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'Trending in the right direction': Mayor Ali heralds Peoria’s 2022 drop in homicides, violent crime

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Joe Deacon
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WCBU
Peoria Mayor Rita Ali says she believes the police department's efforts to reduce violent crime are paying off after the city reported a 27% drop in homicides last year after recording 33 murders in 2021.

Following one of the deadliest years in Peoria history, the police department reports a 27% drop in homicides for 2022.

The police statistics show the city with 24 total murders, including 20 by gunshots. That’s down from 27 shooting homicides out of 33 murders the year before.

In her latest wide-ranging monthly conversation with WCBU reporter Joe Deacon, Peoria Mayor Rita Ali discusses the significant progress made by the police department in reducing violent crime.

This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Now that the new year is here, we have final numbers on 2022 crime from the Peoria Police Department, and we know the city finished with 24 homicides last year. That’s a significant improvement over the 33 homicides from the year before, but it’s still pretty high. How can the city continue to make progress on reducing homicides?

Mayor Rita Ali: There’s been a lot of new strategies imposed. We have great leadership with Chief Eric Echevarria and his team, as well as members of the community who are working to reduce and prevent crime as well. So I think we continue the strategy that has been put in place, and we’re making progress. We’re seeing better outcomes. We’re down shootings, 26-27%; down homicides, shooting-related homicides, 26-27%. All of our numbers related to significant crime (are) down from last year at this same time.

You say it’s down, but it’s also important to note that it was extremely high the year before. So it was still a bit higher than you’d prefer to see it.

Ali: Right, it’s not where we want it to be. Ideally, we want it to be under 10, I would say, homicides, and there’s been years like that, where we were at 10 or 12 homicides. Ideally, we don’t want any homicides, but that’s not realistic; we’re going to have some crime in a city this size. So I think, again, we’re trending in the right direction.

What can you tell us about possible plans for Peoria to house immigrants that crossed the southern border that are coming from Chicago? How might this impact city services and logistics?

Ali: Well, we really don’t see a great burden to city services at all. We’ve been asked by the (Illinois) Department of Human Services (IDHS) to house in Peoria, five families. That has not happened yet. There’s been some work by the Dreamers organization (Western Illinois Dreamers) and several support organizations to try to put a plan in place that can house five families: Make sure that they have adequate education services, working with the school districts (in) making sure that they have language appropriate (services) for Spanish-speaking families and individuals. So, I think we’re being positioned to probably support five families in our area. But again, that has not happened yet and it could be some time before it actually does happen.

Do you have any idea of when that might be?

Ali: Well, we thought it was going to be now, but it’s been delayed. There was identification of some families, and I think that they’re going elsewhere.

I see. So when you say “house” them, where would they be?

Ali: So they would actually, with the help of the Dreamers and other organizations, identify some potential homes that they would rent in this area. The Department of Human Services is giving these families, many of them from Venezuela that are in Chicago, that they would give them a certain amount of money – somewhere between $2,500-$5,000 to help them to get a head start to pay their rent for a period of time, and help with some services.

So Department of Human Services is a big advocate and a big supporter from the state. But they do need organizations, mostly not-for-profit organizations, faith-based organizations, and that’s who stepped up in Peoria to say, “We want to be a part of the solution and we want to help to support a reasonable number of people and families in this area.”

So would the city be contributing to economic assistance for these families?

Ali: Well, we don’t see any requirements from the city at this point. We do have a voice in terms of those trying to identify some housing, potential housing, connecting with resources within our community. So (Community Development) Director Joe Dulin has been involved in some of those meetings. I’ve been in some of those meetings in the past. But again, I don’t see a great reliance on city services.

Last month, a group of East Bluff residents came to a City Council meeting to ask for assistance in regard to 30-day eviction notices that they’d received from their out-of-state new property management firm. What can the city do to help residents in a situation like this? Can anything be done in the future to prevent something like this from happening?

Ali: Well, you know, it’s a private company. This is a very unique and challenging situation where a new company purchased a good, significant number of rental properties and then they decided that they didn’t want to continue the leases for those leases that were month-to-month. So they’re not really classified as “evictions;” they’re just not continuing the leases. I suspect the rent is probably going to go up; I think they’re going to make some investments in the property and probably raise the rent.

It was not a good situation to, right around the holidays, ask people to leave without having another place identified. So they didn’t get much of a notice, advance notice, that “we’re expecting you to be out.” So fortunately, with the help of the city and our Director of Community Development, Joe Dulin, we were able to negotiate an extension for 60 days, versus 30 days, to allow people more time.

We also refer people to Prairie State Legal Services. Some people may decide that they’re not going to leave in 60 days, and then they’re going to go through a court process, and Prairie State may assist with that effort. But it’s all individual, a case-by-case situation. But it was not good for East Bluff residents, and we don’t want our residents to be treated unfairly or treated bad. We want good landlord-tenant relationships, and so the city, I think, can try to help to influence those relationships.

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Grow Peoria - City of Peoria Economic Development
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Why is the City Council considering a TIF district for the proposed Medina Plains Corporate Park near Route 6 and Allen Road? How would a TIF district help encourage this development and move it forward?

