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EDITORIAL: A new police academy is central to the reform Chicago sorely needs

Chicago Police Department training academy

A proposed $95 million public safety academy in West Garfield Park would replace the existing training facility at 1300 W. Jackson, which officials say is cramped and outdated. | Sun-Times library

When you call 911 for help, who would you rather have show up?

A police officer trained mostly with PowerPoints, videos and lectures?

Or a cop who’s had hands-on, scenario-based training, rehearsing till he or she gets it right on responding to a domestic call, a mental health crisis or a shooting in progress?

Right now, you’re stuck with too much of the former. Insufficient training is par for the course with the Chicago Police Department, and that’s not us talking. The Justice Department made that clear last year, and Chicago has to do better.

EDITORIAL

If the solution includes building a new public safety training academy, as the city now plans to do in West Garfield Park, we say, let’s plow forward. It would also include new training facilities for the fire department.

Some three years ago, this editorial page and many others urged the Justice Department to put our city’s police force under a microscope, figure out what was wrong and how to set it right. Then last year, the Justice Department did just that, in a scathing report that laid bare decades of unprofessional, slipshod, corrupt and biased practices that have destroyed trust between police and the people they are sworn to protect and serve — especially in the African-American community.

Such as officers who shoot at cars and fleeing suspects without justification. Officers who use Tasers without justification. Officers who use bullets when Tasers will do. Officers who fail to call for backup and wait when that is the most prudent course of action, or who don’t do enough to de-escalate tense, life-or-death situations.

If fixing all this is not a top priority for Chicago, what is?

So when Justice Department experts say bad training plays a huge role in dangerous, ineffective policing, we believe them. And when they strongly suggest that the city’s current 42-year-old training facility is inadequate for the hands-on training essential to teaching safe, effective policing, we believe them on that, too.

Here’s part of what the Justice Department wrote:

“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 … also signals to those who work there, those who train there and to the public, that training is not valued by CPD. The current facilities used by CPD are also insufficient to meet the training needs of a department as large as CPD.”

Undoubtedly, a new academy is just one important step. Reforming our city’s police force will take much more.

Training techniques have to be improved so that a new facility is worth the huge investment. Bad cops have to go, so good cops can do their jobs without hindrance. The entire reform effort should be conducted under a robust court-supervised consent decree.

And any plan for civilian oversight of police deserves careful, deliberate consideration, not the rushed vote through City Council, that’s apparently now in the works.

Finally, racial bias in policing must be more bluntly addressed. The police department can’t just train away racist attitudes, but it can train officers in greater professionalism, a counter to such attitudes. It can, all the better, do a more aggressive job of screening out candidates for the police force who harbor such bigotry.

The #NoCopAcademy campaign opposes the building of a new police academy and wants the city, instead, to spend the estimated $95 million cost on education, mental health care, jobs and the like. Making communities safer is about more than better-trained cops, they point out. We agree.

But one agenda need not cancel out another, and we can’t imagine taking a pass on this long-sought opportunity to improve the quality of Chicago policing. One reason Chicago finds itself short on funds for more social services, better schools and other priorities is because it burns through millions of dollars every year to settle lawsuits that stem from bad policing. Chicago has spent $370 million on settlements in recent years, and the tab is rising. That’s a lot of mental health counselors and after-school activities.

Let’s remember, too, that a new police academy in West Garfield Park will bring development and jobs to a long-neglected part of town.

Let’s listen to William Tanksley, a self-described ex-offender whom we met on a recent walk around the neighborhood.

“Take them [young men] off the corners and let them help build it,” he says. “If you do, the relationship with cops would get better. Other neighborhoods would see it and say, ‘Wow, look at what cops did in that community. Maybe they can do it here too.’ ”

And let’s listen to David McDaniels, a young man who complained to us that the police are engaged in the community only when “someone gets killed.”

“But it could help,” he told us, “if you do something for the young people and also have something for the community to come in to do, some kind of program for them.”

A new police academy in West Garfield Park, if done right, presents our city with an opportunity to build a more professional police force and greater community trust.

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