As you may know, the City Council last Wednesday voted 48-1 to authorize the acquisition of 30 acres of vacant land in the City’s West Garfield park neighborhood to construct a training facility for police officers, fire fighters and paramedics. Mayor Emanuel sponsored the measure and because it involved a real estate transaction, it came before the City Council Committee on Housing and Real Estate, which I chair.
Allow me to explain why I was one of the 48 alderman to support the proposal. Simply put, the new academy is a necessary step in the long road to reforming our broken Police Department.
I. The proposed public safety training academy is in direct response to the U.S. Justice Department’s call to improve police officer training procedures and facilities.
The fatal police shooting of young Laquan McDonald put into stark relief the urgent need to reform policing in our City and prompted the U.S. Department of Justice to launch an investigation of the Chicago Police Department and issue a report with a series of findings and recommendations. A link to the full report is here:
The Justice Department’s Findings Regarding Use of Force and Lack of Adequate Training
The Justice Department report called for a complete overhaul of nearly every aspect of the Police Department, including the manner in which the Police Department trains police officers.
The Justice Department found that far too often the Chicago Police employ force as the first option, not a last resort. Police and other public safety employees often respond inadequately and insensitively to those suffering from mental illness, frequently causing incidents to escalate.
Field training officers–those who train and mentor new police officers–are themselves poorly trained. And after they receive their initial training, police officers rarely, if ever, are brought back for refresher training courses to learn the latest policing techniques that emphasize de-escalation of conflict and respect for constitutional rights.
The Justice Department did not find fault with our police officers. Instead, they blamed the Police Department for not providing officers with the training and knowledge they needed.
Though some police officers are racist and/or psychologically unfit for the job and should be rooted out of the Police Department through a robust system of accountability, the Justice Department concluded that the vast majority of police officers are trying to do their jobs honorably and simply need the necessary professional training.
Consequently, the Justice Department recommended the Police Department adopt practices and training that avoid the use of force whenever possible and emphasize instead de-escalation and force mitigation. The Justice Department also recommended policies and training that improved interactions with people experiencing a mental health crisis.
As the Justice Department noted in page 156 its report, “Training is the foundation for ensuring that officers are engaging in effective and constitutional policing.”
The City of Chicago’s Response
Even before the Justice Department issued its report, the Police Department launched a department-wide program to train all its officers on a revised use of force policy.
Part and parcel of this new policy is force mitigation training for officers through mental health awareness lessons and scenario-based drills. In short, officers learn how to de-escalate conflicts and avoid the use of force whenever possible. They also learn how to handle individuals who may be going through a mental health crisis. Much of this training will involve “scenario-based training,” in which police officers are trained in staged areas, both inside and outdoors, that mirror real calls for service, such as private residences, stadiums, CTA stations, bar/restaurants, vehicle stops, and the like.
The Police Department also has formed a “Crisis Intervention Team,” which consists of police officers who are tasked with responding to calls involving persons in mental health crises. So far, nearly 2,300 police officers have received training as crisis specialists. The Department also is overhauling its Field Training Officer program to better train those officers who in turn train and mentor probationary police officers–those who just joined the force.
The Police Department will be requiring in-service training on a regular and continuous basis for all 12,500 of its police officers, not simply new recruits. Such training will include scenario-based training, updates on law and Department policy, and refresher courses on important skills and tactics, such as force mitigation and crisis intervention.
Finally, recognizing that the Police Department often does not respond to calls for service alone, the City is implementing new programs to improve collaboration among the Police and Fire Departments and the Office of Emergency Management and Communications, which handles 911 calls.
Breaking down the silos that exist between these three departments is critical to reducing the number of incidents where individuals’ constitutional rights are infringed. Such collaboration is also essential if the City’s first responders are to react effectively to a natural or man-made disaster, such as a weather emergency, industrial accident, large chemical spill or terrorist attack.
The Justice Department’s Findings Regarding the City’s Aging and Inadequate Training Facilities
Unfortunately, the City is greatly hindered in its ability to fully implement the Justice Department’s recommended training reforms because of its aging and inadequate police and fire training facilities.
Police and fire training currently is conducted at nine separate locations scattered throughout the City. The City owns six of the sites–three are used exclusively by the Police Department and three are used exclusively by the Fire Department. The oldest facility is 56 years old. The “newest” is 41 years old. The City also leases three sites that are used either by the Police Department or the Fire Department and occasionally by both.
As the Obama Justice Department noted on pages 103-04 of its report:
“CPD’s training facilities are in disrepair. CPD has made few physical upgrades to its main training facility since it was built in 1976. Training equipment is old and frequently breaks down. This makes conducting trainings difficult, and potentially dangerous. Poor upkeep of CPD’s training facilities also signals to those who work there, those who train there, and to the public, that training is not valued by CPD.” (emphasis added)
The Justice Department went on to write that the “current facilities used by CPD are also insufficient to meet the training needs of a department as large as CPD.” The Justice Department cited a litany of shortcomings, including the lack of an outdoor shooting range, a driver training area, marching/drill grounds, and mock buildings for scenario-based training. It found CPD’s indoor shooting range to be “exceptionally substandard . . . with ventilation so inadequate that it is unhealthy for participants.” (p. 104)
It found one of the scenario training buildings, which is home to the Training and Tactics Unit, to be “dangerous, both because of the dilapidated, inadequate facility, and the lack of adequate safety protocols.” (p. 104). It noted in a footnote in its report that a second facility used for training is on a public street close to an elementary school. “Conducting scenario trainings in such a setting puts the public at risk,” the report found (p. 104, fn. 40).
