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New U.S. attorney for central Illinois sharpens focus on violent crime and human trafficking

  Gregory Harris, the new U.S. Attorney for the Central District of Illinois.
Edith Brady-Lunny
Gregory Harris, the new U.S. Attorney for the Central District of Illinois.

Combatting violent crime and human trafficking across the state’s midsection are top priorities for Gregory Harris, the new U.S. Attorney for the Central District of Illinois.

Harris, who joined the office in 2001 and has served as chief of the criminal division, was confirmed in December by the U.S. Senate to lead the 46-county federal district that includes Peoria.

In an interview with WCBU, Harris acknowledged that areas of central Illinois, like other parts of the country, are seeing an increase in crime, much of it related to gun violence. Federal statutes, most notably the RICO (Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) and VICAR (Violent Crimes in Aid of Racketeering Activity) acts, have been used effectively to prosecute gang activity linked to violence. That approach will continue in places like Peoria, said Harris.

“We used it in Peoria to dismantle the 'Bomb Squad,'" Harris said of the RICO law. Federal prosecutors will be using the two statutes “not only in places like Peoria, but in other, primarily urban areas, where we have a gang problem.”

In taking down 13 members of the “Bomb Squad,” the government was aware Peoria’s gang problem was not eradicated.

“So, we’ve always designed our strategy with the idea in mind that we were going to continue looking at the statutes to go after additional gangs that might come in to replace the ones we dismantle,” said the new U.S. Attorney.

Programs initiated in the larger communities of Peoria, Champaign and Springfield to deter potential gang members from a criminal enterprise have been impacted by the pandemic but will continue to target the vulnerable population. The age of that audience is younger than the 24 or 25-year-olds typically involved in shootings, said Harris.

It’s not uncommon for an older gang member to put a gun used in a shooting into the hand of a minor who will face lesser penalties.

“Younger people have been brought into this violent crime environment. And we’re looking for programs that address those younger kids, whether it’s in schools or other places,” said Harris.

Project Safe Neighborhood brings state, local and federal resources together to deal with crime. Harris said the diversity of the rural and urban communities that make up the sprawling district requires plans designed for specific areas.

“Rock Island’s Project Safe Neighborhood strategy may be somewhat different than Peoria or Springfield’s and I think that’s a very good approach, and one we hope to utilize in the future to deal with this violent gang problem,” said Harris.

Research has shown that a small number of individuals are responsible for the majority of crime in a community, said Harris, as well as the violence that leaves people feeling unsafe outside their homes.

“If you can find and target those individuals, hopefully convince them to put the guns down, you’re going to succeed in reducing the crime level,” said Harris. If those efforts are unsuccessful, the federal laws come into play against “the ones that we want to go after and take out of the community to reduce the level of violence.”

A task force working to identify victims of human trafficking is making progress in its efforts to provide help to people trapped in a web of abuse and coercion, said Harris. A $1.3 million federal grant allowed the group to hire a coordinator who works with law enforcement, hospitals and agencies that may come into contact with people victimized by labor and sex trafficking.

“This is a difficult area because victims usually are not self-reporters and that’s why it can be a hidden crime of violence. They’re intimidated, they’re coerced, and a lot of times drugs are used to keep them doing what they’re going,” said Harris.

As the first Black person to serve as U.S. Attorney for the Central District of Illinois, Harris considers his ethnicity as one element of a career spanning nearly three decades with the office. During his tenure, Harris brought over 40 cases to trial and worked with law enforcement agencies on complex criminal cases.

“That gives me more satisfaction and pride than being the first African American in the district, although I am honored and I do think that the idea of diversity as far as law enforcement is concerned is a great idea that I support. I think it has benefits for everybody,” said Harris.

The Department of Justice under President Biden is doing “an admirable job” of creating a diverse work force, said Harris. About a third of the U.S. Attorneys confirmed so far have been people of color, both men and women, Harris noted.

Edith began her career as a reporter with The DeWitt County Observer, a weekly newspaper in Clinton. From 2007 to June 2019, Edith covered crime and legal issues for The Pantagraph, a daily newspaper in Bloomington, Illinois. She previously worked as a correspondent for The Pantagraph covering courts and local government issues in central Illinois.