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Peoria City Council approves $3.5M in police tech and hears update on youth mental health facility

Following its sale to UnityPoint Health Central Illinois, the former Heddington Oaks nursing home in West Peoria will be converted into an inpatient mental health facility.
Hannah Alani
WCBU file
The former Heddington Oaks nursing home in West Peoria will be converted into an inpatient mental health facility.

Peoria City Council members got an update Tuesday night on plans to repurpose the former Heddington Oaks nursing home into a state-of-the-art youth mental health treatment facility.

Two representatives from UnityPoint Health spoke at Tuesday’s council meeting. UnityPoint currently stands at three-fourths of its fundraising goal and has asked the council for a $1 million grant toward construction expenses. The entire project, announced last year, will cost between $25-30 million.

The new facility is part of the Young Minds Project, an initiative designed to provide mental health resources to Central Illinois children and adolescents. It will provide both in- and outpatient services, a24/7 assessment center, and physician offices.

In 2019, UnityPlace, a nonprofit organization providing comprehensive addiction and mental health services, was founded. The first of its kind in Central Illinois, Unity Place is currently the only inpatient behavioral treatment center for adolescents suffering from mental illnesses. At present, they average about 60 admissions per month, and have only 23 beds.

According to Mary Thompson, president of UnityPlace, nearly 2,600 children have been turned away from the facility in the past five years due to lack of capacity and beds.

Furthermore, the current facility has a particularly “institutional” feel to it that UnityPlace workers find counterproductive to treatment; the building lacks natural lighting, green outdoor spaces, and room for sufficient physical activity and exercise.

The new facility will create a much healthier and more sustainable environment for its workers and patients alike, allowing spaces for music therapy, art therapy, a gym, specialized sensory room, and separate “neighborhoods” for children and teens. It will also increase the number of beds by 50%.

Construction of the new facility is to begin in early 2023, with a tentative grand opening set for later in the year.

Peoria Police get $3.5 million in funding for new equipment, body cams

Meanwhile, the Peoria City Council approved a $3.5 million agreement between the Peoria Police Department and Axon Enterprises. The agreement includes the purchase of 210 body-worn cameras, 210 tasers, and 86 in-car cameras, as well as all the proper hardware installation and required training.

Jack Nieukirk, technology administrator for Peoria Police, addressed the council’s concerns as to why new equipment is necessary.

“Currently our in-car video system is outdated … and no suitable replacements exist from that current vendor,” he said.

The new Axon car cameras, body cameras, and software system would be different from the PPD’s current equipment in that it provides supervisors the opportunity to randomly review any and all video footage to properly critique and give officer feedback – specifically in high-stress, high-crisis situations. That comes at a time when communities around the entire country are demanding increased accountability from their police officers.

Nieukirk said another beneficial feature of the Axon package is Redaction Assistant, which would allow for more efficient video redaction in the case of citizen FOIA requests – a process that typically takes longer than it should.

Jeff Matthews, a representative from Axon, spoke about the increased quality that the new cameras would provide.

“With this package you’re future-proof from a hardware and software perspective … as technology advances, the camera is more closely mirroring what the human eye sees … increasing clarity and less shakiness … which would show [clearer] evidence on screen.”

Ultimately, Peoria Police is requesting this new equipment in hopes that it improves evidence collection, as well as police competence, accountability, and performance.

“Most importantly, it will continue to improve transparency in our community” Chief Eric Echevarria said.