The Justice Department found the need to allocate additional resources to a training center to be “especially urgent in light of the City’s stated plans to hire nearly 1,000 new officers.” The Justice Department noted this hiring would require the Police Department to “run huge classes” through the Academy each month–while at the same time conducting force mitigation/de-escalation training for the 12,500 current officers. The Justice Department concluded that CPD simply “does not have sufficient personnel, equipment, or space to meet these demands.” (p. 104).
It should be noted that the Justice Department did not take into account the additional space needed for joint training of police and fire officials that best practices now require of any sizable city, and which further highlight the training facilities’ inadequacies.
When the Justice Department published its recommendations last January, it reported “CPD leadership recognizes that the training facilities are inadequate. However, CPD has not dedicated adequate resources to remedying these conditions, significantly impacting the quality and breadth of trainings CPD is able to provide.” (emphasis added)(p.104).
The report went on to state “CPD must identify the resources necessary to make these changes or obtain commitments from the City to provide what is needed. CPD should be empowered with the resources and support it needs to make changes in the best interest of the officers and the public they serve.” (emphasis added)( pp. 104-05).
The City’s Response to the Justice Department’s Criticism of its Training Facilities
The proposed public safety academy is the City’s response to the Justice Department’s concerns about the current training facilities and the need for the City to back its commitments to improve police training with adequate resources.
The proposal calls for combining the police and fire training into one training campus on Chicago’s west side at an estimated cost of $95 million, including land acquisition costs. The proposed site is on 30 acres of vacant land that was one used as a rail yard.
The City is acquiring the property for $9.6 million, which is $3.8 million less than the original asking price and $150,000 less than its appraised value. The purchase will be financed with proceeds from the Northwest Industrial Corridor TIF.
The project will be funded from a variety of sources, including $20 million from the sale of a City of Chicago garage at 1685 N. Throop, $5 million from the sale and redevelopment of a City firehouse at 55 W. Illinois and the sale of the current training facilities, which are appraised at $23.7 million. Funding sources for the remaining $36.7 million will be determined as planning for the project moves forward.
Though planning for the new facility is still in the early stages, the Public Safety Training Facility likely will consist of two buildings and space for outdoor scenario training. A single-story building will house an indoor shooting range, dive tank, and room for indoor scenario training. A multi-story building will include flexible small and large classrooms, an auditorium, simulator rooms and labs, an emergency medical service lab, the Fire Prevention Stay Alive Program, locker rooms, a gymnasium and lunch room.
The outdoor scenario training will include a “scenario training village” with a school bus and CTA train cab and a drive training course, a burn tower, running track and other outdoor scenario base training areas.
Locating the facility in Chicago’s West Garfield Park neighborhood represents a $95 million investment in that struggling neighborhood. It will mean hundreds of officers, firefighters and paramedics coming to and through the West Side every day, adding a public safety presence that will provide additional safety and security to the residents of that community and economic benefits to local businesses.
The City already has pledged to include local residents in the construction project, providing training and jobs to one of the most economically challenged neighborhoods in the City, which is one of the reasons why the local alderman, Emma Mitts, and the neighboring aldermen all strongly support the project.
II. Those who oppose the project present a false choice between funding for police training and funding for education and youth programs.
Despite the Justice Department’s unambiguous call for an overhaul of police training procedures and facilities, some have voiced opposition to the public safety training facility. They argue that the money could be better spent on other needs, especially our schools and programs for our youth, such as after-school and summer jobs programs, mentorship opportunities and the like.
These opponents present a false choice. Spending on education and youth programs and reforming our Police Department should not be an either/or proposition. Both investments are essential to the health and well being of our City and are part of a holistic approach to reducing violent crime and making our neighborhoods safer.
Though funding for our schools traditionally falls within the province of the Board of Education, not the Chicago City Council, the Council has authorized more than $1 billion in TIF funds for capital investments in schools across the city over the past decade. On top of capital expenditures, the City also declares a surplus of TIF funds each year providing CPS with tens of millions of dollars of additional dollars that it can use for school operations.
In addition, the City Council currently is considering the Mayor’s proposed 2018 City budget, which calls for more than $69 million to be invested in children, more than three times the amount the City spent just five years ago. This includes expanded summer jobs and after-school opportunities, mentoring programs for at-risk youth and full-day pre-K education programming.
Clearly more funds are needed for our children and their schools, but those are not the only pressing needs facing City government.
Public safety is a core function of City government and nothing is more important to protecting the public than the repair of our broken system of policing. Improved training of police officers, in and of itself, will not fix the Police Department and restore public trust–a system of accountability that disciplines errant police officers and a robust community policing approach are also sorely needed–but it will go a long way toward accomplishing that goal.
Just two weeks ago, a federal jury awarded a plaintiff $45 million in a police misconduct lawsuit against the Police Department. Though this represented the largest single award ever levied against the City in a case involving police misconduct, City taxpayers over the years have shelled out hundreds of millions of dollars in verdicts and settlements because of intentional and unintentional improper behavior of police
If improved police training results in fewer such lawsuits in the future, the public safety training center will more than pay for itself.
Unfortunately, one of the many tragic consequences of Donald Trump’s election as President is a defanged Justice Department that no longer aggressively pursues police misconduct. That should not let the City of Chicago off the hook.
The findings and recommendations of the Obama Justice Department are just as valid and urgent now as they were last January when the Department issued its report. As City officials, we are obligated to follow its recommendations, even if the current Justice Department no longer wishes to pursue them. This is why I voted in support of the public safety training facility.