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Both mayoral candidates opposed, but Zoning Committee OKs $95M police academy

Photo of a rendering of a new police/fire training facility in West Garfield Park

A rendering of the proposed public safety training facility in Garfield Park was displayed at City Hall Thursday. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

The City Council’s Zoning Committee on Thursday forged full-speed ahead with plans to build a new $95 million police and fire training academy in West Garfield Park — over the strenuous objections of both mayoral candidates, whose hands would be tied by the vote.

Lori Lightfoot and Toni Preckwinkle are united in opposing a project that has become a symbol to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s critics of his misplaced spending priorities. Also opposed are young people organized under the #NoCopAcademy label.

That didn’t stop the Zoning Committee from ramming through an “institutional planned development” paving the way building the new, 500,000 square-foot academy campus on 30 acres at 4301 W. Chicago Ave.

It was a somewhat risky move for new Zoning Committee Chairman Ald. James Cappleman (46th), who presided over Thursday’s stormy meeting.

He’s locked in an April 2 runoff with Marianne Lalonde, who opposes the project and plans to use it against him.

“It’s an irresponsible use of funding. There are better uses for that $95 million. The money should go elsewhere,” Lalonde said Thursday.

Photo of a map of a new police/fire training facility in West Garfield Park

A map of the proposed police and training facility in West Garfield Park was displayed at City Hall news Thursday. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

At one point, an activist representing the #NoCopAcademy movement said, “Cappleman, you’re a racist….You sold your soul to the devil, Rahm Emanuel.”

But Cappleman stood his ground.

“This facility needs to be in the center of the city where there is woundedness and distrust. The task of the consent decree is to help restore the trust of many people of color, who have had too many experiences where their lives have been threatened and their trust has been broken,” Cappleman said.

“My wish is that, as the police and those in the community they serve have more opportunity to interact with one another, possibly some healing can begin.”

Prior to the final vote, local Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) delivered an impassioned plea for the jobs, contracts and security that the massive project and the influx of police officers will bring to her impoverished West Side community.

“Mayoral candidates said, ‘Stop. Hold up.’ … Why? Where were they when these kids were being shot down in the streets? Where were they at when we were having a disconnect in the community? Stop? No. Stop and you don’t get nothing. I’m here to say ‘go.’ We want this project and we want it now. I’m not willing to wait another second,” Mitts said.

“I’m not willing to have our kids being not able to go outside. I’m not willing to put up with the fear of walking down the street. I want to work with the police. Let’s get something done. … I want the mayoral candidates to know long before they decided to run for mayor, I was working on this project and my community doesn’t want to wait. We want this project. We want to stop this bleed of saying the kids are scared of the police.”

Noting that Mitts avoided a runoff with 54 percent of the vote against two opponents, West Side Ald. Michael Scott (24th) urged his colleagues to “vote in favor of the community that voted in favor of her.”

Once the City Council signs off on a pending design and build contract, the academy would appear to be a done deal.

But Lightfoot said she plans to do “everything I can from the outside to stop this process from moving forward” by generating “community outrage.”

A former police board president who co-chaired Emanuel’s Task Force on Police Accountability, Lightfoot acknowledged that the Chicago Police Department needs better and more frequent training to meet the demands of a consent decree that takes effect Friday.

But she argued that Emanuel’s top-down plan to “throw a bone to Emma Mitts” was “flawed from the beginning” and that there are more cost-effective ways to accomplish the goal of better training.

“We have 38 schools that are massive that are sitting on the city [tax] rolls. We have lots of abandoned property in neighborhoods that absolutely need economic development. There’s lots of things we can think of to re-purpose existing land and property,” Lightfoot said.

“This doesn’t make sense to me. And only having one site instead of having things more convenient. Our police work all over the city. They live all over the city. Does it make sense for us to have one location on the Far West Side? It’s a conversation we have to have. It didn’t happen because it was an idea that was cooked up on the fifth floor of City Hall instead of engaging relevant stakeholders and thinking through this in a way that is thoughtful and really serves the needs of our police department.”