then turned east on Taylor Avenue toward Fort Sill Boulevard and then proceeded to the parking lot of the Dew Drop Inn, 1804 Fort Sill Boulevard. The bar was the location where 24-year-old Kenneth Young was killed Sept. 29, 2012.
Upon gathering at the church, participants formed a circle, gathered hands and held an initial prayer led by church pastor Rick Gettens before lining up for the several-block march.
"I want to thank all of you for coming out," said Sam Moyd, pastor of Zoe Christian Center. "We're not just marching to be marching, we're marching to build up the kingdom of God to stop the violence in this city."
During the course of the march, participants sang spiritual songs and chanted the phrase "Stop the Violence - Release the Peace!" The Lawton Police Department Community Policing Unit provided an escort vehicle in front of the march participants and also followed them in a patrol vehicle.
Prayers for victims, leadership
Following the participants' arrival at the parking lot in front of the Dew Drop Inn, ministers of local churches led the participants in prayers for the families of homicide victims, the city's leadership, the city as a whole and local church leadership.
"I'm pleased to see that everyone is showing up, not just to march but also to pray for the city," said Tony Que, organizer for the Stop the Violence Prayer Walk. "We're also praying for the businesses in the community who been victimized by violence and other crimes."
Moyd said the marches are designed to provide a covering around the city.
"When one is hurt, we are all hurt," he said. "We want to let the families know we stand with them not as many different churches and denominations, but together as one the 'Church of Lawton-Fort Sill'."