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Q&A: Mayor Ali discusses Peoria Police’s performance, involvement in Jones case, and other issues

Peoria Mayor Rita Ali says the Peoria Police Department is improving its relationship with the community under new Chief Eric Echevarria.
Joe Deacon
Peoria Mayor Rita Ali says the Peoria Police Department is improving its relationship with the community under new Chief Eric Echevarria.

Mayor Rita Ali believes the Peoria Police Department is in good hands under the leadership of Chief Eric Echevarria.

Last week, the department conducted its 10th directed patrol detail of the year as part of Echevarria's anti-violence initiative, and a recently launched a Walk-And-Talk campaign in specific neighborhoods aims to build trust in those communities.

Still, Peoria's six homicides this year through the end of March matches the number from the first three months of 2021, the deadliest year on record. The most recent of the homicides was the March 29 death of 8-year-old Navin Jones, in an apparent case of severe parental abuse and neglect.

In her latest wide-ranging monthly conversation with WCBU reporter Joe Deacon, Mayor Ali discusses the police department's efforts to cut down on murder and violent crime and its involvement in the Jones case. This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Joe Deacon: The Peoria Police Department continues to use directed patrols as a way to reduce violent crime in the city, and they're starting a ‘walk-and-talk’ campaign in specific neighborhoods to try and build trust in those communities. What is your opinion of these approaches and how effective they've been?

Mayor Rita Ali: Well, I think that Chief (Eric) Echevarria and his team have really formed very positive relationships with the community since he took over as Chief of Police, and they've done that by direct contact with residents. They've attended neighborhood association meetings; they knock on doors to say, “we're just here to let you know that we're trying to keep you safe.” Just establishing those one-to-one relationships with families in the community, (and) ramping up the resident officer programming. I just think it's a great strategy.

We recently witnessed the tragic events of apparent neglect and abuse that led to the death of a Peoria child, Navin Jones. Are you concerned at all that the Peoria police did not do more to prevent this outcome? And, what is the police department's responsibility in regard to child welfare cases?

Ali: Well, police definitely take these matters very seriously. They are mandated reporters, and they work in conjunction with DCFS (Illinois Department of Children and Family Services). They are devastated by what happened, as we all are, with this 8-year-old, beautiful child who we lost.

This is Child Abuse Awareness Month, nationally. We want to make the public more aware that child abuse happens right here in our community on a regular basis, and everybody needs to be more responsible for saying something if you hear something, if you know something. There are organizations like Crittenton and others that provide support to families, provide education. They have a crisis nursery that takes care of children, if a parent felt that they couldn't control their temper or might harm their child. There are resources that provide support.

So, I don't know the details, all the details of what happened. But I do know that this is one of the worst cases of child abuse (and) child neglect, that our corner and that our police have seen in this community, and we never want this to happen again.

Do you feel that maybe the police could have done more in assisting DCFS, or done something?

Ali: Well, I don't know. I know from what I've read that there was a visit made. DCFS has the authority in this case, and DCFS was contacted by the police. So I don't want to cast blame and say this is the police's fault. This was a case of neglect and abuse in that home. But I do feel that this family, this child fell through the gaps, and that it was a system failure somewhere along the way. And it's unfortunate.

Turning our attention to the Joint Commission on Racial Justice and Equity, what has the commission been able to accomplish since its inception? What tangible achievements do you expect from the commission, and how can it go about meeting these expectations?

Ali: We actually have a date scheduled for June 16 at the Civic Center (and) we're going to invite those in the public that also want to attend. The commission – the steering committee and its eight subcommittees that focus on eight different areas where there are disparities based upon race – they are going to talk about the work that they've been doing. They're going to identify the problems and gaps that they've identified, and their approaches for moving towards strategies. So I don't want to preempt that report. I don't know all the details; I don't know what all is coming out. But I do know that each of those co-chairs for the committees will be reporting out on June 16 at the Civic Center.

What are your expectations for what the committee can accomplish? What do you want to see them do?

Ali: I want them to clearly identify our baseline in terms of where we are in terms of the gaps. They're driven by data, so they've collected a lot of information relative to housing, disparities within the justice system, within transportation, within the area of youth and child development. So they've identified specific gaps.

