Public safety training facility, once center of controversy, opens its doors
Five years ago, Lori Lightfoot launched her political career with a declaration of independence from the mayor who appointed her as Police Board president.
She told the City Club the Chicago Police Department “desperately needs” a new training academy. But Lightfoot said Rahm Emanuel was making a mistake by building “this edifice to policing” in the “high-crime, impoverished” West Side neighborhood, where “police and community relations are fraught” — and without a “clear plan for community engagement.”
Allocating funds for a police academy ‘is viewed by many as further affirmation that needs of the people will never be prioritized over those of the police,” she said on that day.
A month after taking office, Lightfoot dramatically changed her tune and embraced the project she had condemned, making it bigger and more expensive.
On Wednesday, Lightfoot completed her about-face on a project that was once the target of nationwide protests, cutting the ribbon on the $170 million complex at 701 N. Kilbourn Ave. The center is named for two first responders who died in the line of duty. CPD Cmdr. Paul Bauer, shot and killed in February 2018. Chicago firefighter MaShawn Plummer died in December 2021.
Lightfoot made no apologies for the cost, which has more than doubled. In fact, she described it as “$170 million and counting.”
“We must set our police, fire, EMT and paramedics up for success. And how do we do that? It’s training, training, training. Training over the course of their career. Training at the beginning of their career. And training that reflects the actual realities of the situations they encounter every single day on the streets,” she said.
Until now, police and fire training was “conducted in makeshift facilities … and vacant lots … that neither reflected the real-world conditions nor simulated the scenarios” faced on the job, the mayor said.
The 34-acre campus Lightfoot expects to “pay for itself over time” by training first-responders from “other municipalities” includes a six-story tower with its own elevator shaft so firefighters can practice their response to high-rise fires, an “indoor scenario village” that’s almost like a four-corner movie set and a car crash area to simulate emergency rescues.
The complex also includes an $8 million, 18,000-square-foot Boys & Girls Club of Chicago.
For police officers who have spent the last few years feeling vilified, instead of revered, Lightfoot hopes the extraordinary investment will serve as a symbol of the city’s commitment to them.
“There are times in our city where people with loud voices, but not representative of who we are, will tell you that you’re not worth anything. That your sacrifice and your service means nothing. But I want you to feel the power in this moment. I want you to … take with you what I believe is the truth. Which is, people in this city love and respect our first responders,” she said.
“People in the city want you to be successful because they know that, if you’re successful in the work that you do, they are gonna be safe. They are gonna be protected. Don’t let anyone ever tell you that this city doesn’t have your back because we do. … That is why we’ve made this commitment and this investment to you.”
CPD Supt. David Brown noted 956 new recruits went through the cramped, antiquated and now-defunct police academy last year as his department struggles to keep pace with a tidal wave of police retirements and transfers.
Now, veterans — who must undergo 40 mandatory training hours each year — will join rookies in sharpening their skills at the nation’s best facility, he said.
“Officers hear a lot of people saying they support us. But … talk is cheap. It goes in one ear and out the other when they don’t see that you actually support us in our work,” Brown said.
“This facility … puts your money where your mouth is. A $170 million facility shows that this city supports its police officers. Spread the word.”
Fire Commissioner Annette Nance-Holt said she hopes the decision to build Chicago’s first Boys & Girls Club in a generation on the site of the training center will “strengthen our relationships” with the Austin and Humboldt Park communities.
“As they are coming and going from their club activities, they will get a chance to see first-responders who can relate to them and, hopefully, spark a dream to one day serve this great city as a firefighter, a paramedic or a police officer,” she said.
Mayoral challenger Ja’Mal Green called the Boys & Girls Club an effort to “sugar-coat” a project that is now a symbol of Lightfoot’s misplaced spending priorities, just as it was for Emanuel.
“When we were running for mayor against each other, she said that she would step in and halt this project and allocate money to prioritize better. This is just another slap in the face and another lie that she told to the people,” Green said.
Green acknowledged the need to improve police training to erase glaring deficiencies pinpointed by the U.S. Justice Department. But the timing and the soaring cost bothers him.
“Making sure that young people have safe spaces, job opportunities, apprenticeships. Schools should be open throughout the day and on weekends. These are priorities. We have done none of those things. We couldn’t even get swimming polls open in the summer,” Green said.
“The fact that young people are slapped with curfews instead of given safe spaces, but we had all of this money to put towards a police academy to do right now while young people are literally suffering. It’s just about the timing and the prioritization about how do we care or not care about people in the neighborhoods.”
Mayoral challenger Brandon Johnson agreed.
“Given the devastating increase in violent crime under Mayor Lori Lightfoot, it is more important than ever that we invest holistically in our communities to keep us safe,” Johnson said in a statement.
“On the West Side, there are so many crucial investments we need to make in public safety — from mental health, to youth employment, to public education — and a Johnson administration will prioritize all of them.”
Local Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) waged a sometimes lonely, five-year battle for a project that was once a target of nationwide protests led by Chance the Rapper and the #NoCopAcademy movement.
On Wednesday, Mitts reflected back on that struggle.
“I never really built anything, but I tell you what — you can learn how. Faith without works is dead. And if you don’t believe you can do it, you ain’t never gonna do anything. I just knew that it had to be done,” Mitts said.
“Now, it didn’t come easy. We had to take some bumps — some hills to climb, some ups and downs and some bruises along the way. But our commitment to this city was far greater than those bruises we were being given. They would heal. And as we are here today, we’re going to celebrate the success [after] all the hard work.”
Mitts recalled what happened when Emanuel abruptly decided to retire from politics, leaving her searching for a mayoral candidate who wouldn’t pull the plug on the project.
She was surprised and delighted when Lightfoot not only embraced the training center she once had condemned, but said it wasn’t big enough and told Mitts the footprint “needed to be expanded.”
“That was fine with me,” Mitts told the mayor back then. In that part of her ward, after all, “we don’t have anything anyway.”
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Author: Fran Spielman