Aurora made it through an entire calendar year in 2012 without a murder for the first time since 1946 and police Chief Greg Thomas says it's an indication the state's second-largest city is making strides toward erasing its dangerous reputation.
"I think the safety of Aurora has definitely improved," Thomas said Wednesday. "Even today, we're still fighting this battle of perception and image, which I wish would go away."
Mayor Tom Weisner said the year without a murder is a reflection of strong policing and community collaboration against crime.
"This is a very clear, symbolic statement of the great strides we've made in reducing crime," Weisner said.
He said the police department's leadership has been strengthened by efforts of nonprofit groups, social service agencies and faith-based organizations to start proactive programs and report suspicious situations.
Law enforcement strategies of community policing, coordinating with state and federal authorities to target gang members, and talking with families of teens at risk for joining gangs helped bring Aurora's yearly murder totals down over time, but Thomas said a year without a single slaying also involves an element of luck.
"Intelligence-led policing talks about taking the prolific offender off the street and I think that has helped us tremendously," Thomas said.
The killing-free year comes after a decade of generally declining murder totals. The city recorded one of the higher murder totals in recent history in 2002, with 25 homicides, but murders decreased to four in 2010 and two in 2011 before hitting zero last year, according to yearly statistics provided to the FBI.
After the 25 killings in 2002, Thomas said police began meeting more with community groups to build their involvement in fighting gangs. One group that formed in the wake of the 2002 killings is Boys 2 Men, a fraternal organization for high school boys that aims to help them overcome stereotypes and break barriers through education, discipline, service culture and brotherhood.
Clayton Muhammad, spokesman for East Aurora School District 131, said he started Boys 2 Men, "as a direct result" of Aurora's high murder rate. Ten years later, he said the organization has given a generation of young men a chance to grow up "in a community where they're not being shot at."
"That gives them such a sense of security, such a sense of hope," Muhammad said.
Programs such as the Navy Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps at East Aurora High School and the My Time tutoring program run by Aurora University also have kept hundreds of students productively occupied and contributed to improving the safety of Aurora, Thomas said.
Moving ahead to a new year, Thomas said police will keep implementing all the collaborations and strategies that led to a murder-free 2012.
"We're going to plan for continued vigilance on gang membership and those types of things," Thomas said.
Weisner said the city will continue crime-fighting efforts from running stings with the FBI or the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to fixing broken streetlights faster. Enhancing early childhood education and providing more workforce development are other initiatives Weisner said play a role in crime reduction.
"What we're trying to do as we reduce crime," he said, "is create more and more opportunities for success for our young people."