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Q&A: Mayor Ali discusses spike in violence, Peoria police shooting, cannabis dispensary regulation

Peoria Mayor Rita Ali
Joe Deacon/WCBU
Peoria Mayor Rita Ali.

Peoria has recorded 20 homicides so far in 2022, four fewer than this time last year. But six of this year's homicides occurred in the last two months, including three over a nine-day span in late September.

In their latest monthly conversation, WCBU reporter Joe Deacon talks with Mayor Rita Ali about whether she's concerned by a recent spike in violent crime, last week’s fatal shooting involving Peoria police officers, the possibility of amending the city’s policy on cannabis dispensaries, and more.

The conversation has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

We've talked in the past about the effectiveness of the police department's anti-violence approach this year compared to last year. But it seems there has been an uptick in violent crime in recent weeks. Are you concerned that the initial success of the new approach has started to wear off?

Mayor Rita Ali: No, I'm not concerned. We're receiving more tips with Tip-411, and they're growing and growing exponentially. The tips lead to arrests, and what I think you have to acknowledge is that we're arresting more people that are responsible for homicides and shootings in Peoria. Our arrest rate, our — there's another name for it, but our rate for actually apprehending offenders has increased. I don't have the percentage, but it's higher. So I'm not concerned.

One thing that has not happened yet is the implementation of the co-response model, and I think that will actually help to reduce our crime rate as well. Perhaps our shooting rate, but our violence rate, I think, will be reduced when it comes to the co-response model. So things are put in place to implement that hopefully within the next few weeks, but again, that has not happened yet. So I'm not concerned that the new efforts are not working. I'm very pleased with the new efforts. We're still down in almost all areas, compared to this time last year.

Last week, four Peoria police officers were involved in the fatal shooting of a 59-year-old man at Martin Luther King Jr. Park. Police Chief Eric Echevarria says the man had put officers in a life threatening situation that required the use of deadly force. What are your initial thoughts about what transpired?

Mayor Ali: Based upon what I know of the situation, it’s that the individual was armed, and talking with the police chief, it became a threatening situation to the officers. Now, of course, there's an investigation taking place with the Illinois State Police; they will make a determination on whether they deem the shooting — it’s not a homicide if it's justified — they will determine whether it's considered a justified officer-involved shooting, or not. Hopefully, they will come back with that information very quickly. But you know, I assume that at one point, in all transparency, we'll see video and we'll get a lot more information about what actually transpired that night.

As you said the Illinois State Police are investigating and the ACLU Peoria Chapter has called for a “complete and transparent process.” What do you think that process would entail?

Mayor Ali: I think it will entail a full investigation, which involves interviews of all the officers. Typically, there's a waiting period before the officers can be interviewed. They have to get rested; I think it's 48 hours that they have to get rested before they're actually interviewed. So they will be interviewed, I'm sure members of the family will be interviewed of Mr. (Samuel “Vincent”) Richmond. You know, our heart goes out to the family members of Mr. Richmond.

But it entails a full investigation, looking at the crime scene, looking at the automobile, looking at the weapon that the victim was said to have. All that information — the coroner's report, the body cams, everything — will be taken into account by the ISP.

Also, last week, the Cure Violence Global program outlined the assessment process for Peoria. But it seems like this assessment will take some time, and it could be a couple of years before there's any actual program implementation. Do you think that's too long of a timeline, considering the city's violence reduction needs?

Mayor Ali: It won't take two years to implement the program. The assessment should wrap up within the next few weeks and shortly after that, should funding be available — they're right now working. I met with them yesterday, as well as the leaders with the health department. They're looking at data now that has been provided by the police department, looking at those hot spots. They’ve walked around areas, you know, walking the streets of the different areas, looking at the various organizations.

So, again, they're looking at the data. I think they believe that we would need at least two sites in Peoria, maybe starting with one site and later advancing to have two sites. That might be our best approach that's been done in a number of different cities: starting with a small number and then expanding to be more inclusive. But no, it won't take even a year, I would say, to launch and implementation in Peoria.

What approach is the city taking to prepare for a possible influx of migrants bused in from southern states? I understand you've already had some planning discussions with various local organizations, correct?

Mayor Ali: Well, what we're doing is we're putting together a structure in the event that this does happen to Peoria. Of course, Chicago didn't ask for migrants; New York and Washington, D.C., didn't ask for migrants. It (just) happened to them; basically, buses were sent to Union Station. And to my understanding, just a few days ago, there were over 36 buses that had arrived to Union Station in Chicago with over 1,500 people. I mean, that number is probably likely to be over 40 buses now with over 2,000 people.

The state, the governor's office, DHS (Illinois Department of Human Services) and others — the Illinois Municipal League, as well — have asked cities throughout the state of Illinois if they would be willing to accept migrants to their city. There are some cities that have stepped up, those cities that primarily are either sanctuary cities or deemed as welcoming cities have stepped up to volunteer.

