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Q&A: Echevarria discusses his first year as Peoria’s police chief

220819 Echevarria 1.jpg
Joe Deacon
/
WCBU
Peoria Police Chief Eric Echevarria.

Peoria Police Chief Eric Echevarria is a couple months into his second year as the city’s law enforcement leader.

He has worked on strengthening the department's community relations, while employing a series of directed patrols aimed at curbing violent crime. As a result, homicides and shootings are down compared to mid-August of 2021.

In a conversation with WCBU reporter Joe Deacon, Echevarria talks about the department’s progress in his first year as chief and his expectations for the years ahead.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Joe Deacon: You've been on the job for a little over a year now. How would you assess your performance in a self-evaluation?

Chief Eric Echevarria: It’s kind of weird that you want me to self-evaluate myself. We should ask the community how they evaluate it, right? I'm not going to say we're doing bad, and even if we were, would that be the answer that somebody would give? But what I'll say is this: I think our police department has taken new direction and has run with it. From our walk-and-talks to our director patrols, they have bought into what we're trying to do in changing the narrative of how policing should be done. I think we've made great strides in this community to be transparent, to be more open, and I think that's what you would hear from the community as well.

So I think we've done — when I say we, it's not just me; yes, I'm the chief of police and I'm the head of this department, but I can't do this by myself. I have to have a great team in place, and I have a phenomenal assistant chief, I have a phenomenal command staff, the captains that have I promoted into the positions and lieutenants below them and sergeants below them. And a phenomenal group of men and women that are on the streets every day, patrolling and handling the calls, to a phenomenal professional staff that's in this police department, that all know that we are on the same team going towards the same goal.

When you mention goals, what goals have you set for yourself and the department? How would you like to improve your performance over the next year.

Echevarria: When we think about goals for the year, I think the first six months or so — if you want to say — was really trying to get out there and get to know this community. Even this whole year is really (about) getting out on the street; for me as the chief, it’s getting to know what the community's needs and wants are. Some parts of the community are suffering more than others, but everybody wants something. So if you don't live in a neighborhood where there's shootings, you’re probably complaining about parking or speeding or something else.

So it's really getting to understand what are the needs in our various areas of the city, whether it's speeding, whether it's gun violence, whether it's vehicle thefts, whether it’s burglaries. Whatever it may be, whether it’s loud music for that matter, or loose dogs. There's a wide variety of different things that people want, and a wide variety things that people need. So it's really the goal was to get out, get to know the community, and I think we've done a great job of that. I think I've been everywhere – everywhere except home, is what my wife would say, and my son. There's been a lot of work done to really get to know the community, and for the community to know me and what I stand for and what I demand from the officers here.

I think the goal now as we go into the next year is to say, “How do we now laser-point, focus into the areas of greatest need?” Part of that is: we hired a Police-Community Engagement Coordinator, and that's to really let the community know that we mean what we say (that) community engagement is important. It's so important that we would hire somebody to manage all of it. That's how important it is. Now we want to really laser focus in our hotspot areas: What are the blocks, what 100 blocks are really suffering and having the biggest issues?

Then finding the champions in those neighborhoods – the clergy in those neighborhoods, the nonprofits, the businesses, all of those – and bringing them all to the same table, and then figure out what does that specific area need? What's it missing? Is it jobs? Is it food? Is it lighting? Are the roads messed up? Really now bring in the other key stakeholders from the city: fire department, public works, the streets department, Ameren (Illinois) for that matter, and say, “We have to fix these lights in this alley. We need to fix these potholes in this area. This water main break that's been leaking …” We need to start fixing these things, because we need to let our community know that we care so they can care as well.

You mentioned the walk-and-talks and the directed patrols. How effective do you think these anti-violence sweeps have been at reducing gun-related crimes and other activity like that?

Echevarria: It's not just the anti-violence sweeps that you call it, it's everything. It's a combination of everything. It's how we interact with our community, where we're at in the community, the walk-and-talks, and it's our director patrols. It’s all of it, it's everything combined. That's not one thing that's going to change everything; we did not get here overnight, and we're certainly not going to change it overnight as well.

But I can tell you that as of Aug, 15, when we compare our crime stats year to date, specifically gun violence, we are down 38% of shooting incidents. We’re down 33% of shooting victims, 33% in shooting murders, and 25% in all murders. And to break that down a little bit further, last year in this same timeframe we had 1,056 Shot Spotter alerts; we have 750 Shot Spotter alerts year to date. We had 4,043 rounds fired last year, this timeframe; we've had 3,176 year to date.

Shooting incidents, that means somebody was hit by gunfire: 80 last year. Eighty incidents; right now we're at 50. Ninety-five victims last year, 64 this year. Eighteen homicides by gunshots last year, we're at 12 this year. Twenty homicides last year, 15 this year. Now, I give you these numbers and I always say we’re not celebrating these numbers. We’re not celebrating — we still lost 15 people to violence; 15 people died, 12 by gunshots. Fifteen families have had to bury a loved one.

