The city of Aurora in Illinois has created an ongoing program to help establish and support neighborhood groups, which hold meetings and host community events, in an effort to improve community-police relations and decrease violent crime.
Problems and Purpose
In 2014 and 2015, the city of Aurora, Illinois, saw a significant increase in violent and property crime. Much of this crime was concentrated in a small number of police districts, where there few neighborhood groups and trust in police among residents was low. The solution was the “Neighborhood Group Support Initiative,” started in 2015, in which residents work with city staff to form new neighborhood groups throughout the city, especially in areas with high crime rates. Neighborhood engagement is regarded as a key strategy in addressing higher crime because it encourages residents to act as the eyes and ears of the community and helps them develop strong relationships with each other as well as the city. In Aurora, neighborhood groups organize activities and meetings attended by community members, police, and city officials. Community resource guides, customer service request forms, and other handouts made by city officials are also distributed at these events. At neighborhood meetings, police and city officials report on events in the neighborhood and hear citizens’ concerns. The purpose of the Neighborhood Group Support Initiative is to build trust and foster positive interaction among residents, police, and city officials and ultimately reduce crime. So far, the program has been a resounding success.[2,3]
Background History and Context
Aurora, Illinois, is a city of 197,899 people as of the 2010 census. The population is estimated to be about the same today. According to the 2010 census, 59.5% of the city is white alone, 35.6% is white alone and not Hispanic or Latino, 10.1% is Black alone, 8.9% is Asian alone, 0.5% is American Indian or Alaska Native alone, 0.1% is Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander alone, 3.9% are two or more races, and 43.4% are Hispanic or Latino of any race. The median household income estimate for 2015-2019 in 2019 dollars was $71,749, while the per capita income estimate in 2019 dollars was $31,112.4 Persons in poverty numbered 11.4% , and the unemployment rate in 2014 was 6.4%.5 In the mid-1990s, the city’s murder rate was three times the national rate. The city successfully reduced the number of murders to zero and the number of shootings to 59 in 2012 by working with state and federal officials in addition to running youth programs and engaging in community outreach, but when that number started to climb again in 2014 and 2015 (jumping to 8 and 9 murders and 104 and 142 shootings, respectively), officials grew worried. That concern is what led to the creation of the Neighborhood Group Support Initiative. In a mayor’s cabinet meeting, the chief of police raised the issue of an uptick in crime. At the next meeting, the issue was brought up again. Finally, at the third meeting, the mayor suggested devising a program to support the police officers. The city is split into three police areas, all of which were already holding informational meetings with the public regarding shootings and homicides. The residents that were coming to these meetings were in already existent neighborhood groups. Officials noticed that hotspots for crime did not have these groups, so the solution they settled on was the Neighborhood Group Support Initiative. The creation and implementation of the initiative was spearheaded by Dan Barreiro, the Chief Community Services Officer of the Community Services department. Such a program had never before been tried on this scale in Aurora.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The Neighborhood Group Support Initiative began in 2015 at the direction of Mayor Tom Weisner and the city council, and continued under Mayor Richard Irvin. The city hired Cheryl Maraffio as “Community Coordinator” to help run the initiative, along with a team to provide support and resources. Maraffio and the team encourage and help residents and neighborhood groups to organize events and meetings. In 2015, the city spent an additional $36,400 and moved some money already budgeted for an expanded intern program to fund this initiative.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
City staff first worked with police and city aldermen to identify residents who could serve as neighborhood group leaders, and they also spoke at religious services and other community events in addition to canvassing neighborhoods to learn about resident concerns and to invite residents to become part of a neighborhood group.
Cheryl Maraffio, Aurora’s Community Coordinator, connected neighbors with one another, answered questions, and gave residents leadership opportunities. For instance, she approached resident Karina Suarez-Darden, now the Chairperson of United Neighbors, a neighborhood group in southeast Aurora. Suarez-Darden did not have a strong relationship with the city until Maraffio asked her to lead the new neighborhood group. Suarez-Darden remarked, “Now residents ask me questions. If I don’t have the answer, I can always ask Cheryl. It makes a huge difference.”
Some neighborhood groups had been around since the 1980s, with some of those being homeowner’s associations. Many were no longer active, however, so the city scrubbed the list and started over with just ten neighborhood groups, building back up to 25. Each group self-selects a leader and that person runs the meeting. If no one comes forward to lead a group, the alderman for that neighborhood runs the meetings. All members of the general public were welcome to attend the meeting. To publicize the meetings, the city used many strategies, including sending postcards, emails, and eblasts to residents and posting on the city website. Many of the groups themselves now have Facebook pages and use social media to conduct outreach. Sometimes people that are not part of a neighborhood group attend a joint-neighborhood group meeting facilitated by the city, so officials also advertise the program there to encourage these people to join.
