Peoria's violence is viewed by some as a public health crisis. The solutions are complex
Peoria's struggles with violence often start at home. But rather than looking at the issue as strictly a law enforcement problem, Peoria's violence also should be tackled as a public health crisis.
Those were the main takeaways from the Peoria Police Community Relations Committee's Public Health Youth Resources Town Hall meeting on Thursday night.
Peoria broke its homicide record last year. That's led to a major escalation in a multi-agency law enforcement "anti-violence initiative" across the city.
Dr. Leslie McKnight, director of community health policy and planning at the Peoria City/County Health Department, said gun violence is a problem for public health because it carries with it a significant and measurable mortality rate.
"Eighty percent of the gun violence cases are in the 61603, 04, 05 (ZIP) codes. The number of homicides have increased 150% since 2015. In 2015, there was 13 homicides in the year. Last year, there were 35, and about 80% of those that have passed from gun violence were African American males," said McKnight "So, here we have a targeted population. And we have a targeted geographical area, where we need to concentrate and do our interventions."
Nationally, McKnight said gun violence is the leading cause of death of people aged 45 and under, with Black men 15 to 20 times more likely to be shot or assaulted with a firearm than white men.
The Peoria County Board of Health has made addressing gun violence a strategic priority. That includes providing data to community organizations, researching violence intervention models, and making more intentional movements to heal the community.
"The injury and mortality rate, they're growing exponentially. So gun violence in Peoria is a public health crisis," McKnight said. "Not only for the victims and the perpetrators, but there's residual effects on family members, community members, and the city as a whole, one being the level of trauma that's experienced in our community."
Derrick Booth is the director of social and emotional learning at Peoria Public Schools District 150. He said the two biggest barriers to support youth and families face are transportation, and the fear of being called "crazy" or "mentally ill" for seeking out behavioral health services.
"There's the stigma of getting support for mental health. Stigma for getting supports of substance abuse. And I just think the more we can normalize that it's okay not to be okay, the better our society will be as a whole," Booth said. "But I think everyone can benefit from therapeutic services, mental health services, counseling services. Just by needing someone to talk to, just so we can release and get things off of us. But I think that barrier to that is the stigma piece."
Booth runs the Wraparound Center at Trewyn Middle School. It includes a trauma recover program, a family court respite program, and anger management counseling, among other services.
Demario Boone, director of school safety at Peoria Public Schools, said sometimes, people also just don't know where to go to ask for help.
"Sometimes, some people will say there aren't enough services. And then there are people who say they're just too many services. And there's too many different services," Boone said. "So they don't know who does what, and who's better at what, and it's just trying to get get everybody out of silos. Because the secret to my success is I use everybody's sauce."
One of those people Boone relies upon for help when his approach just isn't cutting it with a child is Terry Burnside, president and director of House of Hope in south Peoria. The not-for-profit offers a litany of services, including mentorship for at-risk youth, and youth grief support groups. Burnside said the issues with trauma go beyond just younger people.
"The huge disconnect with parents in the children is because they're having issues dealing with what's going on with the children because there's been some unaddressed trauma, generational type trauma, that's been going on with them," he said. "They were yet to get any type of assistance, or any type of request for those issues or you get any kind of resolution But that's kind of why the youth disconnected with the parents, because generational trauma is yet to be addressed in many homes."
Peoria Police Lt. James Chiola agrees it all goes back to what's happening at home. He said a 2015 police department analysis of the 100 most violent offenders in the city showed 92 of them were either victims or perpetrators of domestic battery at one time.
"We have to look at these family units and the trauma that domestic battery is causing in these units. And I think that's one of the areas where I would hope that we would move forward in," Chiola said.
Boone said ultimately, to address gun violence, it's more constructive to shift the conversation away from statistics and more toward lifting up the pockets of poverty intentionally created through redlining practices. Today, Boone said those neighborhoods are still the most impacted by high levels of crime, violence, and trauma.
"When you start going into those homes and start putting those wrap around centers in those high poverty areas and being able to say, 'Hey, this is how we help lift the family out.' So that we're not just saying, 'Okay, you have the flu, but I'm just gonna help wipe your nose and that's gonna fix it.' We have to go, 'What gave us the flu?' and head to that," he said.
"We talk about the same thing over and over again. We talk about the symptoms and not the cause," Boone said.
McKnight said it will take the entire city working together to begin makinga real impact on addressing the root causes of Peoria's violence — trauma and poverty.
"Gun violence impacts the entire city. The north side of the city will also be impacted by the increase of gun violence, because that is going to have economic implications when we can't attract businesses to Peoria because they've looked at the data. So, this is all hands on deck," she said. "We're all exposed to trauma as a result of this, as well. Just even processing on what this means with gun violence in our streets and bloodshed. So again, this is not isolated. There's complexity here. And it's going to take comprehensive solutions from from all parties in order to reduce gun violence."