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One city’s crime-fighting quandary: Where exactly to invest?

Why We Wrote This

If Chicago builds a $95 million police and fire academy, how many problems can it solve? In the neighborhood with the city’s shortest life expectancy, some say that the facility will bring jobs, others that the money should be spent on education and social services.

Bilgin S. Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
A demonstrator holds a banner reading ‘Fund Schools Not Cops’ on May 25 during a protest against the plans to build a police academy on Chicago’s West Side. The Chicago City Council approved the proposal to build the $95 million training facility, but an opposition campaign is advocating for more spending on education and other social services.

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A year and a half after the Justice Department released a report criticizing the Chicago Police Department’s use of force and racially discriminatory conduct, tensions between the police and community remain high in some neighborhoods. Nowhere is that tension more clear than in the proposed $95 million police and fire academy: a 30-acre campus that would include state-of-the-art training facilities and much-needed jobs on the West Side, a community struggling with poverty and gun violence, say supporters. But others say that it will not solve the underlying problems of policing and crime in Chicago. They point out that a new facility is not the same as better training and that the police department has already changed its curriculum. “We are not asking for more well-trained, well-funded, well-equipped police,” says Ethan “Ethos” Viets-VanLear of the #NoCopAcademy campaign. “We are asking for money to be diverted from policing to education, health care, and parks.” Alderman Emma Mitts says that West Garfield Park has a lot to gain from the new police academy. “I can’t emphasize it enough: Jobs reduce violence and criminal activity.” Second in a three-part series.

Lonnie McClain was playing video games inside his house on Chicago’s West Side one afternoon this May, when two white police officers came up on his porch. Outside, his 20-year-old nephew, Montae, had been dancing to rap music with his headphones on.

“They asked him, ‘What are you doing? Why are you right here dancing?’ ” recalls Mr. McClain.

“I came out, and I’m like, why are you all asking him questions? He didn’t do anything. There’s people getting robbed right now, people’s cars are getting stolen, people are getting shot, and you all are in front of his face right here when he’s dancing!”

A year and a half after the Department of Justice released a report criticizing the Chicago Police Department’s use of force and racially discriminatory conduct, tensions between the police and community remain high in neighborhoods like McClain’s. 

Nowhere is that tension more clear than in the proposed $95 million police and fire academy, which would be located just two miles from McClain’s house. The planned 30-acre campus would include state-of-the-art training facilities and provide much-needed jobs to residents in a community struggling with poverty and gun violence, say supporters. But the academy has become a flashpoint for politicians and community members here, who argue that the money would be better spent elsewhere.

The proposal for a new police academy came in the wake of the police shooting of Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old who was shot 16 times by an officer as he walked away from police in October 2014. The shooting sparked months of protests calling for the resignation of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy – who ultimately stepped down – as well as investigations of the police department by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and local Police Accountability Task Force (PATF).

Chicago has been in the national spotlight in recent years for its high-profile police shootings of black residents, including Laquan, as well as its struggles with gun violence. Poor police-community relations is at the heart of both issues. The Chicago Police Department solves one in 20 homicides, and that rate has been declining in recent years, according to a Chicago Tribune analysis. At the same time, the city has paid victims of police misconduct more than $50 million this year alone, a marked increase from last year. 

Now, the city is addressing these issues by creating a consent decree for the police department, which would require the implementation of reforms suggested by the DOJ last year after their investigation. Both the DOJ and the PATF found systemic racism within the police department, particularly when it came to stopping people without justification and the use of force. Additionally, they both called for the improved training of officers and a larger, safer space in which to conduct these trainings. The current police academy was built in 1976.

“The physical structure that houses the Academy is antiquated, cramped and cannot accommodate even current needs, let alone the increased training that will be necessary to make real cultural change,” according to the PATF report, which was released in April 2016. It notes that mandatory Taser training was being conducted in the academy’s hallways because there was no other space available. 

