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The Bitter Controversy Over Chicago’s Newest Police Academy
Rahm Emanuel wants to build the project in the city’s poorest neighborhood — where Laquan McDonald was raised
On a raw, rainy March morning in Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel stood on the dais of the city council chambers, looking out over the aldermen who had just voted to build one of his most cherished projects: an $85 million police and fire training academy on the West Side, the most blighted, violent quarter of the city. Emanuel proudly announced the tally — 38 ayes, eight nays — and tried to begin a victory speech: “Before we go on, I’d like to say a few words about this item,” he told the crowd, before he was suddenly interrupted.
“Mic check! Mic check!” shouted a group of protestors standing in the public gallery. “Dear Rahm Emanuel, our community is not for sale! Since you lack remorse, we will lack peace. No cop academy. $95 million for community!” (The cost of the project was previously listed at $95 million, though it has since dropped to $85 million.)
Outside, in the lobby, hundreds more demonstrators who had been denied entry by the police were chanting, “Let us in! Let us in!” Their voices were loud enough for the aldermen to hear. Once the most strident demonstrators had been hustled out of council chambers to rejoin their comrades in the lobby, Emanuel continued.
“This will meet the needs of economic development in the neighborhood,” he said, proudly pointing out that two new restaurants would be opening inside the facility and hundreds of police and fire cadets would be driving there every day. “For decades, the West Side has been ignored… But the most important thing [the project] can do is bring public safety into the heart of a community that has its challenges.”
Emanuel had only two months left in office, and neither of the women running to replace him wanted to build the academy. But Emanuel had rushed the academy through the city council — a city council that has rarely defied him — because he sees it as an important piece of his legacy. Building a multimillion-dollar civic edifice on the poor, black West Side might be seen as evidence that he’s not, as his detractors call him, “Mayor 1%,” a neoliberal whose only vision for Chicago is luring new tech businesses to the Loop. A new police training facility is, in Emanuel’s mind, a sign that he’s serious about reforming a department that can clear only 17 percent of the city’s murders.
“It’s going to look like more occupation. It already feels like we live in a Third World country.”
West Garfield Park, the neighborhood where the academy will be built, has the city’s highest murder rate (139 per 100,000 residents) and one of its lowest median household incomes ($24,266). Many people believe spending $85 million on schools and job training would be more effective in reducing Chicago’s violence. In 2017, some of these skeptics formed a citywide protest movement called #NoCopAcademy. (It was #NoCopAcademy leading the demonstrations against Emanuel as he announced the project.) Members of the resistance effort — and some members of the West Garfield community affiliated with the group — see the mayor’s academy as something more sinister than a simple misallocation of resources: To them, it’s a colonialist intrusion on a neighborhood that has long suffered from police harassment, ultimately intended to create a green zone that will make it more attractive to the young professionals who have been replacing Chicago’s dwindling black population.
“We have a longstanding, difficult issue with police in our community,” says Stephanie Nobile, who lives a few blocks from the site where the academy will be built. “It’s going to look like more occupation. It already feels like we live in a Third World country.”
The plan to build a police academy on the West Side can be traced back to the October 2014 murder of Laquan McDonald, a black teenager shot 16 times by a Chicago police officer. (The officer, Jason Van Dyke, was convicted of second-degree murder last year.) The video of the shooting remained unseen by the public for more than a year. When activists finally persuaded a judge to release it, Chicago saw a scene very different from the one described in the official police report, which stated that McDonald had lunged at officers with a knife. In fact, he had been walking away when Van Dyke opened fire on him. Emanuel was accused of covering up the video to protect his 2015 reelection, which he won with the support of black voters. (Emanuel insists he didn’t see the video until the rest of the city did, when the court ordered its release.) Enraged by the video, thousands of protestors marched through the city, chanting, “Sixteen shots and a cover-up!” Following McDonald’s murder, Emanuel, who won 58 percent of the African-American vote in his 2015 reelection, saw his approval rating in that community sink to 30 percent.
As a consequence of the McDonald murder, the U.S. Justice Department and the Illinois attorney general forced the Chicago Police Department to accept a consent decree requiring better training for officers. Oddly, that mandate presented Emanuel with a political opportunity: It jibed perfectly with his long-held desire to replace the city’s outdated police academy, which opened in 1976 — an impulse made all the more pressing, as he saw it, now that there was significant public demand for police reform. A new academy was, Emanuel reasoned, a win-win: He could finally get that new facility he’s wanted and score some much-needed political points in the process. (The new campus will include a modern shooting range to prepare officers for active-shooter situations and a driving course on which they can train for traffic stops.)
As it happened, West Garfield Park is the neighborhood where McDonald grew up. That connection between police violence and investment in law enforcement added an emotional component to the dispute, says Christian Snow, a lifelong West Sider who is also an attorney for the People’s Law Office, which specializes in defending police brutality cases.
“To have that happen and have the answer be an $85 million cop academy built in the same neighborhood, placing more officers in the neighborhood he comes from — the audacity of that galvanized a lot of opposition,” Snow says.
Stand beside the proposed site of the academy, in an empty field next to a concrete supplier, and you can look straight down Chicago Avenue to the trapezoid bulk of the 95-story John Hancock Center. In West Garfield Park, most of the storefronts are occupied by short-order grills or churches.