But what I'll say is that our numbers are trending in the right direction, and we want to keep trending in this direction. If we could trend this year this way and next year continue to trend that way, we're going to continue to see these numbers go down. And again, it's not just the sweeps; we have a clergy program, a chaplain program in the police department that's been phenomenal. Eight chaplains, one chaplain that is the lead chaplain, Pastor Marty Johnson, and they respond to some of our incidents.

So it's all of us working together. It's all these things working together that I think have really helped. Our transparency, our Tip-411, our technology. Tip-411, year to date, we've had 417 tips. Now, if you don't trust the police and you feel that the police aren't going to help you, we'd have zero tips. We've have 417 tips, year to date; in the last seven days, 21 (and) in the last 30 days, six. Those are a lot of tips.

But again, we're able to show that it is anonymous. We're able to communicate back with them anonymously, and we're building trust and transparency with our community through these efforts. When you build that, it opens up the lines of communication, and all of that helps as we continue to try and drive violence down. At this point last year, we were at a 60% clearance rate; currently, we're at a 73% clearance rate on our homicides, and those numbers will be up.

Obviously you can't get into specifics, but that was going to be one of my other questions: how many open homicide investigations do you have, and generally speaking, what are the challenges of investigations like those?

Echevarria: We have 15 homicides (and) 11 them are cleared, so that means there's four homicides that are still active, open cases. The challenge is, as always, well, who did it? Do we have the evidence of who did it? Do we have the evidence of how it occurred, what was used for the homicide? So those things and it's always that. It’s always a challenge to– people want to, if you want to share information, now you're involved at some point, kind of, and people want to be protected. So it's the challenge of a “no stitch” mentality that we need to get past.

I think our community is starting to get past that. I think our numbers show that, because people are sharing information. So we want to get past that mentality because, yes, we're here for public safety, but the community belongs to our community members, and at some point, our community members need to take ownership of what's theirs and say, “enough of this is enough. We we're not going to stand around, we're not going to tolerate that a small percentage of our community is going to drive violence in our city” – because it's not the bigger percentage in our community, it's a small group in our city that drives the violence.

You talked about building trust in the community and hiring Keith McDaniel as the Community Engagement Coordinator. What kind of roles and responsibilities will he have, and what else can you do to build that relationship with community members?

Echevarria: Well, one, he has the assignment of really getting down to where these 100 blocks are, and bringing these groups in, and building these neighborhood watches in these groups is one of those things. Quite frankly, we get invited to be at a lot of things, because I think we've built up a reputation here that we want to be involved. We've proven it.

This last year — I can't speak prior to my arrival — I know that in this last year that I've been here, the community knows we're going to be out. As matter of fact, there's an area in the downtown that — not this Saturday, but the next Saturday — he's talked to a group of, I think it's the Manual (High School) basketball team and another group – they're going to come down and clean in the area and downtown that needs some serious cleaning. They have volunteered, they're going to come down and help out, get some things clean. So we're going to start taking back our community bit by bit, and that's what we've continued to do.

But now we're going to laser focus into areas that we need to really be in; not that other areas need to be neglected, but we need to go where the fire’s at. Where the problems are at is where we need to be. So that's going to be his task, is that all our community engagement efforts will be driven, will be funneled through him. So we're going to take community engagement to the next level, and part of that is really focusing in in some of these areas, being more intentional on figuring out what's happening in these specific areas, and how we can help bring in the key stakeholders to help build it up.

Although the City Council voted against funding an assessment for the Cure Violence Program, the Peoria City/County Health Department picked up that expense. So Cure Violence still might be a consideration for anti-violence funding from the city. What are your thoughts on Cure Violence or other possible choices between where funding can go for an anti-violence program?

Echevarria: I've stated it publicly that Cure Violence was the best model that was presented at the time, and I supported it – and I'll leave that as that. I supported it; it was the best model that was brought forward in this community group that met, now known as the Safety Network. What I think is great is that we are getting buy-in from the community in saying, “We want to figure out what's best for our own community. You can't dictate to me what's best for my community; let us be part of that.” And I think that's the benefit of these groups. They are saying, let us be part of the solution and not part of the problem.

So what I think it is, is their participation is extremely important. Why do we dictate what needs to happen in your community? We want buy-in, and if there's buy-in, there’s support. There’s support for what we're doing. Same example is when we put out our anti-violence initiative: it wasn't something we just did; we met with key stakeholders – ACLU, NAACP. We talked to whoever we needed to talk to and said, “This is our plan. This is what it looks like, and this is what we need to do.”

Because of that, we've been able to be out in the community, handling and running our directed patrols once a week, and they've been very successful. One, it's because the community wants to feel safe. And they have bought in to say, 'OK, they're doing it the right way.' We've been transparent (and) there's buy-in from our community to support it.

That's what this is going to do: these groups meeting to figure out where this money can go to, and having these other outside groups that come in and say “we may have a solution” and then picking what are the best solutions, we need the community's buy-in.

