As auto theft increases in Peoria, police face ‘very frustrating’ justice system

An Auto Crime Task Force aimed at cracking down on auto theft, especially those committed by minors, arrives in Peoria, supported by funding from the Secretary of State’s office.

The city’s participation in the task force was approved by the Peoria City Council at its last meeting, but only after the council questioned law enforcement about auto thefts.

“I’m going to vote for it but I’m not sure how good it will do,” council member John Kelly said before the vote.

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‘Who is not present who needs to help us with this problem?’

Peoria Police Chief Eric Echevarria said the number of auto thefts in Peoria by minors is on the rise. This new task force will assign a detective from the Peoria Police Department, the Peoria County Sheriff’s Department, a liaison officer from the Secretary of State for Police, and an Assistant State’s Attorney to focus specifically on the motor vehicle crimes in Peoria.

The grant money will come to the task force over a four-year period, bringing the total funds allocated to nearly $9 million.

“We know that car theft and everything related to car theft, converters etc. has increased and we needed a solution, a more holistic and partnered solution to really tackle it and focus directly to stolen vehicles and auto parts and that’s exactly what it’s going to do for us,” Echevarria said.

The Peoria Police Department did not have 2023 car theft data readily available. In 2022, however, there were 622 motor vehicle thefts in Peoria, compared to 576 in 2021 and 430 in 2020.

Councilman Chuck Grayeb asked Echevarria and State’s Attorney Jodi Hoos what can be done about minors who get caught stealing cars by police but are then quickly released.

“What interests me the most is what are we going to do to solve the problem of catching minors involved in this type of behavior or other violent behavior. … We catch them, and then it seems that ‘they’re handed over to their parents all too often when I read my reports every morning,” Grayeb said. “I don’t know how we’re going to get this far if this continues to be the case with little or no consequences for children who commit these crimes, very serious crimes.”

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Hoos said it was the justice system, not the state attorney’s office, that was responsible for releasing the minors so quickly.

“Unfortunately, we are bound by law,” Hoos said. “When we take a case to court, at the end of the day, if the court decides to release them, we can’t go against that.”

“I made phone calls, and in fact the state’s attorney made phone calls for me, to the juvenile detention center to make sure the children were also being held,” Echevarria said. “I think she kind of made it clear. … It’s kind of out of our hands. It’s very frustrating, our officers keep arresting, they’re releasing, we’re arresting, we’re just continuing to arrest him. TO DO.”

Echevarria added that while not every offender can be held in jail, each arrest adds to their criminal record.

Grayeb said Peoria needs to put together a coalition to go to Springfield lawmakers and “shake some cages” to get changes to the criminal justice system.

“Guess we have to get their attention, don’t we?” said Grayeb. “It’s too bad when we have the state’s attorney and the police commissioner saying, ‘Well, that’s pretty much out of our hands. It seems to me that this is a government of the people, by the people, for the people, and it seems to me that we might have an administrative state problem here that is out of step with the problems on the land in this community.

“You talk to the men and women in blue and they get exacerbated to catch the same kid over and over again laughing in their face,” Grayeb said. “And then you have the sinister adults who sometimes use children to commit these terrible crimes.”

Hoos said Grayeb’s frustration extends to his office as well.

“You should talk to my aides who have to sit in the courtroom and watch them walk free as they try to keep them in custody,” Hoos said.

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Chris Fulscher, who will represent the secretary of state police on the task force, told the council that Peoria County was one of the worst counties in the state for motor vehicle crime.

Councilman Mike Vespa, a lawyer by trade, asked if Peoria has any domestic power authority to set its own auto theft laws, which could lead to a suspect being held in jail up to six months.

Hoos told Vespa that if the board approves an order with jail terms for violators, that would be up to the city attorney, not the state attorney. Hoos said the secretary of state police allows the task force to have broader jurisdiction across county lines if needed.

Other board members felt that the task force’s money would be well spent, but that more outreach to young people was needed for the problem to be truly resolved.

“It’s money well spent,” said board member Denise Jackson. “It’s really going to help us, but until we get to the root cause of the problem and start tackling these issues that our young people are facing, we will continue the cycle.”

This article originally appeared on Journal Star: Peoria Police Chief Expresses Frustration Over Rise in Auto Thefts

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