The West Side is the least-known, least-visited, and least-affluent quarter of Chicago. Historically Jewish, it was almost entirely repopulated in the 1950s by African-Americans escaping the Mississippi Delta and the confines of the South Side Black Belt. After Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968, rioters burned more than 100 buildings to the ground in the surrounding area. Since then, West Garfield Park has lost two-thirds of its population. But will bringing more police to an already heavily patrolled neighborhood really make it more prosperous?
Some think so. “When I grew up on the West Side, the only people I saw was drug dealers and pimps,” says Melvin Bailey, a West Side native who testified in favor of the academy in front of the city council. “The people with degrees moved out.”
Since neighborhood residents are guaranteed a certain number of jobs on the project, Bailey imagines young people will be hired as laborers; after that, they’ll advance into the trades and use their skills to build houses on vacant lots. They will also be exposed to police and fire cadets as role models, since the academy will include a community room with a public computer lab.
“We’re trying to get these guns out of these kids’ hands by giving them meaningful jobs,” Bailey says. “What other opportunities do we have for the kids for jobs?”
Most of the city’s aldermen seem to agree. Alderman Emma Mitts, in whose ward the academy would be built, has in the past scolded outsiders who would deny the West Side a rare opportunity to attract new businesses and benefit from the “safety envelope” the mayor says 1,500 police and fire cadets will provide. Peach’s and Culver’s — two chain restaurants a cut above the nearby Burger King — will open branches inside the academy.
As proof that her constituents want the project, Mitts points out that she was reelected on February 26 with 54 percent of the vote — against an opponent who was backed by #NoCopAcademy.
“We’re talking about a place that will create dozens of new businesses nearby, invigorate existing ones, and become an economic engine to help revitalize a community that needs and deserves more investment, not less,” Mitts tells Medium. “I think it makes good economic and social impact sense to instruct public safety employees in both diverse and challenged neighborhoods, so that first responders and local residents can start to better understand and trust each other from the very beginning.”
One reason the project passed so resoundingly: During the city council debate over the academy, Mitts invoked a Chicago tradition known as aldermanic prerogative, an unwritten agreement among aldermen that basically grants each official autonomy over zoning and permits within their own ward. It’s a system that allows every alderman to run their ward like a little mayor.
On the same day Mitts was reelected, there was also a citywide election for mayor. The top two vote-getters, Lori Lightfoot and Toni Preckwinkle, both oppose the academy, and both asked the mayor and city council to delay the vote until they took office. (The runoff election will be held next week.)
“It was designed without community input,” Lightfoot said during the campaign, adding that it might exacerbate tensions between the community and the police. “It’s going to be an island isolated from the community.” To Preckwinkle, the $85 million was money that could have been better spent on “affordable housing and the business community. Those are the resources we should devote to the West Side,” she tells Medium.
(Although Stephanie Nobile says she never received a piece of literature about the academy, Mitts insists the community was included in the planning. “I have discussed this in the news media; sent letters, flyers, and emails to constituents on this proposed project; knocked on many doors and held block club meetings; convened church and community organization meetings,” the alderman writes in an email. “The consensus of many longtime residents in my community is that this public safety academy would be good for a variety of reasons.”)
But Emanuel, who has vowed to “run through the tape” until his term ends on May 20, ignored the pleas of his potential successors. Now that the city council has approved $65 million in bonds and a construction contract with AECOM, a company also known for building prisons, either Lightfoot or Preckwinkle is going to be stuck building an academy she doesn’t want. Preckwinkle, a former alderman, understands that overturning a 38–8 vote is an impractical task. Lightfoot at least wants to make sure the academy doesn’t impose on the community as an autocratic presence.
“It is disappointing that the vote took place the other day, and I’ve been a staunch opponent of this particular plan,” Lightfoot says, “I just want to make sure that we get the benefit of our bargain and look hard at the contract and see if there are other things we can do so that it’s a catalyst for further development.”
To Page May, who attended the first #NoCopAcademy meeting in September 2017, the movement was never just about halting the construction of a building. That was impossible to imagine, against the forces of mayoral power and aldermanic prerogative. It was, she says, about questioning the city’s investment in policing. “Creating a larger consciousness about what keeps communities safer: quality schools, job training programs, daycare centers,” as she puts it.
To the organizers’ surprise, #NoCopAcademy became a factor in the civic elections, adopted by candidates for both mayor and alderman. Even Chance the Rapper, who is as well known in Chicago for his political activism as his music, testified against the academy at a city council meeting in 2017. “There’s a lot of different services that need to be funded,” Chance said. “Mental health services. Obviously, schooling is my big thing, but there’s a lot of ways to transform the city that don’t have anything to do with police training.”
Emanuel dismissed the #NoCopAcademy protestors as screamers from Logan Square and Edgewater, two North Side neighborhoods whose residents are known for left-leaning activism. But the fact that the leading candidates for mayor support its goals is evidence that #NoCopAcademy is no fringe movement, even if its tactics include street theater rooted in Chicago’s vigorous protest tradition. Despite their loss in the city council, #NoCopAcademy’s members see the group as the beginning of a movement that will continue to agitate for police accountability and neighborhood investment — the two issues, above all else, on which Emanuel’s critics say he failed.
“We felt like we had a lot of victories, even though they voted to construct this oppressive force,” says Snow, the People’s Law Office attorney. “We trained 100 young organizers. They know how the city works, how to be heard at meetings. They’re paying attention, and they understand that we have the power.”