Methods and Tools Used
The city provided support for both new and existing groups. For new neighborhood groups, the city provided a starter kit that contained materials to help residents conduct meetings and organize activities. The starter kit contains sample agendas for meetings and templates in addition to other resources and is attached to this entry. The city also provided small grants to the groups, and developed community resource guides, customer service request forms, and other handouts to be handed out at meetings and events. Finally, city staff encouraged the groups to host Neighborhood Night Out, Neighborhood Connection, and National Night Out events, supplying tools to help groups organize the events and small grants of $250-$500 to support their activities. So far, every group that has applied for grant money has received it.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
The neighborhood groups host meetings and events, with one such event being a block party that Maraffio encouraged resident George Gutierrez to plan. Reflecting on why he organized the event for his neighborhood, Gutierrez said, “I don’t want to be someone who just complains. I want to be someone that people turn to.” Community police officers were also there, as they attend neighborhood group meetings and events to interact with the community and build trust. They talk and eat with residents, let kids try on their vests, and take photos. Police Chief Kristen Ziman offered an explanation as to why the police presence is so important to creating a stronger community: “I firmly believe when you can put a name and face with your police officer you feel safer in your community.” She continued, “The people who solve problems are the citizens themselves. They’ll see something and they’ll communicate with each other and then they’ll communicate with us.”
All of the neighborhood meetings follow a similar template. An alderman is always there and gives an update on current events in the ward and in the city. A community outreach police officer is there and gives an update on what is happening with crime at the moment. Depending on the neighborhood and what issues are prevalent there, a couple of city staffers might be present. During the meetings, everyone has the chance to ask questions. There also tend to be many complaints regarding the conditions of properties and similar issues. Usually, the neighborhood group tries to bring in a speaker on a topic important to the residents of that area (for example, some might be interested in programs on cyber fraud prevention, some might want to know about what’s going on downtown or with different city programs, and some might want to hear from the school district or park district). Typically meetings are about an hour long, but sometimes some run a bit over because there are multiple speakers. Most meetings are monthly, some are quarterly, and a few are biannual. On the whole, the meetings tend to be primarily consultative. If an issue is raised it will be addressed with more information at the next meeting and/or the alderman can put in a formal request to the city regarding the issue. There is an emphasis on residents being the eyes and ears of the police department and playing a key role in combating crimes at these meetings.
At the beginning of each year, there is a kickoff meeting with all of the neighborhood group leaders and city staff from the Community Services Division. They discuss different ideas for programs and events in addition to discussing details of how the meetings themselves are run. One such issue, for instance, was whether or not the pledge of allegiance should be recited at the beginning of each meeting. After several contentious discussions, all of the leaders took a vote on the issue and it was decided. This kickoff meeting allows group leaders to discuss the process itself and attempt to make changes in communication with city staff if they wish to do so. It also gives city staff an opportunity to give advice to group leaders.
The Neighborhood Group Support Initiative has grown considerably since its inception, with the number of groups doubling between 2016 and 2018. The majority of those new groups were created in areas with high levels of crime. Participation in Neighborhood Night Out events also increased significantly, from five events in 2015 to more than 40 in 2018, attended by 8,500 residents. The National Night Out event held in 2018 included 42 separate neighborhood events that involved 350 volunteers and drew more than 6,000 residents and officials, or 3% of the population.
Aurora Police Cmdr. Keith Cross believes that the Neighborhood Group Support Initiative has been key to Aurora’s transition from a city with incredibly high levels of crime to a more peaceful, stable environment. When Cross first began patrolling the streets 25 years ago, residents saw the police uniform as a barrier and were distrustful of police and government officials. The only time most residents “saw us was when something bad was happening,” he said. But through these neighborhood initiatives, residents “understand that fighting crime is our job,” and that behind the badge and the gun, “we are just as concerned about the residents and neighborhoods as they are.”
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The program has been largely successful. In its first year, the crime rate dropped by 7% in the areas with the highest rates of violent and property crime and another 9% the following year. City-wide, crime in Aurora decreased by 20% between 2016 and 2018 (Engaged Cities Award). The city’s reputation has also improved. Once known as a place riddled with violence, largely gang-related, that perception has changed. In 2018, there were only 4 homicides and 119 shootings (down from 9 and 142, respectively, in 2015).
