As rain pelted the Fullerton el platform on Tuesday night, two dozen young people boarded a southbound Red Line train with printed and hand-drawn signs. “#NoCopAcademy” one read. “$95 million for schools, mental health care, and affordable housing!” declared another.
The activists organized in protest of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to build a $95 million police and fire training academy in West Garfield Park. The training compound would occupy a 30.4-acre site along Chicago Avenue between Pulaski and Kilbourn and include a swimming and diving pool, driving course, shooting range, labs, classrooms, and auditorium, and a mock CTA station and apartment building. Since unveiling the plan on July 3, the city has touted the facility as a response to the Department of Justice’s criticism of police training and is billing it as a driver of investments into the neighborhood. Activists and community residents, however, are deeply skeptical of these claims.
Once aboard the train the activists delivered a well-rehearsed message to commuters in a series of calls and responses set to the one member’s drumbeat:
“Rahm Emanuel wants to spend another $95 million on Chicago Police and we are fed up! We want schools for kids, not cops! We want police accountability, not more resources for the police. A fancy new building will not end racism. We want real safety in our communities. That means investing in programs and services like quality schools, quality health care, jobs for teens, childcare for all, living wages.”
They pointed out that the city already spends $4 million per day on policing and has paid out almost $300 million in misconduct settlements over the last five years. They hopped from car to car between train stops, passing around a white board with the words “I would spend $95 million on . . . ” Passengers filled in the their thoughts, proposing to put funds toward drug treatment programs, feeding the hungry, and aid for people who’ve been evicted.
In addition to such “train takeovers,” activists with the #NoCopAcademy campaign over the last several weeks have organized teach-ins, canvassing, and call-ins to aldermen. They’re intent on not letting city officials get away with making sweeping claims about how the community would benefit from a new police academy.
In the last five years, eight CPS schools closed in the neighborhoods surrounding the proposed site of the new police academy. Last Saturday, Page May, one of the organizers of the campaign, showed an audience of about 100 people slides of the proposed development, pointing out that the facility would be located next to Orr Academy. Orr is a majority black and Latino public high school with CPS’s lowest rating for academic performance; a fifth of its students have special needs and 98 percent come from low-income families. As May described the state-of-the-art facilities planned for the academy she pointed out that Orr “has none of these nice things.”
Emma Mitts, alderman of the 37th ward, has been a leading advocate for the new police academy, arguing that it will bring thousands of people to the neighborhood every day and boost local businesses. The alderman didn’t respond to the Reader‘s requests for comment, but she told DNAInfo that the facility would “not only drive economic and community development throughout the neighborhood, but also add a big public safety presence to our streets, giving children and families more confidence as they travel about their lives.”
Some youth from Mitts’s ward disagree. The #NoCopAcademy campaign has been endorsed by a long list of established community groups, but young people from West Garfield Park are taking a leading role in organizing. Since the beginning of September they’ve been at the forefront of public actions and have canvassed the neighborhood, collecting signatures in opposition to the project.
Brianna Hampton-Murff, 17, a senior at a charter school in Belmont Cragin who lives in West Garfield Park says she doesn’t see the benefit of bringing more law enforcement to the neighborhood.
“My community already struggles with interacting with law enforcement,” she says. Hampton-Murff says there’s crime in the neighborhood but that the police all too often seem to treat innocent bystanders like criminals. She recalls leaving her home recently with her father only to find four squad cars and at least a half dozen officers crowding her back yard. They’d made an arrest behind her house. But as Hampton-Murff tried to get in a family car with her father, an officer stopped her. “He said, ‘Wait right there, stop right there, or you will be arrested,'” she says. Another officer told a boy passing by on his bike that he’d better get inside before curfew. “Police officers are really intimidating,” she says, “and people in my community don’t know how to interact with them.”
Hampton-Murff says the way police treat people in Belmont Cragin is different from how they treat people in the Loop, where she interns at Urban Alliance. In the Loop, she says, cops are “friendly, you can typically get a wave or a smile of some sort.” But since she doesn’t see that attitude among the officers who patrol her neighborhood every day, she’s skeptical that thousands of new recruits to the department will work to establish warmer relationships with her and her West Garfield Park neighbors.
“I don’t think the police officers will take the time to get to know the community,” Hampton-Murff says. She fears the new officers won’t reflect the demographic and cultural makeup of the neighborhood. “Considering that [the academy] will be placed near a high school, I believe it would be a lot of cops attempting to correct or redirect high school students who they may see as rowdy. It probably will be really intimidating for the high school students, they probably wouldn’t want to be outside.”
She’s also not convinced more firefighters would be good for West Garfield Park. In August, her friend, 17-year-old Charles Macklin, was shot to death by an off-duty Fire Department lieutenant.
In recent days Hampton-Murff has collected 30 signatures in opposition to the development from people in her neighborhood. She says most of those folks had no idea it was coming and said they’d rather see the city spend more money on schools and youth activities. “It’s an under-resourced community, and the government is telling us we don’t have the funds to fix it,” she says. “But then we’ll have a $95 million building sitting on the corner where there are abandoned buildings?”
The deal reportedly is being financed through the sale of city property, including a piece of valuable land on Goose Island and other yet-to-be disclosed locations. Who will be contracted to build the facility and whether construction, slated to begin in 2018, would bring jobs to locals remains unknown.
It’s also unclear what new facilities will do for the quality of training and the level of oversight CPD provides to freshly minted officers. Though the DOJ indeed chastised the department for its aging and inadequate academy facilities (including the fact that some are located too close to a school and “put the public at risk”), the bulk of the report was critical of the values reflected by the training.
“Academy training does not instill in new recruits a culture of service toward all Chicago communities or the tenets of constitutional policing,” investigators wrote. Much more of the report focused on the critical lack of mental health care and supportive services for officers than on their lack of a driver training area and outdoor shooting range.
At a City Council hearing Wednesday, a handful of #NoCopAcademy campaigners showed up to see whether any new information about the training academy project would be discussed. (It would not.) After 30 minutes of public testimony—a litany of three-minute pleas, from kids, parents, and seniors, mostly for school funding and affordable housing—aldermen Walter Burnett, Ed Burke, Chris Taliaferro, Matt O’Shea, Derrick Curtis, Anthony Napolitano, and Willie Cochran (a former cop himself currently facing a federal indictment on charges of fraud, extortion, and bribery), as well as Mayor Emanuel dedicated 15 minutes to honoring the memory of police officer Bernie Domagala who died last month due to complications from bullet wounds he sustained on duty in 1988. His killer was a distraught fellow cop.