We'll see a lot of data shared, and we're going to see a lot of problems identified. I won't say that after one year that they're going to have a lot of solutions already identified, because they've been focusing this first year on the problem. One thing that has happened is: due to the pandemic, most of their meetings after the launch went virtual. It's not always the best way to talk about some of these sensitive, very sensitive issues. So I'm happy that sometimes soon, they will be back in-person to begin to hash out possible solutions.

Are there structural or internal barriers that have made it difficult for the commission to operate as intended? I know you mentioned COVID and doing virtual, but what can be done to assure that the information is being shared appropriately among the subcommittees in furtherance of a common goal?

Ali: It's a matter of communication. They're going to come out with a report, and the report will be shared publicly. After the presentations are made, that information will be assembled into an annual report and it will be shared with the public.

I'm really pleased. The steering committee is strong, many of the committees are strong. Some of the committees have struggled more than others to have quorums, and again, I think it goes back to the virtuality of the meetings. We've lost some (and) we've added some people to the commission; it's the largest commission that we've ever had – 156 people. So I won't say that it's been challenging to manage; I would say that it's been challenging as a virtual meeting space for these types of issues.

The developer who wanted to convert some of the Prairie Vista Apartments into affordable housing has abandoned the project after pushback from residents in the neighboring areas. This raises a question: What are Peoria’s affordable housing needs, in the city as a whole and in the northern areas in particular? How can those needs be met?

Ali: Well, we have a lot of needs and demand for affordable housing. We have demand for housing, period; we have a shortage of inventory within Peoria. The challenges with that project in particular, is that it wasn't a new development. It was an existing property with current residents, and it was happening very, very fast.

I had concerns that residents felt that they were going to be negatively impacted. They didn't know who was going to move in. There were rumors that this was going to be a subsidized housing project, which scares people. It was not a subsidized housing project; it was not a Section 8 development, so there was misinformation there. However, it was a change to full market rate. It would have allowed for a family of two that makes about $34,000-$35,000 to be able to have more affordable housing.

Yet at the same time, I think that the developers did not vet the project well with the current residents or with the nearby residents in those neighborhoods. So people became very angry; we got a lot of emails. I got a lot of calls, a lot of concerns, and I had concerns myself. So it didn't work. I don't know exactly why they pulled out, but it's not going to happen.

It sounded like a lot of residents were concerned about how much they (the buyers) were paying to get the property, and the possibility of reduced taxes that could have helped the two school districts and the city and things like that. Was that a concern of yours as well?

Ali: It was definitely a concern. We know that the for-profit developer was going to get out of the way after the property was sold, and then it was going to be owned by the not-for-profit entity. Just looking into the history of that not-for-profit entity, in other areas after purchasing a property, they applied for tax exemption, and they – in other communities – had won that tax exemption.

So there was concern that Dunlap schools was going to lose about $300,000 per year in taxes. The city would have lost probably about $80,000 per year in taxes. So certainly that's a concern of mine, that it will negatively impact our school district, our city funding.

There's a need, no doubt, for affordable housing; there are communities that are screaming for affordable housing. We lost 4,000 people in the First District mostly that moved out of the south side of Peoria. The south side of Peoria needs affordable housing and they want it. We want affordable housing throughout the city, and we're going to be looking at development projects.

Peoria Mayor Rita Ali says she's committed to bringing a new riverboat business to the city after the Spirit of Peoria departs.
Joe Deacon
Peoria Mayor Rita Ali says she's committed to bringing a new riverboat business to the city after the Spirit of Peoria departs.

The city ultimately passed on its option to acquire the Spirit of Peoria riverboat, and now it seems it will be a vacancy there on the riverfront. How should that vacancy be filled, and what will the city do to attract either a new riverboat or something else in that space?

Ali: Peoria is a river city, and we need a riverboat. So I'm certainly committed to an effort, a strong and aggressive effort in attracting a new boat. We are talking, the staff is talking about how to put together an RFI – Request for Interest, or Request for Information – on prospective boat owners who might consider coming to Peoria. So that's something that we'll do within the next few months, just start determining who might be interested in bringing their boat on the Peoria riverfront.

