PEORIA — Homicides in Peoria are tallied each year. The numbers are then compared to previous years. But behind every number is a victim and their families, who are trying to make sense of the incomprehensible.

Syntia Jackson is still trying to understand the fact that her uncle, Michael Jackson, was gunned down last October. A culinary student who worked at a Warehouse District eatery, he was the Mr. Fix-It within their family, and he was the man who'd grill up just about anything.

And now he’s gone, killed an hour after he left his mother’s house, for reasons that Syntia Jackson doesn’t know.

Much has been made about 2018 being a near-record year for homicides in Peoria. And, it could be argued it was record-setting if the four justified killings (such as killing in self-defense) were included in the total — but for some, the numbers are beside the point.

“I don't know why it was so much less in 2015 or 2016, but it doesn't make sense why so many are happening back-to-back,” Syntia Jackson said. “It’s amazing. I sit back and I try to even understand the situation with my uncle, like what caused this, why did this happen and what made this person, out of broad daylight, come out and shoot my uncle. There could have been kids outside or a bystander.”

Thomas Hargrove of the Murder Accountability Project, a not-for-profit organization that collects data on homicides across the nation, said Peoria is going in the wrong direction.

“I'm not sure that people are more violent, but I know that communities can spiral out of control if a sense of lawlessness takes control,” he said, noting Peoria’s murder rate of about 22 to 23 slayings for every 100,000 people was four to five times the national average.

“You are on a smaller scale, so fewer people are dying, but the bad news is that you have a significant number being murdered — and it's growing. The people of Peoria should be aware of this problem and be unhappy about it,” he said. “They should be demanding of their political leaders some type of reform.”

22 alleged murders last year

Last year, Peoria recorded 22 homicides that are being investigated as murders. Murder is a legal term; the definition of homicide is the killing of one person by another. The city also had four other homicides that were deemed justified. Two were self-defense by citizens. And the other two were police-involved shootings that were investigated by Illinois State Police. Peoria County State's Attorney Jerry Brady decided the officers had acted properly and without excessive force.

Taking the 22 alone, that is double what the city recorded in 2016 and 2017 combined and only one shy of the last high water mark of 23 homicides in 2010.

And if one includes all homicides, then 2018 was the bloodiest in Peoria for more than 30 years, according to Journal Star archives and Peoria Police Department records.

Peoria Police Chief Loren Marion Jr. is a second-generation Peoria police officer and has risen through the ranks, starting off as a patrol officer.

Looking at the numbers, he notes that there are a few differences between 2010 and 2018. First off, in 2010, six people died in two different house fires. That wasn’t the case in 2018. And guns played a much bigger role in 2018 than in 2010.

Eight years ago, Marion said, nine people died as a result of being shot. In 2018, it was 17. That’s more than in 2016 and 2017 combined.

In 2016, there were 10 homicides, six of which involved guns. In 2017, nine people were fatally shot out of the total of 10 homicides.

So it appears that more guns are being used to kill people. Does that mean more guns are on the streets? Marion doesn’t know for sure but points to numbers that show the police have seized more than 1,500 guns in the last six years. In 2018, 269 guns were taken off the street. In 2017, the number was 318.

Most of those were handguns, which account for the bulk of slayings. Rifles aren’t often taken, with only seven seized last year.

The number of shootings has declined. In 2016, there were 98 incidents with 122 victims, six fatal. That fell to 71 incidents with 83 victims, nine fatal, in 2017. In 2018, there were 63 incidents with 77 victims, 17 fatal. Each year, several of the incidents had more than one victim. Sadly, however, a greater percentage died in 2018 as opposed to the two earlier years.

What about gangs? Did gangs factor into the increase? From the police department’s numbers, the answer is no. In 2010 and in 2018, there were nine “group-motivated incidents,” jargon for gang-related shootings.

