© 2024 Peoria Public Radio
A joint service of Bradley University and Illinois State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Q&A: Mayor Ali touts anti-crime efforts, responds to ACLU concerns over police surveillance cameras

Peoria Mayor Rita Ali.jpg

A spike in violent crime across Peoria in 2021 is drawing a dedicated response from the police department and city leaders.

Since the start of the year, Peoria police have collaborated with federal, state and county law enforcement agencies on three concentrated anti-crime details that produced numerous arrests and seizures of illegal weapons.

Mayor Rita Ali says the sweeps show a commitment to addressing the violence problem, and she believes in using advanced technology as a crime reduction tool.

In November, the city council unanimously approved purchasing 16 solar-powered automatic license plate reader (LPR) cameras in a move that has drawn criticism from the Peoria chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

In an interview with WCBU reporter Joe Deacon, Mayor Ali discusses the impact of the recent anti-crime sweeps and her response to the ACLU’s concerns about the surveillance cameras.

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Joe Deacon: The Peoria police department has conducted three high-profile, multi-agency sweeps in an effort to reduce violent crime. What are your thoughts on the effectiveness of these sweeps?

Mayor Rita Ali: Well, I think they're being very effective. They're responsible for getting illegal guns off the street. There are several people that have been stopped that have active warrants. I think it's really good that we've ramped up our efforts. The community is saying, “thank you, thank you” – we hear it from all parts of the community. They see it; there's more visibility of the police, especially in some of the areas where we've seen an uprise crime. So I'm very thankful for the efforts.

Does this signal a toughening stance on crime, then? Are you cracking down, and are you seeing results?

Ali: Well, there is a cracking down on crime and there needs to be, still keeping civil rights with respect and regard. But at the same time, we've had just such a rise in shootings, such a rise in violence and gun violence that we have to protect the community. That's the job of our police, is to protect our community, and the community has to be a part of that. The “Tip 411” (hotline), the community based initiatives – it’s the people working together to keep our community safe.

You mentioned civil rights, and that kind of leads into my next question: A tool that the city and the police are going to be using in this anti-crime effort are these automatic license plate readers. The ACLU has opposed these cameras in other parts of the state, and the Peoria chapter here has called for regulations on their use. What is your response to those concerns?

Ali: Well, I respect their concerns. People may know that I'm a big proponent of using technology to keep our community safe. So I am a proponent of using smart technology in our street lights, that includes the license-plate reading technology that can help to identify shooters when violent crime happens so that we can actually apprehend the perpetrators. So I'm a big proponent. I've always been, in my adult life, a proponent of civil rights as well. So there has to be that balance.

And so, there will be regulations. There will be policies developed along with the license plate readers, and many of the requests, like an annual report on what has happened with this technology and what took place over the past year, those are reasonable requests. A lot of the requests, I think, that the ACLU is requesting can be either compromised or honored. But certainly we want to respect the communities that they speak of; they speak of not over-policing black and brown communities.

But I'll tell you, what we're talking about doing is really cracking down where there is high crime, and the people are not going to be terrorized by high crime in these areas. We're not going to continue to tolerate that, and so that means getting some of the troublemakers off the street.

One of the concerns that seems that using some of this advanced technology is that it could potentially be an invasion of privacy or a way to circumvent probable cause. Do you see it that way?

Ali: It's an invasion of privacy if you use it incorrectly, and so we have to make sure that we're using that technology correctly, that we're using it for the purpose that is intended for. They (the ACLU) don't want us sharing it with other agencies without some type of agreement, to make sure that it's contained and not widespread, not given to other entities that may abuse it. So, we share those concerns and we're going to make sure that we protect the citizens, at the same time protect their rights as well.

The city's redistricting process is continuing. Can you give us an update on how that is progressing?