Last month, the poor state of police training facilities came to light again when the city was ordered to fix serious safety violations at a shuttered school that the police had been using for tactical training after a complaint that it was infested with cockroaches and rodents, had poor ventilation, and high levels of lead and asbestos. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, four police officers collapsed from the heat at the facility in the two weeks following the complaint.

“Our current police academy is physically outdated,” says police department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi. The department has championed the creation of a new academy in order to “implement the much-needed reforms and professional development that have been sought by our police officers, the community and the US Department of Justice,” says Mr. Guglielmi.

Underlying problems 

But organizers here say that a new police academy on the West Side will not solve the underlying problems of policing and crime in Chicago. They point out that a new facility is not the same as better training and that the police department has already changed its curriculum, graduating three classes of officers who received what the mayor has called “best-in-class training.” 

One of those newly graduated officers killed a black barber, Harith Augustus, on the city’s South Side on July 14. 

“We are not asking for more well-trained, well-funded, well-equipped police,” says Ethan “Ethos” Viets-VanLear of the #NoCopAcademy campaign. He's part of the police abolition movement, which seeks community solutions to crime and conflict. The 23-year-old has been organizing against police brutality since 2014, when his friend Dominique Franklin Jr. died after police officers tased him. Mr. Franklin allegedly had stolen a bottle of vodka from Walgreens. The city of Chicago eventually settled a federal lawsuit with Franklin’s father for $200,000. “Young people on the South and West sides are saying that we need to divert resources to schools," says Mr. Viets-VanLear. “They are saying the police do not bring safety into our communities. We are asking for money to be diverted from policing to education, health care, and parks.”

Chicago spends 39 percent of its municipal budget on policing, while New York spends just 8 percent and Los Angeles spends 26 percent, according to a report released last year by the Center for Popular Democracy. This means the city has less funds for things like schools and social services. The proposed $95 million academy comes just five years after the city announced the biggest mass closing of schools in US history, shutting down 50 schools because of a $1 billion budget shortfall. 

Organizers here have long called for the diversion of funds away from policing and toward social services, but the proposed cop academy has given them a common cause to rally around. Launched shortly after the city proposed the new academy last summer, the campaign is now supported by nearly 80 organizations across the city. Over the last year, they have successfully disrupted city hall hearings, held flash mobs on trains and in the busy downtown area, and pressed politicians to take a stand on the issue. They’ve gained an unusual group of supporters. Among them: Grammy-winner Chance the Rapper, former police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, and Lori Lightfoot, the former chairwoman of the Police Accountability Task Force.

Ms. Lightfoot, who is running for mayor, argues that while a new police training facility is needed, it should not be located on the city’s struggling West Side. Residents of the neighborhood where the academy is supposed to be built, West Garfield Park, have the same life expectancy as Iraqis. They are nine times more likely to be killed by a gun and six times more likely to be unemployed than someone living in the downtown Loop neighborhood.  

“Putting this edifice to policing in this high-crime, impoverished neighborhood where relations between the police and the community are fraught, without a clear plan for community engagement, is a mistake,” Lightfoot told the audience at the City Club of Chicago earlier this year.

But Alderman Emma Mitts says that West Garfield Park has a lot to gain from the new police academy.  She has represented the community and its surrounding areas in the city council for close to 18 years.

“Consider the thousands of construction jobs, and when completed, hundreds of permanent positions” says Ms. Mitts, which will stimulate economic development on the West Side. “I can’t emphasize it enough: Jobs reduce violence and criminal activity.”

She says that additionally the hundreds of officers coming through West Garfield Park will add “a public safety presence that will bring increased peace and security to our residents” and assist in “promoting better neighborhood relations between police and the surrounding communities.” 

Residents here, however, remain unconvinced.

“It’s crazy because they will [build a new police academy], but they won’t do anything for our schools,” says McClain. “They would rather have police out here than better schools. I never understood that. Never.”

Part 1: Desperate for officers, a Georgia police chief hits the road

Coming Thursday: Teaching police to holster their emotions

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