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Peoria City Council Hears Concerns About Ongoing Gun Violence

Tim Shelley

Tuesday night’s Peoria City Council meeting ended with calls for the community to do more about the community's ongoing gun violence epidemic.

Council member Denise Jackson, 1st District, told the chamber about a conversation she had that day with a 14-year-old girl. Jackson, who is a substitute teacher for Peoria Public Schools, gave her students a writing assignment asking about their professional dreams.

“One young lady, in particular, said it didn’t matter, 14-years-old,” Jackson said. “I went on to press her about why, ‘Well, I’m not gonna live very long.’”

Jackson then took the student out of the classroom to try to figure out why the student felt that way.

“After a while, she kinda talked about the ‘drama’ that’s been going on in and around the community. At some point, she began to talk about the shooting yesterday, last night (Monday night), she was talking to her brother on the phone… and she heard what sounded like firecrackers — her brother was shot while she was on the telephone having a conversation with him,” Jackson said.

Jackson received a phone call from community activist Terry Burnside, who said there was still blood on city streets. Burnside, who is a member of the Advisory Committee on Police-Community Relations, was in attendance during the council meeting and spoke about the struggles addressing violence.

“We can’t police ourselves out of this situation simply because if you think about it, the police are called when … it’s always after a situation erupts,” Burnside said. “I learned that a lot of what is going on isn’t group, but instead interpersonal conflicts and disagreements.”

Burnside, whose family has been impacted by gun violence, said the community needs credible messengers who can mediate conflict before it happens.

“A huge part will come from people who I identify as credible messengers,” Burnside said. “Credible messengers are individuals with integrity who are on the front line, in the trenches, boots on the ground addressing conflict on the front end before it escalates.”

During the city council meeting, Interim Police Chief Doug Theobald announced 17 out of the 22 stolen guns from last week’s gun store burglary were recovered.

“Unfortunately in the last couple of years targets of opportunity have been 'smash and grab' (on) small business gun shops,” Theobald said. “They haven’t been the big chains, the high-security chains. They are 'smash and grab' generally (those with) weak exteriors, in and out. Stealing as many guns as whoever happens to be there can get and then disperse them across our city.”

Theobald said the department has retrieved more than 100 guns off the street in recent years.

Mayor Rita Ali mentioned a recent federal grant awarded to the Peoria Police Department to reduce gun violence. Theobald said the program is in its initial phase and that the grant was “several hundred thousand” dollars. Theobald did share the money would go toward technology and research in reference to violent crime.

Concerns with gas stations, panhandling

Also during the meeting, City Manager Patrick Urich and Chrissie Peterson, corporation counsel, spoke on a variety of plans the city could take to deter panhandlers as well as pressure local businesses ignoring public safety.

“Unfortunately, there’s been an uptick in violent incidents at some of our gas stations in Peoria over the last year,” Peterson said. “When looking at some potential ways of strengthening our response the police department has done an excellent job meeting with individual business owners, but we did look at ordinances to see if there was a way we could strengthen our licensing and enforcement mechanisms to give them some more robust authority to respond to these incidents.”

Peterson and Urich asked the council to consider new ordinances to revoke retail gasoline dealer licenses if they fail to maintain a safe operation. Another idea would be to ban tobacco sales between 1 a.m. and 6 a.m. which alcohol sales currently follow.

Council member Charles Grayeb, 2nd District, said he would like to avoid implementing any additional ordinances that would put an undue burden on cooperating service stations.

“Let’s face it, the only reason this is on the agenda is (we) have a relatively small number of operators who have been insensitive to the needs of the larger community,” Grayeb said. “And what I don’t want to do is... I don’t believe this council wants to penalize or be unduly harsh with the vast majority of our operations.”

Council members Sid Ruckriegel, at large, and Andre Allen, District 4, voiced their concerns along with Grayeb, saying they would like to avoid targeting tobacco sales and would instead discuss strengthening the retail gasoline dealer license to deal with the few causing issues.

“We’re seeing the light on the other side of the pandemic,” Allen said. “We’re still in it and I think this would be a hard time to really slap the hand on our business owners and regulate tobacco sales just because of a few bad apples, so I would support option one.”

In one of the more lengthy discussions, the council deliberated the issue of panhandlers.

“We don’t need to look somewhere in our black books of ordinances, I’ve got two huge ones at home, to find this power — we have it already,” Grayeb said. “Manager, we just need you to know that we want the police department to get people the hell out of the street who don’t belong there.”

Jackson agreed with Grayeb but added the police department is already understaffed and instead the community should look deeper into combating poverty.

Council member Timothy Riggenbach added his concerns about non-profits being targeted while council member Zachary Oyler said he wants no one standing on street medians.

Peterson said enforcement has to be consistent. She pointed to a recent panhandling ordinance in Oklahoma City that was struck down by a circuit court of appeals, stating it violated First Amendment speech protections. Yet, a public works study could fix the issue.

“I do know, I’ve said in our research, the two communities who recently upgraded and changed their ordinance have not been challenged — yet. Not to say they won’t be, but they had very thorough statistics that backed up why they picked certain intersections to be ones where they absolutely ban anyone from standing on it,” Peterson said.

The two cities with active ordinances are Gainesville, Fla. and Des Moines, Iowa. Their ordinances were based on engineering reports collecting traffic data.

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