Ali: So TIF – Tax Increment Financing – actually is an incentive to industries to move to Peoria, to expand in Peoria. The city of Peoria has been looking for an area to create an industrial park for a long time, I think since the 1990s. We just have not had that, and this will be an opportunity for us to have this area that can draw industries to our area. The city would benefit economically, ultimately – there would be some incentive initially for those businesses to expand or to exist there. But ultimately the city would benefit from the tax dollars that come from those industries. So (the Greater Peoria) Economic Development (Council), the EDC, has always been looking for companies and trying to attract them to Peoria. We’ve lost out on opportunities because we haven’t had a corporate park like the one that we’re hoping to design in Medina Plains, so I think this is a great opportunity for Peoria.

What is it about that Medina Plains area that would make it so attractive for something like this?

Ali: The size, to be able to put multiple industries within one location, one corporate park area. I think the location is ideal, as well; it’s located near highways (and) they like the fact that you’re located near an expressway that can take you from one city to another. But I think it’s been identified as ideal land for attracting industry.

The police department has been making a concerted effort to improve diversity and has established long-term goals for recruitment and retention of minority and female officers. What is your assessment of their progress in this area?

Ali: I think they’re doing a really good job. The last (class of) recruits had a very high percentage of both women and people of color, and we want our police force to look like our city. Peoria is a very diverse city, racially and ethnically, and we’re seeing a lot more diversity. I think the recruitment efforts are working. We are having trouble recruiting police, period; everybody is. It’s not just a city problem, it’s a state problem (and) it’s a national problem. But the fact that we’re able to still recruit women and people of color into this profession, I think, is very exciting.

How about the fire department? How can they achieve similar gains in recruiting and retaining more diverse staffing?

Ali: Some of that, I think, is looking at some of the strategies being employed by the police department. The (firefighter) test is really hard, in terms of the physical agility test for women. It seems to be much harder for women to pass the tests for fire. We’ve looked at that in group settings over time: “Is there anything that can be done to adjust that to make it more feasible for women to pass?” So I just think we have to keep trying very hard. We have to keep close to the community; we have to go – as far as women and people of color – I think we have to be in those spaces, and try to help educate that these are great professions and positions for people, with family-sustaining wages. They’re great jobs.

When we spoke last month, you mentioned downtown development and placing a stronger focus on making the downtown area a real centerpiece for the city this year. Can you give us some more details about how you see that happening and what developments are planned?

Ali: One thing that we’re doing right now, as we speak, is taking inventory of all the investments that are being made in downtown. There’s actually more going on there than people know. So we’re taking all the various plans, putting them together, and we’re going to communicate those plans kind of as a whole: what is happening with downtown, what is being planned for downtown, how much is being invested in downtown. And we’re going to communicate that to the public in a more visual way, in a more public way so that people are more aware.

Then, what do we expect to see in the future? We certainly expect to see more housing; more housing will bring more retail. The more people that we get living now downtown … and it wasn’t like that when I grew up; it wasn’t really a place where people lived. Now downtown – with the hospital district, with the Warehouse District, with the business district – is actually becoming more of a place to live, to work, and to shop and play.

So are there certain attractions done that you would like to see that would help bring more people to downtown?

Ali: Absolutely. You know, I think not just the – we certainly have the bars and the entertainment areas, but also stores. Boutiques, we’re starting to see more boutiques. More food that attracts people. The fact that OSF’s new headquarters is down there is great. Having a thriving downtown is really important to the city as a whole, so I think it’s a very high priority and we’re going to give it high priority.

One of the biggest attractions in the downtown area, of course, is the Peoria Civic Center, and the Peoria Rivermen’s lease at the Civic Center expires at the end of the current season. Carver Arena’s ice plant is malfunctioning, and it’s estimated to cost at least $2.5 million to replace it. The arena management says they have other high priority items that they need to address with the $25 million in state money that they’re receiving in a grant. Would you be in favor of the city getting involved financially to help replace the ice plant and keep the Rivermen at the Civic Center?

Ali: Those are discussions that we’re going to have to take on; we have not actually publicly had those discussions in a full group with the council, but I think we’ll probably get there. Those are very difficult decisions, and the Rivermen, they are a very important part of Peoria and Peoria’s culture, Peoria’s entertainment. But we have to be realistic in terms of the venue that they’re using for the games. I mean, the games actually don’t support the number of attendees that we had in the past, so the attendees are much smaller than the past. The arena, I think, can hold about 10,000 people and the Rivermen games are not drawing those same types of crowds.

So it comes down to dollars and cents, to business decisions that are being made. We try not to get into the negotiations with that contract; we don’t get involved in contract negotiations between the Civic Center and the Rivermen. But we do have some responsibility for maintenance of the Civic Center as a whole. The Civic Center needs a roof; the roof is very expensive for building that size. There’s other repairs that are needed that actually, according to Civic Center management, take priority, as you say, over the ice. I think even a repair of the ice would be a short-term type solution. We need a long-term solution for what’s going to happen long term with the Rivermen games and where’s the best venue.

Even, the Rivermen team aside, having a rink in that location, though – there’s going to be another ice competition coming up in the month (and) you could have ice shows – do you think that should be a key part of the arena?

Ali: So, some people think that the ice for a Disney ice show or skating competition is the same, and I’ve been educated to learn that it’s very different. You know, those ice shows that are coming don’t have the same requirements; it’s a different type of ice that is used for those shows. and we’re not responsible for paying those costs.

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Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.