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EDITORIAL: Lightfoot and Preckwinkle get it wrong on building new 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

In the 1980s, City Hall decided that Chicago should relocate its central public library — and on the cheap.

So the powers that be, beginning with Mayor Jane Byrne, announced that the library would be housed in an empty department store on State Street.

This was a bad idea. It was beneath the ambitions and cultural sophistication of a city such as Chicago. And the Sun-Times launched a successful two-year campaign to kill the plan. 

Today, fortunately, Chicago can boast of the Harold Washington Library, worth every dollar of its $144 million price tag.

But now we’re seeing a replay of such civic short-sightedness.

Even as Mayor Rahm Emanuel is pushing ahead on building a $95 million training academy for police officers and firefighters on the West Side, both candidates for mayor — Lori Lightfoot and Toni Preckwinkle — have made their opposition clear.

That’s unfortunate. And we’re glad to see Emanuel and the City Council moving forward on the project. We hope the next mayor, whomever she may be, eventually will give her full support.

Lightfoot and Preckwinkle both oppose the current project, but they wholeheartedly agreed on the need for better police training as part of a larger effort to reform the practices and culture of the Chicago Police Department.

Emanuel’s plan is on a fast track, approved on Thursday by the Zoning Committee.

In a letter to the committee’s chair, Ald. James Cappleman, Preckwinkle wrote that it was “ill-advised” to move forward on the new training facility at a time when the city “faces acute budgetary challenges.”

After the committee’s vote, Lightfoot argued that the new facility would not be cost-effective. Instead, she said, the city should consider re-purposing one of the city’s dozens of closed schools or another empty building.  

We respect the views of both candidates. Lightfoot’s opinion carries particular weight, given the central role she played in bringing to fruition a court-monitored consent decree to overhaul the Chicago Police Department.

But if Chicago has learned nothing in the last several years — after a string of police-involved shootings and cases of misconduct that led people to march in the streets — it is that the level of trust between many communities and the police is lousy. And better training — superb training in a state-of-the-art facility — is at the heart of the cure.

Here’s what the Department of Justice wrote after conducting a study of the police department:

“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.”

The message is clear: Chicago needs a spanking new police academy. Jerry-rigging it into an empty school building or former factory makes about as much sense as piling books into a Goldblatt’s store and calling it a library.

The new training academy will bring jobs to its Garfield Park neighborhood. It will provide an opportunity for the police, if done right, to build closer bonds with West Side residents. It will produce better trained Chicago police officers.

Ald. Emma Mitts worked to bring the academy to her ward, the 37th. It is no wonder that other African-American aldermen tried to land the academy, too.

After the zoning committee vote, a member of a grassroots group opposed to the training facility, One #NoCopAcademy, called Ald. Cappleman a racist and sell-out.

Talk about a cheap shot — one we’ve heard too often.

Reasonable people can disagree on the merits of the new academy. There is also no doubt that Chicago must do more to address the social roots of crime, such as mental illness, unemployment, poverty and inadequate schools.

But there is nothing racist about going the extra mile to create a police force that fully respects everybody’s civil liberties.

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