Chicago Activists Organize Against Massive Police Training Academy to Be Built As Schools Close
Late last month, local students and community members participated in a sit-in at Chicago City Hall to oppose a massive new police and fire training academy on the West Side of Chicago. Protesters set up tombstones labeled with the names of closed public schools, mental health clinics, and people killed by the police.
It was one of several actions since September 2017, organized by a campaign called No Cop Academy, to halt the construction of the $95 million facility, which the group says prioritizes the education of police and fire fighters over the education of the city’s kids. After a February vote by Chicago Public Schools, five schools are slated to be closed on the South Side of Chicago, an area with large communities of color. This follows the closure of nearly 50 Chicago schools by Mayor Rahm Emanuel five years ago, who described consolidating the schools as a necessary cost-saving measure.
But many community activists opposed those closures and resent seeing tens of millions of dollars poured into the training center. “You’re happy to close schools,” said Erin Glasco, a local activist working with No Cop Academy. “You deny students a chance to get the kind of education they need, but you’re happy to use this for a police facility or ways for police to get more training.”
A survey of about 500 West Side residents by No Cop Academy organizers revealed that 88 percent were opposed to the training academy and collected 877 recommendations for how $95 million could otherwise be spent, including on schools, substance abuse clinics and reducing homelessness.
The mayor’s press office unveiled the plans for the proposed training academy in July 2017. It would span 30.4 acres, and is intended to help first responders “receive specialized training, to improve collaboration in emergency response, and receive hands-on practice in real-world situations,” the mayor’s press release explained. It is part of the Chicago Police Department’s Next Steps for Reform, a multi-year plan to “strengthen community policing, officer training, manpower, supervision, and public accountability.”
City Alderman Emma Mitts said the center would be a welcome addition to Chicago’s West Garfield Park neighborhood. “The community feels that it’ll make it much more safe,” she told the Chicago Sun Times. “They’re just so excited about that. They’ll see police and fireman moving in the area doing training. You’re gonna have a lot more police there.”
The city’s 2018 budget plan includes a $27.4 million investment in police reform and commitments to hire hundreds of new law enforcement officers. According to a report by the Center for Popular Democracy, Law for Black Lives, and Black Youth Project 100, Chicago spent 38 percent of its general fund expenditures on policing last year, and has the second-largest police force in the nation.
No Cop Academy questions the logic of flooding areas already affected by heavy policing with more law enforcement. Hesna Bokoum, a community organizer for Southsiders Organizers for Unity and Liberation, who has worked with No Cop Academy since January 2018, elaborated: “A lot of people actually think that they want more police, they want more policing, but it really comes to wanting these different community resources and feeling safe. When it comes down to it, having more police in our communities is not equivalent to feeling safe or being safe.”
In fact, it may be just the opposite. A Department of Justice investigation prompted by the 2014 shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald found that the Chicago Police Department has a pattern of unconstitutional use of force and officer misconduct. In 2016, the city paid $52 million in police misconduct lawsuits and outside lawyers to litigate cases.
Bokoum said the campaign is taking an intergenerational approach that allows for people from different backgrounds and age groups to advocate for their needs, including older community members seeking a voice in city policy decisions and students who don’t want to feel profiled by police as they walk around in their neighborhoods.
“So many people, like myself, have become immune to hearing gunshots, have learned to immediately learn to place our hands up in the sight of law, even when we are innocent, which we usually are,” said Alycia Kamil Moaton, a Kenwood Academy High School student, during the Chicago City Hall sit-in.
Despite opposition, plans for the academy seem to be moving forward. The City Council approved the purchase of land for the facility in November, and Chicago Infrastructure Trust is still in the process of deciding which companies will build the academy.
No Cop Academy says much of the planning has happened behind closed doors, with little community input, and the group has been demanding more transparency. In March, the coalition filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Chicago Mayor’s Office “for refusing to disclose crucial emails and records” regarding the early planning of the facility.
The mayor’s office did not respond to requests for comment about the lawsuit or the broader issues raised by No Cop Academy. But Mayor Emanuel has suggested in the past that the academy is part of a “much needed overhaul” of police training.
Alex S. Vitale, professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and author of The End of Policing, said the push for more police funding for training and facilities in Chicago is misplaced, even if it’s part of a reform effort. “Whenever there is that kind of crisis moment [around policing in the United States] that we’re in, you’ll hear from police and politicians about the need for additional resources for training. I think that that’s a part of what is driving these requests,” Vitale said. “The question is whether or not that serves an important public interest given the tremendous costs involved.”
Rather than invest in law enforcement, Vitale suggests, cities should invest in their communities. Juanita Tennyson of the activist group Assata’s Daughters, part of No Cop Academy, made a similar point at the City Hall sit-in.
“If I had $86 million [the remaining cost of the academy after the land purchase] for my community, I would open up mental health clinics, a suitable grocery store, and put better quality into the education of the schools in my community,” Tennyson said. “The mayor needs to be held accountable for all the money being pulled from the resources for the Black and brown youth around Chicago.”