Public safety training center proposed for W. Garfield Park

Community activists say the $95 million for the proposed center could be better spent elsewhere

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By Igor Studenkov

Contributing Reporter

The City of Chicago is looking to buy a 30-acre site at 4301 W. Chicago Ave. to build larger, more modern training facilities for the city's police and fire departments — but the plan has attracted a vocal contingent of community activists who believe the money for the proposed facility would be better spent on other things, such as funding schools and social services.  

According to a Chicago Sun-Times report, the city is expecting to spend at least $20 million to buy the land and do some initial construction work and another $75 million to build the rest. 

The purchase cleared the Chicago Community Development Commission on Sept. 12 and the Chicago Plan Commission on Sept. 21. In a recent interview, Ald. Emma Mitts (37th), whose ward includes the site, said she will introduce the measure to the Chicago City Council for final approval some time later this year. 

The alderman billed the proposal as a catalyst for development and a way to improve community-police relations. 

Talk about building a new, more modern police training facility for the city has been going on for years. The Jan. 13 Department of Justice report on CPD misconduct said that training was severely lacking. 

During Ald. Jason Ervin's (28th) Jan. 17 community meeting, CPD District 11 Captain Steven Sesso said that he believed that the new facility was long overdue.

"There's a recognized need for a new police training academy," he said at the time. "The facility at 1300 W Jackson is way, way too small, especially for the the size of [the increase in hiring] the mayor is talking about."

Sesso also said that the facility isn't just needed to train rookie officers; he said that it could also be used to train veteran cops as well. 

"Our new hires, new recruits, have a new training program," he said. "The problem is, there's no continuing training program. We don't have the facility to handle it."

The land is located along the portion of Chicago Avenue between Kostner and Keystone Avenues, which Mitts feels cries out for redevelopment. On June 28, the City Council approved her ordinance to change the zoning for the section from purely industrial to C3-1 zoning, which allows both industrial and commercial uses. 

At the time, the alderman said that with the area losing several manufacturers and no new manufacturers coming to replace them, she was hoping that it would improve redevelopment that would've otherwise been impossible. 

"Given its convenient proximity to the Loop, and the abundance of available land for redevelopment, it strengthens the argument relative to the long-term viability of this location as an excellent choice for restoring neighborhood hope and revitalization," Mitts said in a recent statement. "The impacts would be incredibly positive. This land has sat vacant and blighted for years, generating no neighborhood improvements, city revenue or job opportunities."

Mitts also stated that placing the facility in "both diverse and challenged neighborhoods" makes sense, since it would give trainees a better idea of what those communities are like. 

"[That way], first-responders and local residents can start to better understand and trust each other from the very beginning," she said. "This helps enhance cooperation, safety and security for all."

The alderman said that the facility will be made up of two buildings that would have "classrooms, labs, simulators, conference rooms, an auditorium, practice and driving ranges and real-life scenario areas and offices." 

The idea, Mitts said, is to give officers hands-on, tactical training in real-world situations. She also felt that having police officers and firefighters train in the same facility would encourage inter-agency cooperation. 

When asked about whether there would be job opportunities for local residents, Mitts indicated that she would work toward realizing employment opportunities. 

"Jobs for local residents would be a priority on the agenda," she said "Pre-planning, construction and other opportunities would most likely include targeted outreach to various population groups to ensure equity. Plans further include adding several hundred new police positions and many more administrative and support jobs."

According to the Sun-Times report, the $75 million in construction costs are expected to come from the sale of "surplus" city property, including the current fire and police training facilities. The $20 million to pay for the purchase would come at least in part from the sale of the city fleet maintenance facility in Elston Industrial Corridor. 

But the plan isn't without opposition. Members of Assata's Daughters, People's Response Team and the For The People Artists Collective argue that the money would be better spent on education, and that putting more police officers on the streets would only result in more deaths of innocent black and brown residents. 

Other organizations have since joined in opposition to the training facility. One of those organizations, the Lincoln Square-based Tzedek Chicago Synagogue, teamed up with Assata's Daughers, Trans Liberation Collective and Jewish Voices for Peace to hold a press conference in front of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's fifth-floor office downtown on the morning of Sept. 22. 

"When Rahm closed schools, six were in this neighborhood [where the training center is proposed]," Rabbi Brant Rosen, of Tzedek Chicago. "The message is clear — Rahm supports school for cops, not black and brown kids."

Rosen also questioned the city's priorities.

"We heard over and over again from leaders of the city and state that there isn't enough money to go around and suddenly we hear there's miraculously $95 million for this police academy," he said. 

Jaylan McKinney, of Assata's Daughters, said that putting more officers on the street wasn't a good idea.

"[Emanuel] wants to have more police to profile, stop frisk and harass and even kill us," he said, adding that the money would be better spend on schools and mental health treatment. 

Gleb Gottlieb said that while the DOJ report called for better training, he wasn't convinced that the new training center will deal with the root causes of the police department's problems with protecting minority communities.

"Reasonable people aren't against training the police, but it needs to go much deeper, to the police culture," he said.

CONTACT: igorst3@hotmail.com  

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