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Q&A: Peoria Police Chief Echevarria discusses 2022 drops in homicides, gun violence

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Joe Deacon
/
WCBU
Peoria Police Chief Eric Echevarria points to improved community relations and better policing technology among the reasons for the department's success in reducing homicides and shooting incidents in 2022.

Homicides and gun violence are trending down in Peoria, according to police department figures.

There hasn’t been a homicide within city limits in more than two months. This comes as Peoria finished 2022 with 24 homicides, down from a peak of 33 the year before.

Total shooting incidents fell 28% and shooting victims dropped 26% last year compared with the unusually violent 2021 totals. Weapons recovered by police jumped from 400 to 538, thanks in part to a gun buy-back program.

But with 2021 statistics abnormally high and 2020 figures depressed by the COVID-19 shutdown, a look back four years provides a closer comparison to 2022. In 2019, Peoria had one more homicide overall, but two fewer murders by gunshot, 13 fewer gunshot victims, and nine fewer shooting incidents overall.

In a conversation with WCBU reporter Joe Deacon, Peoria Police Chief Eric Echevarria discusses the year-to-year reduction in homicides and gun crimes, and the department's efforts to continue those downward trends.

This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Looking at the 2022 homicide and shooting statistics that were released by the Peoria Police Department, how satisfied are you with the progress that's been made in reducing violent crime?

Chief Eric Echevarria: Any progress, we are going to be happy with. I always state that we're not where we need to be. We'd like to have no homicides and no victims of gunshots. You know, there's many of families out there who either lost a loved one or somebody was injured. So we share that sadness.

But on the flip side of that, yeah we want to see progress, and to see over 25-28% reduction in gun violence in different categories of our shooting incidents, we will take that. We will take that, and we will work to reduce those numbers even further in 2023.

As you mentioned, the report shows a 27% drop in murder, a 26% drop in shooting homicides and a 28% decline in shooting incidents overall. What methods have been most successful in producing these results? And how do you continue these trends?

Echevarria: I think it's all, everything we've done. I don't think there's one trick to reducing crime. But I think if there's one thing that I think sticks out the most, I think it's just really those community relationships where we start to build trust with our community. Somebody notifies or somebody steps in to interrupt it before it occurs, I think that helps with those numbers. And when we talk about that, we talk about what we see with our Tip 411 (hotline) and when we talk about our chaplain program. We talk about the meetings and the accessibility that the police department has to this community that I hear has really changed since I've been here.

So I think it's that (and) I think it's our technology, right? Our LPRs (license plate reader cameras) that we have. Our officers have more updated technology as well, when you talk about new camera systems that they'll be wearing. Just the cell phones, we went from flip phones to smartphones. So I think it's a combination of everything.

While all these declining numbers show positive results, it's important also to note that 2021 was a bit of an outlier with extremely high numbers all across the board. Then when you look back at 2020, conversely those numbers were unusually low because of the COVID-19 shutdowns. So, is it really fair to make these comparisons over the past couple of years?

Echevarria: We have to look at them, whether it's fair or not fair. You know, I say a fair is where we judge pigs, right? That's what a fair is.

We have to look at the numbers; we can't ignore them. We have to look at the numbers and say, OK, yes. We see what happened in 2019. We look at 2020, we look at 2021, we look at 2022. I can't ignore 2022’s numbers moving into 2023. It is something we have to look at and then decide: where do we need to push manpower, where do we need to have technology, where do we need to — what neighborhoods do we intentionally need to be in and communicating and providing services at?

Because the numbers don't lie. Something happened to raise numbers or lower numbers, and we have to look at it. That's why I'd say it's a combination of everything that helps either lower the numbers, and sometimes we're going to see at some point where something may go up. Then where do we adjust? This gives us the idea and the road map of where we need to go.

So as we’ve mentioned with the past two years kind of being unusual, when you look back to 2019 and being kind of similar to 2022, a lot of the numbers are around the same: homicides are about even, shooting incidents may be a tick higher, rounds fired are significantly higher. What does that indicate about how much more needs to be done?

Echevarria: Well, I mean, when you talk about accessibility to firearms and accessibility to the ammo, we believe — and you should have it legally, right? We're not against firearms by no means at all. But somehow kids are getting ahold of these (guns), right? Young adults, people who don't legally have the ability to have it. All right, so that's an issue. That's an issue because it causes danger for our community for the wrong people to have the wrong things in their hands. So we have to look at how that's occurring. Again, we have to look at the numbers and where they're happening. It's just an important factor that we have to take into account.

How much can the planned co-responders program with UnityPoint Health assist in reducing violent crime? I know it was hoped to have this program in place by now. So can you give us a timeline on when that might start?

Echevarria: I’d love to give you a timeline, don't have a timeline as of yet. We're still working through the budget with ICJIA (Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority), working with UnityPoint, obviously, to figure out where the budget needs to go, what it needs to look like. There's been some questions from ICJIA to us on how we want to implement that.

We want to be different; we don't want to implement something that's the same. I think what it will do is really have the ability for us to deal with things at a root cause. So when we start to see — you know, one of the conversations we've been having with the school district and, obviously, our mental health workers is: what are we seeing at a young age that are key indicators that something else may happen? If you take the data of who committed what (and) who were victims, you can probably tie back to when some of them were juveniles and see: well, were they referred three or four times for some behavioral issues at an early age? How can we interrupt it there, and now how do we get the social workers and the mental health workers involved and get resources to those families early on and interrupt it before it occurs?

So I think that's what they'll provide for us. It will also provide a way for us to touch every case that comes through here involving juveniles and obviously, domestic violence and other cases like that. But when we're talking about some of this other violence that we’re seeing, we really want to get it at a younger age and interrupt it so we don't see these juveniles back.

You mentioned a little bit ago about technology and the LPRs. How effective have the license plate reader cameras been in crime prevention efforts? Would you like to see more cameras in the city? How do you respond to suggestions that the cameras are invasions of privacy?

Echevarria: I would love to have more cameras in the city. When people say they're invading their privacy, these cameras aren't pointing in somebody's window. There's nobody monitoring a camera, sitting behind a monitor watching every car that goes by. When we have information on a vehicle, a suspect’s vehicle, if you will — or even a victim's vehicle, because the first person we found with these LPRs was a lady who was suffering from dementia that couldn't find her way home. That was the first person we found using the LPR that we have installed. So this idea that they're invading somebody's privacy, I don't agree with.

What we're getting is the back license plate and the description of the vehicle. If we have a vehicle where we have information on a suspect vehicle – or a victim, because it could be a victim in the vehicle — we're able to put that into the system. Then if the vehicle drives past that camera, we will be alerted and that gives us a starting point that's where we need to start looking for whether it's a victim or whether it's a suspect.

I understand the full crime statistics for 2022 won't be released publicly until next month, but generally what can you say about the department's overall crime prevention results last year?

Echevarria: You know, I haven't seen the numbers and so I don't want to say that this is down or this is up, because I don't have those full numbers yet in front of me. But I think overall, I think we had a great year. I think just the feedback that I've received from the community is that there's a sense of they feel safer. There's a sense of accountability, there's a sense of transparency. I think all of that is going to show in numbers as well, that I hope to see that our numbers will continue to trend downward and we’ll continue to push that way in 2023 as well.

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Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.