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Q&A: Peoria Mayor Ali discusses encouraging results from ongoing efforts to reduce gun violence

Peoria Mayor Rita Ali
Joe Deacon
Peoria Mayor Rita Ali

The Peoria Police Department’s latest figures on violent crime through the end of April suggest the city is heading in a positive direction.

There were no homicides in Peoria in April, and only four to date this year – just two by gunshots. By comparison, there were seven murders by the start of May in each of the past two years, and nine over that time frame in 2019, before the COVID pandemic.

Additionally, the police department figures show a 14% percent drop in the number of shooting victims .

In her monthly conversation with WCBU reporter Joe Deacon, Peoria Mayor Rita Ali discusses these trends and what has been working in reducing gun violence.

This transcript has been edited lightly for length and clarity.

Let's start by discussing violent crime. Peoria has seen four homicides through the first four months of this year. The past few years, the total was seven by the end of April and prior to the pandemic in 2019, it was nine before the start of May. How encouraging is it to see this trending down? What's working?

Mayor Rita Ali: It's very encouraging. Shooting murders are down 50%, all murders are down 43% compared to the same time last year. Shooting victims are down 14%. So we're making a difference in terms of looking at all the things that are being done in Peoria to address violent crime; we're seeing it in the statistics. So, we're seeing a reduction in violent crime, and I can point to several different efforts that I would say come together, combine (and) help to cause this to be.

When you say there are several different efforts, what would you say are some of the key ones?

Ali: Some of those efforts are direct efforts by the Peoria Police Department, and that includes the new Peoria Area Federal Firearms Task Force, which is called the PAFF. They've been doing some work for some time, but now they're all certified. This is a task force that is comprised of local, state and federal agents and officers that are working together, using their combined tools (and) their combined expertise to address violent crime in Peoria, and they are embedded within our Peoria Police Department. This is very unique within the country to see an embedded federal and federally credentialed agents.

So the structure is: there's an ATF special agent, there's an FBI agent, there's two certified – federally certified and credentialed – Peoria police officers. There's one state investigator, also federally credentialed. There's a Department of Corrections rep, and also, there's Ron Hanna, who is the Assistant United States Attorney; he's the lead federal prosecutor that's assigned to this unit. So that’s very significant.

Outside of that, we have the police working very closely with the community to address violent crime – hand in hand with community organizations, residents and neighborhood associations, efforts where the police are getting to know, up close and personal, the community and asking for their help. They're using the Tip411 (anonymous hotline) to call in and report incidents of crime and gunshots and criminal behavior to the police. It's increasing, and it's really helping to apprehend those that are causing problems within our community.

Despite these positive figures, these positive trends, violent crime still remains a major concern. You were quoted in Politico as saying that young people having access to guns “keeps you up at night.” With this task force – you say it's so unique to Peoria – why is Peoria such a (good) place for this, to try out a task force?

Ali: Our numbers have not been good historically, and, like I said to Politico, unfortunately we have more young people having access to weapons, and they're using them oftentimes to hurt one another. We are working with the schools, and that's a really important, key stakeholder: involving the schools and the community in addressing the problem.

But I think that Peoria’s numbers stand out within not just the state but within the nation. So we have to do something different; we can't keep doing the same thing and expecting the results to change. That's what's happening: We have great leadership with Chief Eric Echevarria, he's being creative. He's determined that under his watch gun violence is going to be reduced, violent crime is going to be reduced, and we're starting to see the results of that.

Historically, we have seen homicides and shootings tick up in the summer, though. How concerned are you that we could see a rise in incidence in the next few months?

Ali: I expect a rise in the summer. There's more people out and about; there's more social events that take place. Again, young people have to learn how to handle their disputes, how to handle their anger. So in the summer, there's always an increase but hopefully we'll have less of an increase, less of an impact this summer.

Switching gears a bit, you recently submitted a Community Project Funding request to Congressman Eric Sorenson seeking $500,000 in federal funding for construction of new single family homes in the 61605 zip code. That's not a particularly large amount. Why did you make this request, and how would this funding be used?

Ali: This funding, the request is a partnership with the City of Peoria and Habitat for Humanity. I had a meeting with their director and we talked about Habitat actually building some homes on the South Side of Peoria. They haven't done so up to this point; they've been on the Near North Valley and they've been on the East Bluff. So they were definitely open to that. We talked about the fact that McKinley School was going to come down, and that that was going to be potentially a prime spot for additional housing, new construction. Habitat, as you know, can build homes less costly, because the labor is free and you have some sponsorships. So it doesn't cost as much for Habitat to build a home.

