Mayor Lightfoot contemplates larger joint police/firefighter training center
September 6, 2019

Mayor Lori Lightfoot is contemplating a larger police and fire academy than was originally planned by the City.

By Igor Studenkov

As a mayoral candidate, Lori Lightfoot expressed skepticism about the proposal to replace the City’s existing police academy and a firefighters training facility with larger joint police and fire training center in West Humboldt Park at 4301 W. Chicago Ave.

While she did not dismiss the idea altogether, she argued that the City rushed the project through without considering its broader impact or taking enough community input.

By the time Lightfoot was sworn in as mayor, the Chicago City Council had approved the project, with Los Angeles-based Architecture, Engineering, Consulting, Operations, and Maintenance (AECOM) Corp. selected to handle construction.

On June 25, Lightfoot appeared to change positions, telling reporters she felt the facility as approved by the City Council actually might need to be bigger and more expensive.

Since then, the City has not released further details on what that bigger facility might look like.

The City has begun planning the 2020 budget, with Lightfoot expected to unveil her budget proposal in October. The City will hold four budget town halls in September to find out how residents want it to spend the money.

Under current plans, the joint public safety training center will include a classroom building with simulators and a fitness area; physical fitness building with shooting range, “active scenario training” area, and pool for diving training; and an outdoor training space with a driving course, skid pad, and outdoor active shooting area. There would also be special residential and commercial fire training facilities.

It also will provide two restaurants in leased buildings at the northwest 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.

Ald. Emma Mitts (37th), whose ward includes the project site, has supported the project strongly, as have all surrounding wards’ aldermen and many West Side clergy, residents, and activists. They believe the academy will improve safety and act as a catalyst for community development in an area that historically has seen little investment.

Opposition to project

The project also has attracted opposition from many local residents, activists, and community organizations across Chicago, who argued the City should spend the money on improving schools, mental health services, and job training because those services actually address root causes of crime and violence. Many organizations and individuals opposed to the center pooled their resources to form the #NoCopAcademy campaign.

Under the agreement with AECOM, the project would cost no more than $95 million; $85 million of that will cover construction.

As a candidate, Lightfoot said police officers need better training, especially in respecting residents’ rights. She took issue with the training center’s development process, arguing it did not solicit enough community input nor take what she described as opponents’ legitimate concerns into account.

After touring the current police academy in late June, however, Lightfoot said she was worried that plans already approved would not provide the best training possible.

“I don’t know that it’s big enough,” she said. “I don’t know that the plans, particularly on the fire [department] side, are going to provide them with the different kind of training scenarios that they need.

“This is going to be a significant investment on the West Side that desperately needs investment, but if we’re going to make that kind of investment, I want to get it right,” Lightfoot continued. “I want it to be the best-in-class training facility for first responders anywhere in the country. That’s what we ought to aspire to.”

Improving police accountability

As part of the City Council reorganization in the wake of Lightfoot’s inauguration, the council appointed Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), a former police officer who supported the training center, chair of its Public Safety Committee. While the committee has yet to meet since the change took effect, Taliaferro said his agenda will include improving police accountability.

Earlier this year, the Office of Inspector General investigation found the Chicago Police Department (CPD) gang database was error prone, with innocent black and Hispanic men statistically more likely to wind up on it. Taliaferro said he plans to hold a public hearing on the matter as well as on two proposals to give Chicago voters more say over how CPD disciplines police officers and who serves as the police superintendent.

Taliaferro told Gazette Chicago he has not heard details about plans to expand the new academy.

“Although I still support the premise and conclusion that our City’s first responders need an adequate training facility and the economic and employment catalyst the project will bring to the West Side of Chicago, I will have to reserve any comments regarding an upscale of the project until the Mayor announces plans, if any,” he said.

Meanwhile, the #NoCopAcademy campaign has focused its efforts on a lawsuit against the City of Chicago. The campaign contends City officials decided on the project “long ago,” and it filed a Freedom of Information Act requesting information on how officials determined the project’s price tag, why they chose this site, and whether then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel sent any talking points to Mitts and other supporters. After initial requests for data failed, the group filed a lawsuit.

End the project?

In a statement issued on August 4, the campaign argued Lightfoot should end the project altogether.

“We saw Lightfoot declare that she would spend twice as much to make the cop academy twice as big as Rahm had planned,” the statement read. “We’ve seen her continue to push forward an agenda that Rahm started, despite campaign promises that suggested otherwise. If Lightfoot has the power to make it bigger, she also has the power to stop it and direct resources to communities instead.”

Deondre Rutues, a 37th Ward residents who ran against Mitts in 2019, works as a community ambassador for the Chicago Neighborhood Policing Initiative, a community policing pilot project launched in January 2019 in CPD’s 25th District. The project aims to give residents a say in how they are policed and get police officers to interact more with the community.

“My role was bringing those police officers, introducing them to community members, leaders [of community organizations], business owners, so they can start to form a bond,” Rutues said.

While running for alderman, Rutues said the City could avoid police shootings if officers lived in the communities they policed, giving them a chance to get to know their neighbors as people. Hiring more officers of color would help as well. Rutues feels wary over how the training center would affect the neighborhood.

“If you bring this facility [to the 37th Ward], you’ll see gentrification in about ten years,”  he said, adding that bringing the training center to a ward that has seen school closings and “over policing” was a “slap in the face.” Instead, Rutues suggested, the City could build it on the North Side’s “Lincoln Yards” development or another piece of land closer to the Loop.

During an interview with Gazette Chicago, Rutues expressed skepticism about a larger training center.

“Here’s the thing: what does that equal to?” he said. “From what I’ve read about the police academy, it was going to have a lot of fancy features, like the pool and a shooting area. What else are they going to put in?”

Those opposing the larger facility also raised concerns the City will use it as a money-making venture by bringing in recruits from other municipalities’ police and fire departments.

Lightfoot’s office declined to comment.

For the Office of the Mayor, log on to Chicago.gov/city/en/depts./mayor.html. To contact Mitts, call (773) 379-0960. For #NoCopAcademy, log on to https://nocopacademy.com.