What are your thoughts on the implementation of the SAFE-T Act in Illinois, and what impact has that had on the Peoria Police Department?

Echevarria: What part of it? There's parts that were implemented and there's parts that haven't been implemented. When you look at the training and standards portion of it, there's still no real guideline on it. Qualified immunity is off the table now, right? So I think our state representatives and legislators have listened to the concerns of law enforcement, and I think there was some great things that the SAFE-T Act brought. We need to make sure that police are doing the right things, and it I think that's what the intent of it was.

I think there was at some point, there was a lot of discussions on where it was going to go, where it was not going to go, and I think we're at a happy medium right now. I don't know, once this no-bond (no-cash bail) goes into effect, we're going to see some issues with that, but I think legislators are still working on it. So we'll see what happens, we'll see where it goes; there's still some conversations that are being had in Springfield on it.

What I'll say is this is: We're going to continue, here at the Peoria Police Department, to continue to do whatever we need to do to make sure our community is safe, and we're going to follow the guidelines that we need to follow. But our community can rest assured that the Peoria Police Department will continue to do their work.

The 2021 Illinois Traffic and Pedestrian Stopped Statistical Study showed that Black drivers in Peoria are nearly seven times more likely to get pulled over than white drivers. Last year, 61% of traffic stops in Peoria were Black drivers, while the city's Black population is only about 27%. What can be done to address this disparity?

Echevarria: Well, one, I don't know if that information is absolutely correct, to be honest with you. That's the stats that they put out; I need to pull our stats and look and see: is that really even that accurate? I don't take that on face value, because I'll say this: I wish we had more time to do traffic stops. Our officers are so busy running from call to call to call that we oftentimes don't have enough time to make traffic stops. So I wonder how many traffic stops (were) they reporting that they're recording, because I don't hear the traffic stops at the amount of rate that I would love to hear more traffic stops. Because we have concerns with speeding, we have concerns with running red lights, these pop-up parties, etc. So we need to be able to provide more traffic stops in this community just to curtail some of that.

The stops are the stops, is what I’ll say. So if you're speeding, and you happen to be white, you're white. If you're speeding, and you're Black, you're Black. If you're speeding, and you're Hispanic, you're Hispanic. We don't stop you because of what you look like; we stop you because you're violating speed laws, or you're violating the law. It's not about Black and white, so there is nothing to change. Who needs to change are the people that are committing crime or violence or speeding. So if you're speeding, don't speed. If you're committing crime — I've said it: if you’re committing crime, you want to commit a crime here, don't do it. Move out of the city or go to jail.

So, it's not a Black and white thing, and I don't look at it as a Black and white thing. We look at it as who's speeding. You didn't drive down the street and the officer didn't look in the car and look and say, “Oh, that's a Latino male. I'm going to stop him.” No, they stopped the vehicle because the vehicle was speeding. So people need to stop speeding, and they need to stop committing violence and committing crimes, and they won't get stopped. It doesn't matter what race you are, right? It's not about race for us. They're not being stopped because of race. It's about the crime that was committed or the speeding that was committed. It's not about race.

How is the current police department staffing level, and what can be done to get more people interested in law enforcement careers?

Echevarria: We're at 198 officers, we should be at 222 officers — and I think it's a great career. You know, that’s a great question is: how do you get people interested? Well, I think we have a different generation — we have four or five generations now working in law enforcement — but we have this new, up-and-coming generation who wants to work from home. You can't do that in a police department. You’ve got to come here, you’ve got to put your uniform on, you’ve got to get in the squad car, and you’ve got to go out on the street.

So I think we're dealing with a new generation; they want to see a quicker process. The hiring process, sometimes for law enforcement, it's a different process. It's not the typical: walk into an interview, let's talk about salary, and you have a job. There's a process here – what is the background, psychological, physical? There's a lot that it takes. And I don't– quite frankly, I think there is no lack of people wanting to do the job, because the schools, when you go when you talk to the universities, they're not shutting down criminal justice programs. I just think we have a different generation that looks at it a little bit differently.

What we're doing here at the Peoria Police Department is we're changing the test to a national test to really expand (and) cast a wider net. So we'll be using the national testing network as we move forward. Hopefully by the end of the week, we will have out some information on a lateral program – so if you are a certified police officer in the state of Illinois, we will give you a $15,000 hiring bonus to come work here at the Peoria Police Department. If you have up to 10 years of experience, we'll give you what would be the equivalent here in vacation time; you’ll bring your time here; and up to a Step Five in pay. So I think we have a great incentive to bring people to a great police department, and when you join a police department, you join a police department because you want to be the police.

I think we're doing some things that are different. We are starting up a fitness team that will work out with people who want to know how to do the PT test and get them ready as well. We're going to wrap a recruitment car so people see it. You see our billboards and you see some of the other things, and we're working on a recruitment video as well. So we want to incentivize people to come here; it's a great police department. You're going to learn how to really be the police here and have some fun while you're doing it.

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Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.