These are homes that will be owner-occupied, so that's very important. I think within the area of McKinley School there's some existing housing, and now with the demolition of the school there's opportunity for new construction. We're very excited; the city will actually provide another $500,000 through the federal home loan funding, so that will make $1 million to build housing in the 61605 zip code area. So hopefully we can build at least five (homes) over this next year and then the following year build another five in the same area, and begin to build that out and build out that neighborhood.

You mentioned the McKinley School being torn down, and full-scale demolition of the Harrison School building also started this week. What are the latest developments with deciding how to develop these properties, particularly the Harrison site?

Ali: There's been discussion with the community, with neighbors, residents, community organizations. We received a grant – well, PAAR received a grant, Peoria Area Association of Realtors – and we've been working with them and bringing the community together to discuss and really brainstorm ideas on how we would use that land. We've also had meetings with the Peoria Housing Authority; we're meeting with them about the transformation of Harrison Homes, and we are actually working collaboratively on a Choice Neighborhood Planning grant. That will take into consideration the demolition of Harrison School and what might go there, the build-out of additional homes in that area, whether they're publicly owned by the housing authority or whether they're privately owned by another entity. There's some city land that can be used for housing or possibly commercial development there. But we're looking at really developing out the Harrison area.

These efforts to revitalize these South Side neighborhoods are definitely aimed at reversing the population decline that the South Side has seen. Along with that, you have food deserts. What can the city do to eliminate the food deserts in the south side and other areas where they're persistent?

Ali: Well, right now there's Peoria Grown. That is a great asset. It's almost like a farmer's market that's providing fresh food and vegetables, fruit and vegetables to individuals, and there's protein available, meats available. They are located right now in Trewyn Park pavilion, so they're right there very close to that area. There's a lot of discussion about increasing the population of the South Side so that we can get a grocery store that can be sustainable. If you look at the reason why many of the stores have left the South Side, the pharmacies and other retailers, it’s because the population loss and the migration out of the South Side. We have to repopulate and that starts with housing; it starts with homes – whether they're rentals or homeownership properties – we have to populate the area and we're working on that. Once we get it populated, I think that we can attract a grocery store and pharmacy and other retail establishments there.

Another funding request that you asked with Congressman Sorenson is $2 million for sidewalk upgrades in the lower income areas. Why is this important, and why did you settle on that $2 million figure?

Ali: Well, that was our request; we thought it was a reasonable request for earmarks. Earmarks have to be reasonable; they can't be just outrageous. We wanted sidewalks for those areas, and not really “low income,” but they were within the qualified census tracts, so they're moderate income. It's south of McClure (Ave.); all those homes and property south of McClure will be considered for new sidewalks or repaired sidewalks.

What would be a timeline for possibly receiving this funding and actually making the sidewalk improvements?

Ali: Hopefully it all goes through; it's passed most of the legislative bodies. I think it has to also be signed off at even the highest level. But once we get confirmation that it's fully processed, I think at that point it doesn't take long at all. Then we can start to analyze those areas that are most in need and give priority to those.

Have you heard anything new on the possibility of a carbon capture pipeline connecting the BioUrja plant along the Illinois River?

Ali: Really, I haven't heard anything new. There's been, we had some discussions with BioUrja leadership that came down and even the founder met with us, and they had not made a decision on how they were going to capture the carbon. But they are committed to capturing the carbon; there's federal incentives involved – huge millions of dollars that are incentivized by the federal government – to capture that carbon. And there's different ways that that can be done; a pipeline is one of those ways that it can be done.

I do know that there were some members of Sierra Club and some other organizations that went to the State of Illinois and made a presentation to the state legislature, encouraging them to put a hold on making a decision on the pipeline. But again, we were told that a decision by BioUrja will be made by August at the latest in terms of how they were going about capturing that carbon, whether they were intending to work with Wolf (Carbon Solutions) and have a pipeline or whether they were going to capture it through trucks and railroads or some other way to move the carbon.

Lastly, a recent data analysis report by the website BonusFinder.com named Peoria the No. 1 party city in the Great Lakes region, with affordability being the biggest factor. In fact, Peoria placed 14th among the 100 cities that they compare nationwide. What are your thoughts about this ranking? Is it surprising? Encouraging?

Ali: Well, I was surprised. I think is pretty cool; I won't take it as a negative. I'll take it as a positive that people in Peoria love to socialize. We like to eat (and) apparently like to drink a little. But I think that as long as it's safe partying and positive partying, it's not a bad label.

Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.