Mayor Lori Lightfoot and top officials with the Chicago Police Department and Chicago Fire Department gathered with dozens of people Wednesday morning for a ribbon-cutting event at the new $170 million joint-training facility in West Garfield Park, which has been criticized by activists since its inception.
“This has been a very important day for this community,” Lightfoot said. “It’s a very important day for police and fire, but it’s a really important day for our city.”
The Chicago Joint Public Safety Training Campus, 4433 W. Chicago Ave., is on the 30.4-acre site of a former railroad yard. The facility will be used by members of CPD, CFD and the Office of Emergency Management and Communications. The “modern training campus” will include community spaces, computer labs, classrooms, scenario training and an indoor shooting range, according to the Public Building Commission.
The campus will also include a six-story tower with each story simulating a different environment that firefighters encounter such as apartments, hotels and office buildings as well as an elevator shaft, Lightfoot said.
There is also an indoor scenario village that includes a four-way intersection, a bar, apartment building, convenience store and office space, Lightfoot said. The facility’s lighting can be controlled to simulate different times of day and special-effect devices including a smoke machine and speakers to simulate different conditions.
Police Superintendent David Brown highlighted that the department trained just under 1,000 recruits last year, which was the most the department has hired since the 2017-2018 time frame. Of those, 70% were people of color and 30% were women.
All of the Police Department’s members will come through the facility, including new and veteran officers who have to complete 40 hours of training on an annual basis, as required by the federal consent decree the department is now under, Brown said.
“A $170 million facility shows that this city supports its police officers. Spread the word,” Brown said. “This training facility will hopefully put COPA (the Civilian Office of Police Accountability) out of business.”
The facility was dedicated to MaShawn Plummer, a firefighter who died in 2022 while on duty, and police Cmdr. Paul Bauer, who was fatally shot in 2018 while trying to apprehend a suspect. The scenario village will also include several mock street signs in dedication to fallen members such as “French St.” for Officer Ella French who was fatally shot during a traffic stop in 2021.
The project was not only the right thing to do for first responders, Lightfoot said, but it was also the right thing to do for the West Side community that has been resource-starved for so long.
“I’m confident this facility will strengthen our relationships with the Austin and West Humboldt Park communities,” fire Commissioner Annette Nance-Holt said.
Sharing the location with the Boys and Girls Club is “truly a blessing,” Nance-Holt said. The children going to club activities will have a chance to see first responders who can relate to them and “hopefully spark a dream to one day serve this great city as a firefighter, paramedic or a police officer.”
Despite the officials’ excitement over the facility, which was introduced under Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2017, many activists and notable figures, including Chance the Rapper, fought against the project. Those who opposed it wanted to see the funds allocated toward other city resources such as schools, mental health centers and job-training programs.
A group of Chicago youth, members of #NoCopAcademy, held protests and attended City Council meetings to advocate against the facility. They staged a “die-in” in the City Hall lobby in 2018 with cardboard tombstones of the names of people killed in police shootings and names of schools and other institutions that were shut down by the city due to lack of funds.
Destiny Harris, 22, an organizer with #NoCopAcademy who grew up in the Austin neighborhood, said she got involved because her old high school, Whitney M. Young, is a neighbor of the police academy on Jackson Boulevard. She remembers students could hear mock drills and gunshots without warning, and it was traumatizing, especially for students who came from neighborhoods with high levels of gun violence.
Harris said she learned the new facility was to open up next to her parents’ alma mater, Orr Academy High School, at 730 N. Pulaski Road, which raised concerns for her.
Her group worked to push back on the narrative that more police mean a safer community, Harris said. Many people in Black and brown communities do not feel safe with more officers present.
“If police make communities safer, then Chicago would be one of the safest places in the nation, but it’s not,” she said. “Police are a reactionary force that doesn’t address the root causes of the violence. … If we want to make communities safer, then we need to address all of the things that make communities unsafe, like, drugs and drug prevention, like the fact that like when people don’t have anywhere to stay … they’re more likely to steal or rob.”
Harris said she felt like it was a “slap in the face” that the city used the killing of Laquan McDonald as justification for building a new police academy. It also felt unfair that the Board of Education voted to close nearly 50 schools in 2013, including her grade school, Key Elementary, due to a budget deficit yet had millions to spend on the construction of a police academy.
Despite the facility opening, Harris said she is proud of the work of #NoCopAcademy, and that it inspired more movements in Chicago and even nationally, such as protests currently happening in Atlanta around a proposed police training facility.
“We really did shift the narrative for a lot of people around what community safety looks like,” she said. “Even though this is happening, it’s a testament to the fact that the movement is never over. That there’s always still work to be done.”