'This is the Chicago of central Illinois': How Peoria's crime rates compare with other cities

JJ Bullock
Journal Star
  • Peoria had more homicides in 2021 than similar-sized cities in Illinois.
  • Springfield police chief attributed gun violence in his city to the same things happening in Peoria.
  • Community engagement has been one of Peoria's main priorities in addressing violent crime.

A record for violence in Peoria was set in 2021. 

Homicides claimed the lives of 34 people across the city, eclipsing the old record of 25 set in 2019. But numbers have risen over most of the last eight years, from a low of seven homicides in 2014.

What happened in Peoria that caused the spike in homicides? Public officials have noted rising crime rates across the country, up 30% between 2019 and 2020 nationwide, according to Pew research

It's not just a Peoria problem, they've said. 

"It's not particular to Peoria, it's a national phenomenon we're seeing," Peoria Mayor Rita Ali told the Journal Star. "I don't know how to explain it, but I have done research on it, and some of the experts are tying to various factors, including the pandemic. I don't know if it can be specifically explained to the pandemic, but it seems to be a factor."

But when comparing Peoria with other cities in Illinois of similar size, its homicide rates are frequently higher. 

Peoria gun crime:Peoria police are seizing hundreds of guns per year. Here's their explanation

Flanked by Peoria civic leaders, Peoria Police Chief Eric Echevarria addresses the media concerning a recent uptick in shooting and violent crime in Peoria during a press conference Tuesday, Sept. 21, 20121 at the Peoria Police headquarters.

How Peoria stacks up to other mid-sized Illinois cities

Peoria's 34 homicides serve as an outlier when compared with cities of similar size, like Champaign, Bloomington, Springfield, Rockford and Elgin. 

The closest city to Peoria in homicides in 2021 was Rockford. With a population of 148,655, according to U.S. census data from 2020, Rockford is larger than Peoria, which has a population of 113,150. 

Rockford had 24 homicides in 2021; 30 in 2020; and 15 in 2019. 

Springfield, population 114,394, had 11 homicides in 2021; 11 in 2020; and nine in 2019. 

McLean County, home to the Bloomington-Normal metro area, population 170,954, had seven homicides between the two cities in 2021. There was just one homicide in 2020, but four in 2019.

Champaign, population 88,302, had 12 homicides in 2021; nine in 2020; and two in 2019. 

Elgin, population 114,797, the previous home of Peoria police Chief Eric Echevarria, had six homicides in 2021; and one in 2020 and 2019. 

Echevarria, who started at the department in August, said he's not worried about crime increases elsewhere in the nation, or in Illinois, for that matter. His job is to focus on Peoria and, in that, he sees a community that can no longer accept violence as the status quo.

"We need to get aggressive with violence, for one," Echevarria said. "I walked into a community, I feel, that because of what's happened for the last several years, is, 'OK, this is just what it is' and they accepted it. I don't accept defeat."

Peoria gangs:Police say Peoria violence is from 'hybrid street gangs.' Here's what they mean

'This is the Chicago of central Illinois'

Echevarria wants no mistake to be made about what he says makes Peoria unique in downstate Illinois. It's a mid-sized city with a big-city feel — and big-city problems. 

"This is the Chicago of central Illinois," Echevarria said.

Like Peoria, Chicago has also seen a rise in crime from 2015 to 2021, setting a new 25-year record, albeit on a much larger scale. From 2015 to 2016, homicides in Chicago jumped from 478 to 765. Chicago saw another massive spike between 2019 and 2020, when homicides jumped from 491 to 718. 

There were 791 homicides in Chicago in 2021, the most in the city in 25 years. 

Because Echevarria has only been Peoria's police chief since August 2021, he says it's hard for him to answer exactly what sparked a rise in homicides and violent crime here. 

"I can't place my finger on exactly why you have what you have here, but this is the largest city in this area, so you're probably going to see the largest amount of issues based on just the size of what our city is," Echavarria said.

Community engagement has been one of his main priorities in addressing violent crime since taking over as chief. 

"We're more accessible, at least while I've been here," Echevarria said. "For me, we need to be accessible to the community. The community can't only know the chief, the community has to know assistant chief, the captains, lieutenants, the sergeants, the officers, our professional staff."

He said that better contact between the community and members of the Police Department should open up lines of communication that have been historically closed between people and the department. 

"Then in turn we start getting more information; the community feels like there's a little more mutual respect because we can talk to each other," Echevarria said. 

Echevarria and the Peoria Police Department have been doing "walk and talks" through some of Peoria's higher-crime neighborhoods since his arrival in an effort to engage community members there. 

Surveillance cameras have also been put up in 16 high-crime areas around town, which police hope can curb violent crime. 

Eye on crime:Where are new police surveillance cameras in Peoria? We have the list

Gang violence, socioeconomic factors, social media play roles in violence 

In October, Echevarria said the city had "two distinct groups at war" within Peoria during a surge in violence that left multiple teenagers dead.

Later, police would describe this as violence stemming from "hybrid street gang" activity.

In Springfield, police Chief Ken Scarlette attributed gun violence in that community to the same thing, saying Springfield had "two distinct groups" or "factions" fighting.

Both cities have seen the way these hybrid street gangs fight and operate change in recent years. Traditional gang structures have changed. Social media is the new turf as the groups, mostly young men, are taking online feuds to the streets. 

"Those war of words that used to take place among individuals in person now are taking place on social media and you have hundreds, if not thousands of people tracking those conversations, and I think that leads to more embarrassment, leads to people feeling they have to retaliate in order to get back," Scarlette said. "I think it's led to the increase in violent crime among young people for sure."

The Peoria Police Department noted the same trend among an increase in violence among youth in November 2021. At that time, seven of Peoria's homicide victims were 20 or younger, including a 17-year-old and two 15-year-olds. 

More traditional factors of violence such as poverty and fractured home lives still play major roles in violence in both communities. 

"You can drive through and see some of the most poor areas of the state here," Echevarria said. "Some of the houses are falling apart and there's issues, so then you have kids growing up who want certain things, they see it on TV and they're going to try and find that."

Recruiting new officers:Peoria's police chief has an officer-recruitment plan. Why he's focusing on a new direction

What has to be done to prevent more violence?

Youth development "has to happen" in order to cut down on gun violence in Peoria, Ali said.

The mayor said she "hasn't seen this level of guns on young people" in Peoria and agreed that social media feuds were driving the violence among youth. 

Other community factors, education, personal, family, group and gang issues are also all possible factors playing a role in Peoria, Ali said. 

"Everybody has to be involved — parents, neighborhood associations, leaders in the community and just residents," Ali said. "Overall, we all have to be responsible in terms of trying to reduce the gun violence as well."