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Peoria City Council deadlocks on spending $25K for gun violence solutions assessment

Jeff Smudde / WCBU

The Peoria City Council spent over an hour Tuesday night debating on whether or not to fund a $25,000 assessment on community solutions to target gun violence in Peoria.

In a 5-5 vote, the assessment offered by Cure Violence stalled in the horseshoe as Peoria’s continual gun problem, which claimed the life of a 21-year old man this past Saturday, shows no signs of abating as the year heads into the warmer months.

Mayor Rita Ali says the Cure Violence program has helped cities, including Chicago, approach combating gun violence with community efforts. Mayor Ali notes the expert data-driven approach has been effective and could work in Peoria.

“Their first step in the exploration of this type of initiative is to conduct an assessment to see whether it’s a fit for Peoria; talking with council members, with community members…talking with neighborhood associations and so on to determine whether this is a fit,” Mayor Ali said. That is what the assessment does, it makes a determination, it doesn’t obligate us to implement a program.”

Police Chief Eric Echevarria and Officer James Hodges support the assessment. Before working as an officer in Peoria, Hodges started out as a private citizen engaging his Decatur community with others through Ministers on the Move, a program he started on Sunday evenings. At the time, Cure Violence was called CeaseFire, and they inquired to Hodges and others whether or not they wanted funding to expand their outreach.

“CeaseFire brought data and an actual program that was so relevant at that time and we were able to implement the strategies of CeaseFire in our community,” Officer Hodges said. The authorities fifteen years ago listened to CeaseFire’s assessment and allowed Hodges and others to commit to one zone of the city facing immense pain.

“We were able within six months, from implementing CeaseFire and using their strategies from the University of Chicago Public Health, we cleaned up one area…50%...shootings were down, killings were down and kids were able to run the neighborhoods and enjoy themselves like we use to when we were young,” Hodges said.

Upon hearing more about the program’s origins, Councilman Chuck Grayeb, 2nd district, said he “gets it,” yet he wondered why the city needs to use $25,000 in funds from the American Rescue Plan, to have outside consultants come to explain what the city already knows.

“Naturally, I’m looking at anything that can bend the violence curb down, but we do not…change our current trajectory, which is to conduct our anti-violence initiatives and sweeps where we know where the hot spots are,” Councilman Grayeb said. “I think $25,000 just might be the beginning…is a lot of money that could be spent elsewhere.”

Officer Hodges remarked the assistance from CeaseFire gave his group vital training and equipment to document the community work.

“We are going to have individuals that are able to go into the houses, go into areas the police can’t go…where you (Councilman Grayeb) and I can’t go,” Officer Hodges said. “These individuals are able to go in and because of the training they received they’ll be able to diffuse situations and direct these individuals on the right path.”

Councilman John Kelly, at-large, joined Grayeb in their reasoning on why include an outside group when the tools are all within Peoria.

“I think our chief has begun a number of things that are showing some promise. It seems to me an assessment of whether or not we ought to do this..is something that I can’t vote for or against based on a real lack…I’m not a policeman,” Councilman Kelly said. “Our chief I think can decide whether we ought to proceed with this without needing to pay for an assessment.”

The police chief answered Kelly’s question regarding the program.

“I would say to that, what is wrong with the Cure Violence assessment then?” Chief Echevarria said. “Because we could use the assessment and manpower to go ahead and dissect this data…look at the analysis of it and figure out exactly where we want to move these bodies and put these resources into. But we have to have the assessment to go into this stage.”

Councilman Zachary Oyler, at-large, says he would rather give the police department the $25,000 because Cure Violence seemed to be lacking transparency in his eyes. Councilman Grayeb reiterated his concern for outside consultants saying the neighborhoods will be filled with people in suits and ties carrying “briefcases of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.”

City Manager Patrick Urich in a back and forth with Councilman Grayeb tried to explain the assessment would detail the cost the city would need to take to combat the violence effectively. In the midst of it Grayeb had concerns on who would fill the roles in neighborhoods mentioning what religion they practice if utilized in the field and what assumptions they hold.

“It’s another reason we need the assessment,” Urich said. “To be able to identify who are the appropriate people and what are the appropriate skill sets they need to have before we put anyone in that position.”

Mayor Ali, building on Urich’s statement, says the local community agencies are begging for outside training and assistance. She also mentioned State Representative Jehan Gordon-Booth earmarking half a million dollars towards Peoria if they were to proceed down this path.

Councilwoman Denise Jackson, pulling from nearly two decades experience as a journalist, says people in the community are sick of maintaining the status quo. She points out Terry Burnside, who runs the nonprofit House of Hope, as a person who would offer their time to those in dire need.

“Terry has intercepted violence, Terry has gotten up in the middle of the night and mediated with gang members…this is what we mean we say people who have a heart and a passion to seeing peace in this community,” Jackson said. “He could stop, but he continues to work the trenches unbeknownst to most people in this room.”

Councilman Jackson gave the floor to Burnside to offer Grayeb insight into the very people this program would fund.

“I’m one of those guys been there, done that. I’m listening to Mr. Grayeb and I respect your position and I respect a lot of people’s positions here, but it kind of bothers me to hear you talk about hiring felons,” Burnside said. “It’s going to take guys like me who have been there and done that…who have got it together. Part of this room here, you all sign my check now. I’m a guy with a background and baggage. I’ve got it together and now I’m not just paying you back. I’m paying you forward.”

Councilman Sid Ruckriegel, at-large, thought the city budget containing $1.3 million towards violence prevention programs was enough.

Mayor Ali notes the city has not used any of those funds. Councilwoman Beth Jensen, at-large, later in the discussion mentioned the very same funds being approved in November and still awaiting initiatives.

Councilman Ruckriegel blames poor communication from outside groups as the reason he couldn’t support greenlighting the assessment this week.

Third Councilman Timothy Riggenbach wants to see the presentation Cure Violence gave to community members before allowing an assessment and would want to defer for two weeks. Councilman Kiran Velpula agreed with wanting to know more, seconding the deferral motion.

Fourth District Councilman Andre Allen, who earlier asked to defer the matter, further in the debate grew irritated at the council’s gridlock on the matter.

“We sit around this horseshoe and spend millions of dollars every other Tuesday and we are sitting here having a conversation for almost two hours for $25,000 towards violence prevention to conduct an assessment,” Allen said. “We don’t have two weeks, people are dying…literally.”

Brady started as WCBU's Audio Operations Coordinator in 2022. Brady is a member of the Society of Broadcast Engineers.