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Mayoral candidates misfire on police, fire training 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

If not this, then what? On Wednesday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel celebrated the Chicago City Council’s sign-off of a new, $95 million police and fire training academy in a 38-to-8 vote.

It came over the shouts of hundreds of protesters at City Hall.

At a forum across town, the women who would replace Emanuel, Lori Lightfoot and Toni Preckwinkle added to the chorus.

OPINION

Opponents have excoriated the academy project, arguing the $95 million should instead go to mental health services, schools and job training.

Supporters say the Chicago’s Police Department is in dire need of a first-rate training, a key component of the city’s court-ordered consent decree.

Chicago is in dire need of better officer training that might have saved the life of Laquan McDonald. The city doled out $133 million in payouts and legal costs to settle police misconduct cases in 2018, shows a new analysis by The Chicago Reporter.

Lightfoot and Preckwinkle appeared separately Wednesday at a mayoral forum on public safety, hosted by the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics, the Harris School of Public Policy and Crime Lab. I moderated a panel of experts who queried the candidates on their plans.

Panelist Charles Ramsey is a nationally known consultant who led the police departments in Philadelphia and Washington D.C., and is a former deputy superintendent and a 30-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department.

On a recent visit to a state-of-the-art $750 million police training facility in New York City, Ramsey was struck by its 21st century features.  It included space for scenarios and role playing, even equipped with a mock bar and subway car.

The city’s current police training facility is at least 45 years old, Ramsey noted.

“Training is essential. Without training and education, (the consent decree) it’s simply not going to go very far,” said Ramsey, who serves on police consent decree monitoring teams in Baltimore and Cleveland.

If not this, what?  Both candidates were vague on the “what.”

Preckwinkle said she is not opposed to a training academy. “I just question whether or not we need to spend $95 million on a brand-new facility, whether there’s an opportunity to reuse a facility elsewhere.”

Does she have another location? A different plan? “No, but that’s something that I’m prepared to work on.”

Lightfoot vowed to “do whatever I can do to right any wrongs” of the academy plan if she becomes the next mayor.

“I think there has to be in every investment that we make a process that starts with respectful engagement of people in the community whose lives are going to be most affected by a project.”

There should be multiple training centers across the city, she said. Some of the 38 schools Emanuel closed years ago “could be repurposed” as training facilities, Lightfoot suggested.

I’m all for saving money, but slapping some paint on the walls of a few crumbling schools won’t do it.

The candidates pitched many ideas to enhance public safety, from a new violence prevention office, to reviving community policing, to major investments in social services and job training.

Their plans were long on rhetoric but short on specifics.

They will look for cuts and efficiencies in the Police Department’s budget, they said. Enhanced police training will reduce the huge financial burden of misconduct settlements, they said.

A first-rate, 21st century training program could help us get there.

The needs are massive. The answers, few.

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