City approves funding for training academy

Opponents of the proposed facility say they will keep fighting

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By Igor Studenkov

Contributing Reporter

If there is one thing the supporters and opponents of the proposed West Garfield Park emergency services training center can agree on, it's that the fight is far from over.

During the special May 25 meeting, the Chicago City Council voted 39-2 to approve using $20 million of proceeds from the sale of the Elston Corridor public works facility to help finance the West Side training facility's construction. West Side Aldermen Michael Scott (24th), Jason Ervin (28th), Chris Taliaferro (29th) and Emma Mitts (37th) — whose ward encompasses the proposed project — all voted for the measure. 

The vote came amidst vocal protests, as activists from Black Lives Matter, the #NoCopAcademy coalition and other organizations continued to argue that the estimated $95 million the city expects to spend training center would be better spent on education, mental health treatment and improving access to job opportunities.

During the meeting, West Side aldermen Michael Scott (24th), Walter Burnett (27th), Jason Ervin (28th) and Emma Mitts (37th) insisted that the training center was necessary to deal with the crime issues plaguing the West Side and accused activists of ignoring that reality. Some activists, in turn, argued that Mitts and other aldermen weren't listening the voices of all of their constituents.

Although last month's the vote helped fund the cost of design and construction, Mitts said that there are still several other votes and regulatory hurdles that must be cleared before the project is fully funded and the construction can begin. 

Maria Hernandez, a Garfield Park resident and one of the organizers with #NoCopAcademy, said that the activists will continue to protest every step of the way. Mitts said that she was planning to hold a community meeting later this month to address the controversy – though she said the specific date hasn't been decided on yet. 

During the council meeting, Mitts had some harsh words for the opponents of the training center. 

"If anyone wants to get media attention for themselves, or make a political point — that's your God-given right," she said. "But frankly, and I'm being honest here, a lot of those folks have no idea what they're talking about. Their heart might be in the right place, but they're following an empty hashtag." 

Mitts touted the training center as a tool of much-needed development, but a way to reduce crime. 

"I am tired of going to funerals of young men and women who are dying, who are being shot and killed on the streets every single day, not by a policeman, but by the people that look like them, and the people who live in the same community as the people who are victims of that violence," she said.

Scott said that he fully supports the training center, adding that North Lawndale would benefit from it in terms of economic development and public safety.

"I would love the academy, with 300 officers that come from my community every day, shop in my community every day and do the things in terms of public safety," he said. 

Scott said that he would encourage dialogue. 

"I would hope that those young people who are out here today, who want to be heard […] will listen to all the aldermen, come to their ward meetings and and [have] a dialogue on how we can make the academy better for everybody in the community," he said. "I haven't seen anyone [at the May 25 meeting] come to my ward meeting and discuss this with me." 

According to Scott's official ward website, his next community meeting will take place on June 28, 6 p.m., at United Baptist Church, 4242 W. Roosevelt Rd. 

"I'm the only alderman that lives in the 11th District," Ervin said. "I've lived in the 11th District for the last 20-some odd years, and I've seen folks shot, I've seen folks killed, I've seen folks deal dope, I've seen all kinds of stuff." 

Ervin also had some harsh words for the protests, describing them as outsiders who are trying to meddle in a community they don't understand. 

"Nobody from West Garfield Park, nobody from Humboldt Park, nobody from Austin is saying [they oppose the training center], but folks from everywhere else want to tell us how to live!" he exclaimed. 

Hernandez, who attended the meeting and said she lives in the 28th Ward, said that she was disappointed with her alderman. 

"I think Ald. Ervin is very misguided, because I spoke to a lot of my neighbors about this," she said. "He needs to pay attention to the actual community members." 

Hernandez said that while not everybody involved in the #NoCopAcademy campaign is from the West Side, the majority of those involved have some relationship to the West Side — if they don't live here themselves they either once lived here or have family members who still live here, she said. 

"It's hard to give the exact estimates," she said, when asked to provide specific numbers. "The campaign decisions are always led by the West Side youth voices." 

During the May 25 council meeting, several West Side clergy members spoke in favor of the training center. Hernandez said that they did not reflect the West Side as a whole. 

"I'm going to assume that those are people who come from [Mitts'] loyal base," she said. "She hasn't made any attempt to reach out [outside of] her circle. And she hasn't made an attempt to engage the community beyond her loyal followers." 

Hernandez said that the $95 million used to build the training center would be better served by addressing homelessness, heroin addiction or similar issues. 

"We're not doing any job programs, we're not investing in housing," she said. "We got hospitals and no mental health clinics." 

Mitts said that she understands the activists' concerns, adding that she doesn't believe that funding for the training center and addressing those deeper issues were mutually exclusive. 

"We can work on jobs, we can work on funding for education, but we should also work on police training," she said. 

Hernandez said that the #NoCopAcademy activists plan to keep the pressure on the aldermen as more votes approach. They'll also release a report detailing their community outreach findings and neighborhood analysis on June 20, she said. 

During the May 25 council meeting, Mitts said that she would be happy to meet with the activists to discuss the issues. Hernandez said that the campaign would "love to have a real conversation," but she was skeptical that this would actually happen. 

She cited an incident back in March, when students from the South Loop's Village Leadership Academy elementary school and members of the Near North-based Jane Addams Senior Caucus attempted to meet with Mitts during one of her ward night meetings. 

 Hernandez, who was at the meeting and live-streamed a snippet of the interaction on Facebook, said that Mitts' staff tried to encourage the group to leave, saying that it wasn't the right meeting, and that Mitts only met with them after she heard that one of people in the group were from her block. Even then, Hernandez said, the alderman did so reluctantly. 

Mitts disputed Hernandez's characterization. She agreed that the activists did show up and her meeting, and that she didn't initially meet them, but she said that was only because she was busy talking to other constituents. 

"I never turned anyone away," she said. "Rudeness doesn't come from me. I respect people, particularly kids. How can I disrespect them when I want to [be an example]?"

CONTACT: igorst3@hotmail.com    

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