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New Boys & Girls Club near police academy could be powerfully good for Chicago

We support the plan in concept. It is bold, even radical. But it will have to be done right.

Rendering of proposed Boys & Girls Club to be built as part of the new police and fire training facility.
Rendering of the Boys & Girls Club (left) proposed to be built on West Chicago Avenue in Garfield Park, on the campus of city’s planned new police and fire training facility (right).
City of Chicago

It comes as no surprise that anti-cop activists are up in arms about a controversial plan to build a Boys & Girls Club adjacent to a new police and fire training academy in Garfield Park.

The opposition comes largely from the #NoCopAcademy movement, which remains adamantly opposed to the training academy and would prefer that the city “defund” its police force and spend that money, tens of millions of dollars each year, elsewhere.

The new Boys & Girls Club, in their view, would be nothing but a “slap in the face” to Black youth who deeply mistrust our city’s police force.

“Sugar-coating a plan that is due to fail,” activist and frequent mayoral critic Ja’Mal Green said. “This whole campus should be a youth center where young people can grow and thrive. Instead, it’s a police academy.”

“Police officers don’t make Black children feel safe,” Destiny Harris, a youth organizer for the #NoCopAcademy campaign, said. “How can you expect Black and Brown children to come into this space and feel comfortable?”

Let’s be clear: We get it. Chicago indeed has a long and terrible history of police abuse and misconduct. This has left large segments of Black Chicago deeply, and rightfully, suspicious of the police and convinced that cops patrol their communities to harass and arrest, not to serve and protect.

Chicago must do all in its powers to change that dynamic. Profound reform of the police department is necessary. But “defunding” is not likely what most Chicagoans, including Black Chicagoans, are aiming for, as one national poll after another has shown. A new MacArthur Foundation/Harris Poll on public safety found that 58% of Chicagoans oppose the movement to defund police. National polls have similar findings, including a March USA Today/Ipsos poll that found fewer than one in five Americans — and just 28% of Black Americans — support the defunding movement.

Let’s be clear on this, too: Building a new Boys & Girls Club in close proximity to a police training academy is in itself a radical idea. One policing reform expert we spoke with could not think of another city that has attempted anything similar as part of policing reform.

We support the plan in concept. But to work, it will have to be done right.

Safe and welcomed

Young people must feel safe and welcomed, not under surveillance, when they show up for after-school programs and basketball games. Police cadets must be taught to interact positively with youth and the rest of the surrounding West Side community. Programs to facilitate interaction will be needed.

It will be hard to break down decades-old barriers of mistrust, but we believe Chicago has the capacity to make this proposal work. We see, as well, a powerful opportunity to bring a much-needed resource to a West Side neighborhood that has been starved for such amenities for far too long.

Ask any true expert in the field of big city policing: The best police departments are, in the most positive ways, part of the fabric of their communities.

“I reject the notion that kids and police should be nowhere near each other,” policing expert Lorenzo Boyd of the University of New Haven, told us. “They should be around each other, and this brings them in proximity with one another.”

“I want police to understand the lived experience of the kids in the neighborhood,” Boyd added, explaining that it’s something he stresses in his training sessions with officers around the country. “And the more kids, and adults, get to know officers in a non-law enforcement way, the better. If it works, it can be great.”

Taking to heart 2017 police reform report

The driving force behind our views on this matter are the findings and recommendations of the U.S. Justice Department’s landmark 2017 report on the Chicago Police Department. The report pulled no punches as to the disgraceful state of policing in Chicago, and a federal court-monitored consent decree for reform embraced the report’s specific recommendations.

The Justice Department report concluded that inadequate training, carried out in an outdated and run-down facility, is a huge obstacle to true reform of CPD. State-of-the-art training is essential, but virtually impossible to achieve without better facilities. That is why we have supported construction of the new facility despite criticisms that it is somehow an undeserved “gift” to the police.

The DOJ also concluded that a more cooperative, less adversarial relationship between cops and citizens is essential. Without better relations, effective policing is impossible. Citizens will never feel safe.

We’re optimistic that, so far, the city is on the right track. As Planning and Development Commissioner Maurice Cox told us, the Boys & Girls Club and the city ultimately decided to pursue the idea, keeping in mind Chicago’s fraught history of policing.

“We asked ourselves, could we do something tangible to build a bridge between youth and public safety by pairing them next to each other?” Cox said. “There was a lot of concern about reopening old wounds.”

Young people involved in planning

Getting young people engaged in the planning process was important and essential, Cox told us. “We didn’t want advocates for youth in the room,” he said. “We wanted youth themselves in the room.”

That group of about 30 young people — recruited from schools, other Boys & Girls Clubs, and elsewhere — have been involved in the planning since last November. And from the city’s short list of prospective lead architects, the group selected the winner, Latent Design, a firm founded by Black architect Katharine Darnstadt.

The group of young people also weighed in on the design of the club itself, which is to look out onto a public plaza intended to encourage mingling and interaction among the police, young people and community visitors.

“It’s an important conversation that activists are trying to have,” Cox said. “But once the conversation dies down, we have to think about what we’re going to leave, and whether we’ve shaped and changed things for the better.”

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