Peoria has yet to volunteer, but we are putting together a structure in the event that migrants come our way, and we set it up similar to what we did with COVID response, where there's a critical incident commander, who would likely be our city manager, as well as other entities, including the health department, the Home For All Continuum of Care organization, the faith-based organizations, not-for-profit organizations, the Western Illinois Dreamers Association. There's a number of different organizations and particularly groups that have Spanish language competency, culturally relevant competencies and skills will be needed. So again, we're preparing in the event that this does happen, and we're not blindsided by it.

The city council is considering what to do in regard to adult-use cannabis dispensaries. Do you think Peoria should cap the number of dispensaries it allows?

Mayor Ali: You know, I don't know. I don't have an opinion yet on whether we should cap that. I mean, currently, we have three (special use permits) I think that have been approved within the City of Peoria. We have set aside a policy session next Tuesday (Oct. 11). But it's a discussion that the council will enter into. I don't know that we should cap it at this point; it's still early on (and) we don't have a lot of dispensaries here in Peoria yet. So I'm open for the discussion.

The city council has also been involved in an ongoing debate over short-term rentals. Does every short-term rental application really need a special use permission, and what are your thoughts on possibly revising that policy?

Mayor Ali: Yeah, there's mixed reviews. I accepted the current policy that we have. There's, you know, most of them come to the council. They go through the zoning commission, and if they make it through the zoning commission, where there's a hearing — there's a hearing that takes place (and) those that disagree can certainly make their voices heard, and they do that at the zoning commission. Then we turn around (and) it comes to council, and then it happens again. So, I accept the current practice that's in place, I think it allows more voices to be heard in the process. It certainly — if it is approved and many residents disagree with it, I think it just angers a lot of our residents.

But at the same time, you know, we establish these rules and regulations, these policies and ordinances, and we need to follow them. So that's what's happening, we're following the ordinance that was developed. There's some council members that, I would say, would prefer not to have any short-term rentals at all. They consider them “mini-hotels” within, throughout the community, and they would prefer not to have them at all.

Looking ahead to the upcoming budget revision meetings, what are you anticipating? What types of plans will the city need to consider?

Mayor Ali: What we're really doing, because we set our biennial budget last year (and) it was approved for two years, but there's a number of changes to the budget. Especially looking at next year, there's a lot of budget amendments, budget revisions that have to take place and that's really what's going to take place. Many of them have to be approved by a super majority of the board. But it's really looking at the changes that will take place over this next year to our biennial budget. And then next year, we'll go through another process of creating another biennial to your budget.

So, we're really strong financially; our balance sheet is stronger than it's been in decades. We've got a lot of projects going on, over $60 million in capital projects this year, (and) we have a tremendous number of projects that are taking place next year. We're investing in equity projects, those areas of the city that have been long ignored— not intentionally, but they've been in decay in some cases. We're investing in those areas now. So I don't anticipate a lot of conflict throughout the budget process.

Everybody's not going to agree on everything, but we're in a strong financial position and we've got more money coming in, external money — what I call other people's money, or OPM — we're seeing a lot of that. We just got approved for the SAFER grant for 11 new firefighters, and that was over $4 million. So we'll have to accept that budget; again, that will require a super majority of the council. So a lot of the budget amendments, some may be a bit more controversial than others, but I think it's going to be a good, healthy process.

Armeca Crawford, the new CEO of the Peoria Housing Authority, says her top priorities are improving operations and expanding access to affordable housing. What do you think she can do to accomplish those goals and get the PHA back on the right track?

Mayor Ali: I really think she's the right leader. She had a strong message in the press conference that I hosted on her behalf and she talked about improving customer service within the Peoria Housing Authority. That customer service, that first supports the tenants, the residents of the PHA and then the customer service to the landlords, which are partners with the PHA. She says we have to get that right, and they will get that right. They have had in the past a reputation for not always treating people right or failing. So, I think that that's a big fix that she has, that she intends to make some adjustments.

She also intends to expand opportunities for home ownership, expand the number of affordable apartments and homes available for low to moderate income individuals — those that qualify for Section 8 (Housing Choice Vouchers), or just PHA housing. But PHA is the largest provider of affordable housing within our city, and they’re our partner, (and) we have a new leader, a local leader who lives in the city of Peoria now — we haven't had that in years. So, I'm really pleased to have her on board and look forward to working with her.

Providence Pointe, which is the new name for Taft Homes, (that’s) under development is on schedule, as she said. It's on schedule, and we're looking at Harrison (Homes). There's still some old brick buildings that are still there; if you go and look behind some of the newer construction, those old buildings are still there and they're not in good shape. So, we want to tear those down (and) we want to build a new Harrison — maybe it won't be called “Harrison,” but a new development there.

Again, on the south side of Peoria, there's a lack of quality housing, and that's one reason why we've seen the migration to other areas of the city and the population reduced. We'll never have grocery stores or businesses there unless we get affordable housing that can hold the population to support those businesses.

Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.