Working with state and federal prosecutors, the Peoria Police Department has implemented the Don’t Shoot program, which is aimed at stopping group-related gun violence. There have been three rounds of indictments, totaling about 45 people.

At the end of December, as the department was struggling with a two-week period that saw 10 people shot, three fatally, the chief noted that it’s impossible to stop all shootings.

“We can’t be everywhere all the time. That’s why we rely so much on the community for their assistance in these,” the chief said. “We know that there are several witnesses to several of these incidents, so we are asking the community to say they have had enough of it, to come forward and help us close these out.”

Police also continue to use focused deterrence to combat the violence. That’s when the department tries to identify who is likely to be committing more crimes and then goes after those people.

The department, Marion said in December, was first trying to determine if the shootings were gang- or group-related. If they were, then pressure would be applied to those groups. If not, the idea was to solve each crime as quickly as possible. He admitted that when things happen in a domestic or private setting, it’s difficult to prevent them.

“At this time, we don’t see any connection in it. So it’s not like we are having the retaliation. A couple of these incidents are very unfortunate, so don’t take me wrong that I say something is going to happen. We want to prevent it. We want to get a hold of the situation and prevent any retaliatory shootings. But in a city of this size, there are going to be certain incidents that we can’t control or prevent from happening,” he said in December.

Impact of deaths far reaching

Numbers aside, what does it mean for a city of 115,000 or so to have 22 homicides in a year?

Just ask Jamie Harwood, the county coroner. He is the person who tells the families that their mother, father, brother or sister is dead. For him, these killings are gut-wrenching.

"I, like most of us in Peoria, am afraid that this is the new trend in Peoria, or that Peoria is the new Chicago. I pray that this is not the case. I pray that we can change the normalcy of homicides (happening) in Peoria," he said. "The families I work with are tremendously saddened by the violence that has been inflicted on their families. It’s terribly heartbreaking to say the least, and adds a whole different dynamic on grief and the grieving process. We have to work together to change our Peoria."

At the scene of the city's latest slaying — on Wednesday night, when 30-year-old Michael Shipley was found dead in a house in the 900 block of West Thrush Avenue — the wails and the cries of his family and friends were plainly evident. A neighbor, upon hearing about his death, appeared shocked and went back into her home, shaking her head.

Jerry Brady, the Peoria County State's Attorney who is in charge of prosecuting those who are accused of the killings, calls the onslaught of killing "senseless acts of violence."

"People show increased lack of respect for other community members. Together, the police and the community can reduce and stop the violence. However, the police cannot do this alone," he said, echoing what Marion has been saying all along, that the community needs to take a stand and help stop the shooting and the violence. "The increased violence has affected people in the Peoria community by making them more aware violence is increasing. Subsequently, this confirms people have an increased lack of respect or regard for others."

Syntia Jackson says her uncle's death doesn't make sense. He had just left his mother's house after getting off work. He was gone from home for about an hour before he was killed, she said.

"We just don't understand," she said of the family's emotions. "The guy who was with him, he didn't even get hurt. (The detectives) took him down to the Peoria Police Department and questioned him but he didn't know what happened. He said they were ambushed and that he didn't see anything. So that's the only story that we know of."

She says the list of who was affected by her uncle's passing is long.

"It affected anyone that he came in contact with. He had relationships that he built with the owners (of the restaurant where he worked)," she said. "And his teachers at culinary school, his friends, people that know him and who were used to seeing him every day and coming by and talking or socializing.

And while Syntia Jackson agrees that people need to speak out, she's also aware that it's not safe for many to do so.

"(The murders) have affected the way people think or act. They are afraid to give information to police because they don't feel safe. There are people who have seen things or who know things but if they don't feel protected, then these will continue to be open cases. Then it's murder after murder.

"It's sad to see," she continued. "There are families being affected by this and the people who are doing these murders aren't stopping."

Andy Kravetz can be reached at 686-3283 or akravetz@pjstar.com. He's on Twitter @andykravetz.