In a dramatic and contentious meeting Wednesday, Chicago City Council approved a controversial plan to build a $95 million police and fire academy on the city's West Side, handing outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel one of his final big victories before leaving office.
City Hall was crowded for hours with a large and raucous crowd of roughly 300 members of the public, mostly young activists opposed to the academy, and a police presence to match.
Aldermen voted in favor of approving the contract, 38-8.
Proponents of the new state-of-the-art academy say it will better equip police to fight crime using 21st century tactics and technologies. But the academy’s opponents say it could further militarize the police force and that those millions of dollars should instead be used to reinvest in blighted communities.
The academy will be built on a vacant plot of land in West Garfield Park, located at 4301 W. Chicago Ave, which will butt up against Ald. Jason Ervin’s 28th Ward. Ervin has said he supports the academy because it will improve safety conditions in his neighborhood.
“Folks who don’t live on the West Side aren’t going to tell us how to live,” Ervin said as protestors tried to shout over him.
Jeers from the gallery intensified as Ervin shouted at them, “Elections have consequences, and you lost!”
Protestors in the upper viewing gallery could be heard chanting “Let us in!” through the early floor debate on the contract. Ald. Carlos Rosa, of the 35th Ward, was one of the academy’s opponents and rose to defend the protesters who weren’t allowed in to the council’s chambers.
“I count approximately 40 or 50 seats that are open [in the chamber], and I certainly hope that if we are going to be a democratic, legislative and deliberative body that is open to the public, that we’re going to let the people in,” Rosa said.
Emanuel tried to deliver remarks on the contract’s passage, but was interrupted by activists chanting “Our community is not for sale” and “16 shots covered by CPD.” They were promptly removed by police officers as Emanuel continued his remarks, having to deliver them over the screams and shrieks from outside the chamber.
In 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division released an investigation into the Chicago Police Department’s policies, use of force, officer conduct, training policies and more. The investigation concluded that the Chicago Police Department violated constitutional rights by engaging in a "pattern or practice of use of excessive force," in part by failing to effectively train officers.
In discussion over the proposed academy Wednesday, 30th Ward Ald. Ariel Rebroyas highlighted the Justice Department’s concerns, saying it’s all about “training, training, training.”
Ald. Anthony Napolitano, a former police officer and firefighter who represented the 41st Ward, was interrupted as he tried to express his support for the academy.
“This is where the neighborhood wants the academy to go,” Napolitano said. “I’ve worked these streets along with Ald. [Nicholas] Sposato and that’s exactly what the neighborhood needs.”
Mayoral candidate and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said on Twitter that as mayor, she “will not proceed with this project until we have a real conversation about public safety” and that she commends the activists for speaking out.
Mayoral candidate Lori Lightfoot, who Emanuel had previously appointed to serve as president of the Chicago Police Board and chair of the Police Accountability Task Force, said at a University of Chicago forum Wednesday that she doesn’t support the academy as it is because communities weren’t consulted before drafting a proposal. Lightfoot said she would support a bigger, more expensive facility that could attract all levels of law enforcement.
The City Council awarded the building contract to multi-national engineering giant AECOM, which has overseen a number of notable projects, like the Barclays Center, One World Trade Center and locally, the O’Hare modernization project.
Previously, AECOM was forced to pay a $57.5 million settlement to the U.S. Department of Energy for using deficient materials in their building of a nuclear weapons facility in Washington, and a subsidiary was charged by federal prosecutors for fraudulently billing clients over 10 years.