You mentioned to me once before when we discussed this topic, that there really aren't a whole lot of boats out there. Are there many options that – you say that Peoria will have a boat, but if that doesn't come to fruition what else could be done in that space?

Ali: Yeah, I think that we really have to – we're committed to having a boat. I understand that inventory on these types of boats is limited, but I think it's about marketing Peoria and getting help in attracting a boat owner to our area. So I don't want to think about other possibilities right now. I think that we have to give a full effort to making sure that we get a boat on the river.

Downtown revitalization has been among the city's top priorities for some time, and one project people are hoping helps that revitalization is converting Adams and Jefferson streets to two-way traffic. How do you think this will help?

Ali: Well, Adams Street and Jefferson Street through downtown Peoria have long been established as one way streets. But those are designed to bring traffic into Peoria and to take traffic out of Peoria. They're not the best design for pedestrians or for business. In recent years, we've had some change to a part of Jefferson and to a part of Adams and some of that work was done through a grant. We have some additional funds, I think $2.8 million in work is planned for just this year, 2022. But the entire project is about $14 million to happen over several years, through 2024.

This will help to actually slow down traffic on these important roads in our downtown, allow people to look to the left and look to the right and see what businesses and attractions are in our area. It really makes for friendlier streets, and that's what we want. We want people to be attracted to not just go through our downtown, but to actually slow down and enjoy our downtown.

You say it's going to be a project that continues into 2024. Is it possible that the initial traffic disruptions become more of a hindrance than a benefit?

Ali: It's always the problem when you have construction, and I'll tell you, we're going to have construction all over our city, because we have about $34 million in road construction projects that are going to happen over this next year. I'm very excited about that.

There's going to be some traffic disruption, but when it gets done, people are going to be very satisfied and happy with it. We are applying for a big federal RAISE (Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity) grant to help our work in reconstructing Pioneer Parkway. We want Pioneer Parkway to be an industrial parkway; right now, it's rough. But we hope to get some federal assistance to help us to begin that work. Just like Northmoor (Road); Northmoor was down for a while, but look at Northmoor now. It's a beautiful drive (and) people really appreciate it. It was worth the downtime.

It's a topic we seem to discuss every month, but can you give us an update on the latest developments in the plan to bring passenger rail service back to Peoria?

Ali: I can. What I can't give you yet is the high-level cost estimates, but that's coming very, very soon. Actually, the feasibility study is about to wrap up. We expect that at our May meeting that the ridership study, which is a very key component of the study, will be completed. They are running, they call it “models” right now and it's the last part of the ridership study that they're doing.

But the survey has been completed (and) that information will be shared. It's very positive information, whereas we had 31,200 respondents to the interest survey (and) over 83% of those respondents indicated that they would very likely or likely use the service, should it come to this area. There's a lot more details that we're able to share with the interest survey, in terms of: what people said about how much they will want to pay, how often they will use the service, demographics on who would use the service in terms of age and race – lots of very good information that we're anxious to share.

There's a study being done right now on where a station would be placed, and Hanson Engineering is actually conducting that research and will have a public meeting at the end of this month to get some public input. But the three locations that they are exploring are the post office, the former River Station building, and the Gateway Building.

So those are the three options that we are looking at; there's probably advantages and disadvantages associated with each one. We know it needs to be on the riverfront, and we know it needs to be downtown. So that's very exciting to see that begin to move forward. I'm still just very excited about this potential opportunity for Peoria.

We've seen the list of proposed stops along the route from Peoria to Chicago. We've heard that some people might be interested in possibly a stop in Chillicothe. Is that something that could be added to the list?

Ali: That's actually not one that is on the list right now. We try to limit the number of stops, for one thing – you don't want to have too many because it slows down the time that you can get to Chicago, right? The stop that wasn't originally there that has been added is Utica. That's where the state park is, Starved Rock State Park. You could go up for a day, walk on the trails, come back the same day or stay overnight in one of the cabins and come back the next day. But Chillicothe has actually not been discussed.

Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.