Controversial Chicago emergency services training center prepares to break ground
May 3, 2019

The new facility will allow for both indoor and outdoor training, diversifying training beyond what the Chicago Police and Fire Departments currently have at their 40-year-old facilities.

By Igor Studenkov

Within weeks of the run-off mayoral election, despite both candidates urging delay, on March 13 the Chicago City Council voted 38-8 to approve the controversial Chicago public safety training center.

The facility, to be built at 4301 W. Chicago Ave., will replace the current police and fire academies. The chiefs of both departments described it as a much needed, more modern replacement for what they called cramped, outdated facilities.

Ald. Emma Mitts, whose 37th Ward includes the site, has advocated vocally for it, arguing it will act as a catalyst for economic development on the much neglected West Side. Other West Side aldermen, including Ald. Walter Burnett (27th Ward) and Ald. Jason Ervin (28th Ward), also support it.

The proposal also attracted opposition, however, from community residents, and candidates who ran against Mitts in the Feb. 26 election. They argued the estimated $95 million cost would be better spent on improving schools, mental health services, and job training because those services actually would address root causes of crime and violence.

Officially known as the Joint Public Safety Training Center, the new facility has been in the works since summer 2017. It will go up on a long vacant industrial site in the West Humboldt Park neighborhood, near West Garfield Park. According to the City’s original request for bids, the facility will include a classroom building with simulators and a fitness area; a physical fitness building with a shooting range, an “active scenario training” area, and a pool for diving training; and an outdoor training space with a driving course, skid pad, and outdoor active shooting area.

Officials proposed the training center a few months after the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) released its Jan. 13, 2017 report on Chicago Police Department (CPD) practices and procedures. The report found a pattern of racial bias, excessive use of force, and violation of citizens’ 4th Amendment and other constitutional rights. It pointed to current police officer training and lack of accountability as two major reasons why.

‘Deficiencies in training’

“The department found that CPD officers’ practices unnecessarily endanger themselves and result in unnecessary and avoidable uses of force,” the DOJ said in a statement at the time. “The pattern or practice results from systemic deficiencies in training and accountability, including the failure to train officers in de-escalation and the failure to conduct meaningful investigations of uses of force.”

During Ervin’s Jan 17, 2018 community meeting in East Garfield Park, Steven Sesso, a captain from CPD’s 11th District, argued the current police academy was not nearly big enough to accommodate the increase in recruiting. At the time, Mayor Rahm Emanuel was promising to increase foot patrols to help fight crime and encourage officers and residents to interact more.

“There’s a recognized need for a new police training academy,” Sesso said. “The facility at 1300 W. Jackson is way, way too small—especially for the size of what the mayor is talking about.”

He said the new facility also will help keep existing officers up to date on changes in policing.

“Our new hires, new recruits, have a new training program,” Sesso said. “The problem is, there’s no continuing training program. We don’t have the facility to handle it.”

Based on the cost of building new training facilities elsewhere in the country, Sesso said the new academy would cost around $1 billion, although others dispute that figure.

The City erected the current police academy in 1976. It built the two current fire department training facilities, both located in the South Loop, in 1950 and 1965. Fire Commissioner Richard C. Ford testified before various Chicago City Council committees that the current fire training facilities are overcrowded and reflect the time when only men could serve as firefighters.

The City on July 3, 2017, announced it would build a new training center for both the police and fire departments, touting several advantages of the training center, including more capacity, more modern classrooms, and more opportunities for recruits to practice what they learn.

“The scenario training is exactly what CPD needs to give our officers the best hands-on training possible so they can react appropriately in the field regardless of the situation,” stated Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson.

Joint training

The City also touted the fact that police officers, firefighters, and paramedics would train in the same space. Then-Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago argued that feature will make all three groups more effective during emergencies.

“The new Public Safety Training Academy will allow fire and police personnel to train together so both departments know their roles during a response and are prepared to fulfill those roles without hesitation and in the most professional manner possible,” he said.

At the time, the City estimated a $20 million cost to buy the land and $75 million to build the facility. The City wound up buying the land for $10 million; the construction contract that came before the City Council on March 13 put the building’s cost at $85 million.

The City emphasized the new training center is one part of the overall strategy to reduce crime and address civil rights and excessive force issues raised by the DOJ report. A consent decree between the City and the Illinois Office of Attorney General specifies that all CPD officers must receive crisis intervention training, which teaches officers how to help people experiencing a mental health crisis. In addition, addressing a concern Sesso raised, it requires officers to get training annually.

For Mitts, the training center offers an opportunity to bring in jobs and encourage development in a community that has seen little of either. On June 28, 2018, she held a community meeting in which City officials outlined how they want to use the training center as a catalyst for economic development. Aarti Kotak, who serves as Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s deputy chief of staff for Neighborhood Economic Development, said the City wants to bring in sit-down restaurants as well as some retail businesses.

So far, the City has approved leases for two restaurants for the property’s corner. Peach’s Restaurant of Bronzeville will open a new location along with a training center for culinary workers. Baron Waller, a Culver’s franchisee who opened the chain’s first Bronzeville location, also will open a restaurant at the training center. As part of the leases, both must hire the majority of their workers from within two miles of the site.