Ali: Sure. So we had our first redistricting meeting last Tuesday, we'll have another this coming Tuesday. We looked at three versions of maps for Districts 1-5, and that's where we have to grow the population for three of the districts and we have to reduce the population for two of the districts – 4 and 5 – so that they're all in line and pretty balanced in terms of the population of each of our five districts.

So, it went really well, the first meeting. There are several council members that suggested some tweaks and some adjustments, especially with regard, I think, to Districts 1, 2 and 3. Those are where I think most of the adjustments are being made. So come this Friday, we'll be looking at, I think, five different versions –there's been an adjustment to version two and then there's a version four and five that have been added. So we have more to look at. Again, we want to hopefully wrap up the process by March, and I think we're making really good progress toward that goal.

We've seen a major surge in COVID-19 this month that hopefully is starting to ease. What concerns do you have about how the pandemic continues to impact the local economy and drain public health resources?

Ali: I do have concerns and, you know, staffing is a big issue. It's even an issue within the city of Peoria because so many people have been put on COVID-19 protocols and been infected with the virus. So, the key is to get as many people as we can vaccinated. We're working on that within the city; there are certain departments that are not as vaccinated as others. About 95% of City Hall employees are vaccinated (and) 100% of City Council is vaccinated, but there's some areas that we can improve upon. But I just want to encourage our citizens in Peoria to get vaccinated. It’s so important for your health and the safety of our city.

What about from an economic standpoint? Obviously, we've had relief packages come through. Is the city, from an economic standpoint, starting to recover from the pandemic? How is it impacting economic development?

Ali: Well, we are indeed beginning to recover and we're seeing revenues increase. We're seeing funding from taxes increase. We are bouncing back, and in spite of the pandemic that we're going through, our budgets are looking really good and stable. So again, it is creating workforce issues, it’s creating economy issues because of the staffing – absences, shortages, and it impacts workflow. So that's where I think the biggest part of our problem is right now.

This week, you provided an update on Peoria’s quest for passenger rail service, outlining a preferred route that heads up to LaSalle-Peru and then onward to Chicago. Where does the process go from here? What are the next steps, and how soon will we see trains in Peoria?

Ali: Great question. I'm very excited about the momentum that we have right now. We have a survey out for the public; we encourage them to go to the city website and take the two-minute interest survey and tell us about your interests: if you want to train, how much you want to pay, where you want to go. Of course, the proposed route from Peoria to and from Chicago is the one that we selected because there's existing train track there. We think it would be the best route based upon where it's taking us. Going to Chicago, you can go many other places, and we think that the cost will be reduced because of the existing track and the fact that you don't have to cross the (Illinois) River.

So the process is a matter of finishing the feasibility study – hopefully it supports what we want to do; we believe that it will – continuing to work with IDOT (Illinois Department of Transportation), applying for additional funding for planning and development, and then getting Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Association (FRA) on board. My co-chair, former Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, has great contacts within those systems, and so we're meeting with key people in Washington, D.C., at the FRA as well as Amtrak so we begin the process of trying to secure funding.

Do you have any expectation of what this entire process might cost and how it will be funded?

Ali: Actually, I don't. We will have some high-cost estimates within the next month; I think actually within the next couple of weeks is when we're expecting some high-cost estimates. That will let us know, give us some idea how much we might be requesting from the federal government as well as the state government. So I'm hoping that we're talking 4-6 years in terms of actually seeing trains in Peoria. It takes a while to build the infrastructure, takes a while to get the funding in place. But it will mean jobs also, building that track from here to Chicago.

We saw a good deal of social media reaction to this proposed route from Chicago-area people who are interested in the connection to Starved Rock. Do you think this interest might make a Peoria-Chicago connection even more attractive to Amtrak?

Ali: I do. I think that along that pathway, there's other cities that don't have that access to Chicago, like Ottawa, Peru, Morris. So we've reached out to them, and the response is tremendous, because working together gives us more voice. Politically, that helps the case, helps build our case. It helps to bring on new partners for what we want to accomplish.

Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.