Together We Rise: Taking a look at violence across Peoria in 2021, exploring community-based solutions

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PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) — There’s a problem becoming more and more common in Peoria.

“This is probably a year, I’ve never seen working in this position 16 years,” Demario Boone, Director of School Safety with Peoria Public Schools, said.

The city has hit a record number of homicides this year, countless violent instances, and an array of arrests.

“There’s never been a year like this,” Dr. Rita Ali, mayor of Peoria, said. “It’s very different, it’s not just in Peoria. It’s really a phenomenon like we haven’t seen before.”

Balloon releases and candlelight vigils are becoming regular occurrences, but there is one eye-opening factor that city leaders said is sobering.

“Clearly the number of murders is at a high, the gun violence is just ticking higher as well,” Tim Riggenbach, Third District Councilman, said. “So, seeing the young people involved in this is something I don’t think any of us has seen before.”

So far, Peoria is clocking in at 31 homicides this year. Out of the 31 homicides, 10 were people 20-years-old and younger.

WMBD has also counted numerous juveniles arrested for First-Degree murder, gun charges, vehicle thefts, and massive fights and trampoline parks and schools.

The problem on repeat has prompted police to issue public calls for action on at least three separate occasions in less than three months.

“We need your help, enough is enough,” Eric Echevarria, Peoria Police Chief, said to the public back in September.

“There are many people losing their lives, and we’re going to continue to see that if something doesn’t change,” Echevarria said back in October. “I’m tired of it and the community’s tired of it and I need their help.”

“These violent crimes have to stop and the Peoria Police Department is committed to keeping our citizens safe,” Echevarria said last Tuesday.

But the goal of stopping the crimes may be a challenge when it’s unclear why they’re happening in the first place. WMBD reached out to city and community leaders trying to identify the root causes.

A quick answer: they vary.

“You have a lot of it in poverty,” Boone said. “Poverty breeds violence and stuff like that. You have a lot of disinvestment in specific areas, 61605 and 61603.”

Boone also said there’s the factor of a lot of young parents and a lack of mental health services available.

“A lot of parents will tell you, ‘I need help. I don’t know how to control my son or my daughter anymore’,” Boone said. “When you turn a young child over to the city and say that you can’t control them, then what’s going to happen?”

“So, we need to be very intentional with putting help around these families and having the village step up.”

He said understanding these causes is key to finding solutions to curb the violence. He said these solutions require an all-hands-on-deck approach and accountability on all parts.

“Everybody has to be held accountable,” Boone said. “The parents that are lacking in those duties and the community leaders that are showboating. We need to come together somehow and figure out a way to just be cohesive with that.”

Both Boone and Riggenbach mentioned unifying the programs and efforts that are already available in the city.

“Whether it’s the churches, whether it’s the Boys & Girls Club, the Carver Center, the East Bluff Community Center,” Riggenbach said. “There are all these groups that are out there that offer an alternative for the young people, and we just need to make people aware of what’s available.”

One initiative Mayor Ali said she’s put in place is a crime reduction framework called S-NET or Safety Network. It connects programs, groups, and organizations whose work helps address crime and gun violence issues in Peoria.

“That was really the purpose to bring together all of the leaders, the resources that we have that address issues of gun violence in our community and to make sure they’re connected,” Ali said. “Through collective impact, we’re a lot more effective if we work collectively, so we’re not duplicating resources, and so we can clearly identify the gaps and make referrals.”

She said the S-NET concept is about casting a safety net over the city’s hot spots. She said it consists of 50 leaders and role models who understand the population and who are members of faith-based, business, and community-based organizations.

She said they meet every two weeks and go over ways to explore recommendations and solutions to address gun violence.

Ali also mentioned assisting the police in their efforts to protect the city, helping the parents struggling with their children, and investing in the emotional bank account of the youth to help build them up and have more people step up to provide guidance.

“We need people who can relate to this population, those individuals who can connect with that population,” Ali said. “That can be positive role models, serve as mentors, help to guide the way for those who may not have that significant role model in their lives.”

Throughout the Together We Rise effort, WMBD is also dedicated to highlighting community organizations and programs that are providing an alternative outlet for families and young people to help make the community a better place to live in.

“It’s only when the community comes together, we’re going to be able to take care of our young people,” Riggenbach said.

“You can’t rise alone, so together we have to,” Boone said.

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