Activists,alderman clash over academy

A proposed police/fire training academy for W. Garfield Park rankles residents

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By Bonni McKeown

Earlier this month, the group #NoCopAcademy spotlighted the growing opposition to a proposed $95 million police/fire training academy at 4301 W. Chicago Ave. in West Garfield Park with a contentious visit to Ald. Emma Mitts' office and a die-in demonstration at City Hall. 

The group wants the city to redirect that $95 million to other uses, such as neighborhood-level job creation, school funding and increased provision of medical care, including mental health resources and substance abuse treatments. 

A contract to build the academy was not on the Chicago City Council's agenda March 28, but Black Lives Matter organizer Maria Hernandez, who lives eight blocks away from the site of the proposed academy, says the group wants to raise public awareness before a vote comes up. 

That same day, Erin Glasco and Debbie Southorn, both with the #NoCopAcademy campaign, filed an open records lawsuit against Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office for allegedly "refusing to disclose crucial emails and records regarding the early planning" for the academy.

At a March 17 organizing meeting at Bethel Lutheran Church, 130 N. Keeler, West Side resident Hazel Williams decried the lack of information coming from City Hall about the project. 

"There's been no information from the mayor's office," she said. "It's like they're trying to sneak it up on us with no town halls or public meetings. If this is such a great thing, why not talk about it?" 

Last November, the full City Council authorized a $9.6 million purchase of the roughly 30 acres of land for the West Side site, which has been vacant for 40 years. Funding for the land will come from the surrounding tax-increment financing district.  

The council vote was 49-1, with 35th Ward Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa providing the sole dissenting vote. Council members were following the lead of Ald. Mitts, in whose 37th Ward the project is located. The present police academy is located at 1300 W. Jackson and the fire academy is at 1338 S. Clinton.

The group demonstrating at City Hall on March 28 included dozens of students on spring break who lay on the floor for a nearly 10-minute "die-in." Police barred protestors from the second floor, but allowed them to set up dozens of cardboard "tombstones" in the main hall. 

The tombstones bore names of people killed in police shootings, such as Laquan McDonald and Bettie Jones. Noted hip-hop artist Chance the Rapper, who rose to criticize the proposed police academy at the November City Hall meeting where the land purchase was authorized, tweeted his support of the March protest.   

At the March 17 organizing session, Hernandez reported that she and other #No Cop Academy members had canvassed 400 residents in Garfield Park over two to three winter months, and found many did not know about the academy. 

Asked how they'd want the city to spend the $95 million, 33 percent of the respondents favored schools; 19 percent wanted it spent on public spaces, services and resources; 9 percent on creating jobs; 16 percent on housing, 4 percent on reclaiming and repairing vacant properties; 4 percent on community medical services; 13 percent on programs for youth; and 3 percent on police and security.  

On March 19, a delegation of #NoCopAcademy including three neighborhood middle school students visited Ald. Emma Mitts during a regular ward meeting and encountered opposition from her staff.  They waited until the end of the meeting, when Mitts eventually agreed to speak with them. She reiterated points from a March 18 op-ed piece she wrote about the police academy.

"We are talking about a place where firefighters, paramedics and police officers will train and work jointly," she wrote, "where important techniques in de-escalation with community members will be taught … a place where our first responders can learn how to better interact with homeless, other troubled at-risk and mentally ill residents … that will create dozens of businesses nearby and be an economic engine to help revitalize a community."  

Before the Nov. 8, 2017, council meeting, Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) and Mitts hailed the proposed academy as an economic and public safety boon to an impoverished West Side.

"I'm not trying to say the facility is going to change police behavior, but what we want to happen is the perception," Mitts told the council. "I want a perception to change for our youth — not all police officers or firemen are bad."   

Mitts' March 18 op-ed questioned why nobody protested the expenditure of $200 million on a park for the Lincoln Park area, which is outside of her ward. At the March 19 meeting, Hernandez countered that more park and recreation activities might be good for the West Side as well, but any proposal as large as the police/fire training academy needs to be aired with citizens in the community.  

Mitts said that the project had been discussed last year by about 70 people in a regular community meeting, but Hernandez said the topic of the police academy had not been announced beforehand nor were the meeting's proceedings publicized afterward. 

According to the Sun-Times on Nov. 6, 2017, construction of the two-building campus would be bankrolled by $20 million from the sale of a valuable North Side fleet maintenance facility, $5 million from the sale of the air rights above a River North fire station, and $23 million from the sale of existing police and fire facilities.  

Fleet and Facilities Management Commissioner David Reynolds said that the city would work with the Chicago Infrastructure Trust to close the remaining $37 million gap through a "straight loan," a lease buy-back arrangement or by issuing "bonds to pay for it ourselves."

CONTACT: bonni@barrelhousebonni.com

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