Opposition views

The training center also has attracted opposition, both from within and outside the community. More than 50 community organizations as well as individual activists pooled their resources to launch a #NoCopAcademy campaign. In summer 2018, they released a report not only laying out their position but arguing that it represents what the community actually wants.

According to the report, the activists interviewed 500 West Garfield Park residents—around 2.85% of the neighborhood’s population as per the 2016 American Community Survey. The group said 72% of respondents said they did not want the training center in the community, while 18% did. As for the cost, 86% believed it wasn’t the best use of $95 million, and 29% of respondents suggested using that money for schools, while 18% of respondents suggested using it to improve housing. Another 18% wanted to put the money into unspecified “other public infrastructure,” 16% suggested using it to help community youth, 10% supported using it for jobs, 5% wanted it to improve healthcare, and 3% suggested using it for “criminal justice.”

“These results demonstrate a clear and profound desire on the part of the West Garfield Park residents for meaningful investment that transforms the community and meets human needs, rather than make problems worse by increasing CPD presence,” the #NoCopAcademy report stated. “The survey clearly demonstrates that there is far more widespread popular support for the demands of young Black activists seeking resources for youth services.”

The situation was not helped by the City choosing Los Angeles-based Architecture, Engineering, Consulting, Operations, and Maintenance (AECOM) Corp., which has a history of cost overruns and had to stop construction on a Detroit jail because of alleged corruption.

Furthermore, David Reynolds, the current Chicago Fleet Management commissioner, worked as AECOM’s vice president in 2006-09, two years before he got his current job. During the March 12 budget committee meeting, Reynolds did not address his employment history but insisted the City will not pay any more than $85 million and anything above that amount would have to come out of AECOM’s pocket.

During the Feb. 28 meeting of the Chicago City Council Committee on Zoning, Landmarks, and Building Standards, several West Side church leaders spoke in support of the project. Michael Eaddy, chairman and pastor at East Garfield Park’s People’s Church of the Harvest, described himself as a lifelong West Sider who preached at his church for almost 40 years. He recalled West Side economic vitality in the 1960s and argued the training center would help bring at least some of that back to the area.

“It is vitally important that economic vitality come to the West Side,” he said, noting the training center “will stimulate employment, it will draw contracts. I’m looking to Ald. Mitts to ensure that a community benefits agreement is put in place to benefit the community and that dollars will be set aside for services that target our youth and our seniors.”

Rev. Ralph Tolbert, of Austin’s Hamlett-Isom Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, brought up the shootings of Quintonio LeGrier and Bettie Jones as an example of the kind of incidents that could have been avoided if the officers got the kind of training the new training center would provide.

He reminded attendees that police officer Robert Rialmo “sued the city, and he was saying he was not properly trained,” Tolbert said. “I want to be able to eliminate that factor from when our first responders respond,” noting they should not “be able to say they weren’t properly trained by the City.”

Joseph Curtis, who works with area youth, said he respected training center opponents “because they have a legitimate gripe,” he said. “But the kids we’re dealing with on a day-to-day basis, they don’t go to school. They don’t have a chance to have a meal a lot of the time. Those are families we hear from. So when I say that the academy is a good thing, it’s  because we not only need to see the kids make a difference, but to be able to make a change.”

‘Condescending, low bar’

In opposition, Brianna Hampton, who said she lived in West Garfield Park for 14 years, argued the idea that restaurants would provide economic development was condescending and set a low bar for youth.

“I’m 18, and I could intern in a bank, and I need to get downtown,” she said, yet proponents of the academy “want to see me in restaurants.” She noted that a food store, not restaurants, would benefit the community. “We need to go ten miles to get to Pete’s Market to get fresh groceries.”

Hampton also balked at the idea that having a training center in the community would make youth trust the police more, comparing it to putting someone who’s afraid of mice in a room full of mice.

As the aldermen prepared to vote on the contract with AECOM, Burnett argued the existing West Loop police academy helped the community, and he expected the new training center to do the same.

“Thirty years ago, the area wasn’t safe,” he said. “But we feel safe because of the young recruits. And we are also eating in our area restaurants,” which would not be there “if it were not for the police academy being right there in the community.”

Throughout her campaign, Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot said she was not against a training center per se, agreeing that officers needed better training, especially when it comes to respecting residents’ rights. But she took issue with the execution, arguing that the planning process for the training center did not get enough community input and did not take what she described as opponents’ legitimate concerns into account.

After the City Council approved the contract with AECOM, Lightfoot released a statement saying the project “should not have moved one step forward without an explanation of the effects on population density, schools, traffic, and a number of other factors. Our communities need answers. We need a seat at the table. And when we spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on new developments, we need to use these investments as opportunities for community engagement and equitable economic growth. As mayor, I’ll leave the top-down planning and rushed approval processes in the past.”

To reach Alderman Burnett, call (312) 432-1995. Alderman Ervin can be reached at (773) 533-0900. Alderman Mitts can be reached at (773) 379-0950. For #NoCopAcademy, go to https://nocopacademy.com.