Crime. Unfairly or not, when it comes to our city, it’s all too often the elephant in the room. While surfing the web the other day I came across comments by someone from out of state who was contemplating multiple job offers, one of them right here in Peoria. After a bit of research, this person had crossed our town off his short list because of references to crime problems he had read about online. He just wasn’t sure his children would be safe here.

It’s disheartening…four murders in short order already this year—and I hope and pray that number hasn’t risen by the time you read this—to go with last year’s 17, the highest number since 1993. When does it end? To the families and friends of those whose lives were so tragically cut short, this is hell on earth. To the rest of us, it shames us that this happened in our town. It casts a cloud over all of the exciting projects going on in Peoria today—each an example of the community coming together and working in collaboration to move our region forward. And to some non-residents, unfortunately, it may be their only impression of our town. It’s hard to promote quality of life when people are being gunned down.

But setting aside the headlines for a minute, did you know that the overall crime rate in Peoria was actually down 11 percent in 2006 from the year before? That will likely come as a surprise to many folks. While this is no consolation to the victims’ families and friends, nor is it an excuse to sit on our hands and do nothing, it should be considered in our rush to tackle the problem. We are doing some things right. We shouldn’t panic—the sky is not falling—but we absolutely must address these core issues head-on.

The encouraging thing is that our community has leaders who are doing just that. Chief Settingsgaard has made himself accessible to the community and has introduced a number of new police initiatives to go along with new neighborhood watch programs and the increasing use of camera technologies. Likewise, we should applaud the efforts of Sheriff McCoy and State’s Attorney Lyons for doing their best to enforce consequences for criminal acts in an imperfect system where the criminals too often go free because witnesses refuse to cooperate out of fear.

Mayor Ardis gets it. In his State of the City address, he spoke of these new crime initiatives and promised a soon-to-be-announced Ceasefire-type program. He unveiled plans for Peoria Promise, an opportunity for qualifying City of Peoria graduates to receive full scholarships towards a degree or certificate at Illinois Central College. He also spoke about the ELITE Youth program and the Mayor’s Careers for Youth program, the types of creative, collaborative efforts needed to address the real issues at the heart of the crime problem—jobs, education and lack of opportunities.

It’s not rocket science to understand that the issues of education, the workforce and neighborhoods are inextricably linked to the crime problem. And while new police initiatives and more cameras in high-crime areas are needed and will certainly help, they cannot alone address the underlying issues at the root of the problem. That is why these collaborations among the business community, schools, government and private citizens are so important—no one group is powerful enough to do it themselves.

We are fortunate to live in a community in which a program like Peoria Promise, based entirely on the generosity of private groups and individuals, can exist at all. We are indeed lucky to have a Chamber that would spearhead an initiative to fund the school district’s Truancy Center and partner with groups like the Civic Federation and Workforce Development to fund the newly-created position of Education Liaison. And we’re fortunate to have individuals like Jay Vonachen, Bill Collier and Carl Cannon who step up to the plate and pour their souls into making such endeavors a success. The benefits of such efforts are likely to be lasting, lingering on in ways we couldn’t begin to know or plan for, and we should support them in whatever ways we can. IBI