Moreover, the connections made between residents and police through this program have led to tangible community improvements. For example, in one area, residents brought up a concern about unlit alleyways during a neighborhood group meeting, prompting the city to secure a $10,000 grant from the ComEd Powering Safe Communities program to provide new security lighting for residents’ homes and unlit alleyways. Some of the money from the grant also went toward developing a brochure in both Spanish and English entitled “Keeping Our Neighborhoods Safe and Neighborly,” which the Neighborhood Group Support Initiative compiled and distributed.9 In another neighborhood, citizens helped police learn about and stop a local drug operation. Beyond the tangible, citizens feel increased connection to their communities and their city and feel empowered to help make change. Mayor Richard Irvin remarked, “We’re engaging people so they feel like they’re part of the whole. If these community groups are successful, the city as a whole is successful.”
Analysis and Lessons Learned
Firstly, it must be noted that information on the demographic breakdowns of different wards in the city is missing. Despite this gap in information, based on well-established trends regarding participation, self-selective processes tend to see increased engagement in areas with high socioeconomic status. While this trend cannot be confirmed for this specific case, the fact that the program is self-selective is worth keeping in mind when evaluating the potential level of inclusion for the process. However, each meeting’s being open to the general public means that the process has high transparency. With regard to popular control, the provision of starter kits with sample agendas and templates limits the ability of the participants to engage in agenda-setting. Finally, the ability to bring in guest speakers and presenters on various issues indicates that the initiative is likely successful at bringing its participants all the information they might want to know.
Moreover, the Neighborhood Group Support Initiative clearly succeeded in its mission: to build trust and foster positive interaction among residents, police, and city officials and ultimately reduce crime. This feat is remarkable, given that community distrust of local government often means that processes that are perceived to be “controlled” by politicians do not succeed. However, the level of community buy-in seen in Aurora is extraordinary. The relationships fostered among residents, police, and city officials through the program aligns best with a consultative partnership, with the recognition that all parties are equally invested in the quality of life in the city. Perhaps the most important takeaway from this case is that building trust between community members, city officials, and police is not only possible but also highly effective and a legitimate strategy for reducing crime.
- Barreiro, D. (2021, March 24). Personal communication with Alexandra Fogel [Phone interview].
- Aurora, Illinois: Finalist. (2020, October 01). Retrieved March 05, 2021, from https://engagedcities.jhu.edu/aurora-illinois-2019-finalist/
- Aurora Connects Police and Residents for Safer Neighborhoods. (2020, October 01). Retrieved March 05, 2021, from https://citiesofservice.jhu.edu/engaged-cities-award/aurora-connects-police-and-residents-for-safer-neighborhoods/
- USA, US Department of Commerce, Census Bureau. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/auroracityillinois/PST045219#.
- Unemployment Rate Profile: Aurora, IL. (n.d.). Retrieved March 05, 2021, from http://www.civicdashboards.com/city/aurora-il-16000US1703012/unemployment_rate
- Jones, M. (2018, October 07). 'People didn't want to live here': Examining Aurora's shrinking violent crime rates over the last 20 years. Chicago Tribune. Retrieved March 05, 2021, from https://www.chicagotribune.com/suburbs/aurora-beacon-news/ct-abn-changing-crime-in-aurora-st-0930-story.html
- Steve Lord. (June 10, 2015 Wednesday). Aurora looks to bolster neighborhoods groups. The Beacon-News, Aurora, Ill.. https://advance-lexis-com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/api/document?collection=news&id=urn:contentItem:5G61-3V91-DYNS-3185-00000-00&context=1516831.
- Denise Crosby. (December 5, 2019 Thursday). OPINION: Crosby: Aurora's Hometown Award a testament to neighborhood, police partnership. The Beacon-News, Aurora, Ill.. https://advance-lexis-com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/api/document?collection=news&id=urn:contentItem:5XNR-FJN1-JC6P-C3WY-00000-00&context=1516831.
- Steve Lord. (August 8, 2016 Monday). Project looks to brighten dark alleys in Aurora. The Beacon-News, Aurora, Ill.. https://advance-lexis-com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/api/document?collection=news&id=urn:contentItem:5KDV-NY71-JC6P-C208-00000-00&context=1516831.
- Schlozman, K. L., Brady, H. E., & Verba, S. (2018). Unequal and Unrepresented: Political Inequality and the People's Voice in the New Gilded Age. In Unequal and Unrepresented: Political Inequality and the People's Voice in the New Gilded Age (pp. 50-80). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.