Residents of Black communities on the West and South sides of Chicago are fighting tooth and nail to defend resources in their neighborhoods threatened by Rahm Emanuel, the man some deem “America’s Worst Mayor.” Meanwhile, Emanuel travels across the country, promoting Chicago as a great place to “work and play.” The hard-hitting Democratic Party fundraiser and strategist has worked tirelessly over the past two years to recover from his role in the Laquan McDonald scandal, even calling for “nothing less than total and complete reform of the system.” Emanuel is accused of suppressing the video of the October 2014 murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by a Chicago police officer for 400 days in order to help secure his bid for re-election in 2015.
In 2015, Emanuel begrudgingly allowed the Department of Justice (DOJ) to investigate the Chicago Police Department (CPD), resulting in a report that stated CPD officers routinely used excessive force and most of their ire was focused on Black and Latinx residents of the city. However, Emanuel masterfully manipulated the findings of the investigation into a proposal to build a massive new training compound — a $95 million “cop academy” — for the CPD in the majority Black and perennially disinvested neighborhood of West Garfield Park.
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We filed a series of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests regarding the cop academy, which have uncovered a number of troubling findings, full details of which remain withheld and redacted. For example, planning for this new cop academy began months before the DOJ report was released, so could not have been a response to the report’s findings. Plus, Emanuel seems intent on using this facility as a regional and national police-training hub. Further, the mayor’s office colluded with a city department for facilities management called Fleet and Facilities Management (2FM) and the CPD to facilitate the use of closed Chicago public school properties for police training.
While the stated purpose of the proposed cop academy is to facilitate the “improved” training encouraged by the DOJ, there’s little evidence to suggest this will lead to meaningful changes. Moreover, communities fighting for resources across Chicago are wary of seeing more resources spent on policing.
Emanuel and the Department of Justice Masquerade
Emanuel has rolled out various “police reforms” in the past two years to champion his new “tough on CPD” stance. He’s rallied behind the use of body cameras, and has talked about the importance of more compassionate training techniques. He has promoted the use of Tasers in some circumstances as an alternative to guns. However, all of these supposed fixes ultimately work to expand resources and budgets for police, with little to no impact on CPD’s longstanding racism and violence. What’s more, Emanuel doesn’t appear to believe in the reforms he champions.
Even with Department of Justice intervention and the investment of money in police department “reforms,” the outcomes for communities show little improvement.
In December, 2015, he initially resisted calls for DOJ review, and relented only after public pressure from fellow Democrats. When the DOJ completed its yearlong investigation in January, 2017, Emanuel initially agreed to sign a consent decree that would have been overseen by a federal judge. A consent decree is a court-enforced settlement between the DOJ and a police department that has been found to display a “pattern and practice” of misconduct.
Once Obama’s presidency ended, Emanuel colluded with Trump’s Justice Department to attempt to avoid federal oversight by trying to arrange for a memorandum of understanding (MOU) instead of the consent decree. MOUs are not legally enforceable, meaning that it would be left to Emanuel and the CPD to be responsible for changes requested by the DOJ with only an “appointed monitor” providing oversight. Only after being sued by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan did Emanuel relent.
Currently, Emanuel appears to wholeheartedly accept the DOJ findings, and is using a recommendation given in the report regarding police training to justify the need for an expanded and updated CPD training facility. However, the documents we uncovered reveal that email conversations about the academy were taking place between the mayor’s office and 2FM as early as October 2016, a full three months before the DOJ released its findings in January 2017.
Further, while Emanuel sees the DOJ recommendations as a salve for CPD, there is evidence to suggest that large-scale, federal overhauls of police forces that are initiated by the Justice Department do little to deter police misconduct in the long term. According to a 2015 Washington Post article, the Pittsburgh Police Department has struggled to retain the reforms that were supposedly set in place after its DOJ consent decree was lifted. The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) was also under a consent decree from 2001 until 2013. Compliance with this consent was costly: it totaled $300 million, which includes $41 million spent on the renovation of the LAPD’s training academy. In 2013, the ACLU lauded the LAPD for efforts to change the force, and declared, “This is no longer your father’s Los Angeles Police Department.” However, from 2013-2017, no police department in the country killed more people than the LAPD.
There is clear evidence that even with Department of Justice intervention and the investment of money in police department “reforms,” the outcomes for communities show little improvement.
Schools for Cops, Not for Kids
Rahm Emanuel came under fire both locally and nationally for his role in the largest public school closure in the history of the United States in 2013. That year, he oversaw the closure of 49 Chicago Public Schools (CPS), displacing thousands of Black and Brown students. Currently, parents, teachers and students are fighting his proposed closure of all four public high schools in Englewood, as well as the conversion of National Teachers’ Academy — a successful neighborhood school located on Chicago’s Near South Side, serving mostly Black and Brown students — into a selective enrollment high school.
In 2015, Emanuel wanted to shutter Dyett High School in the Bronzeville neighborhood, another predominantly Black community just south of the loop in Chicago. Community members fought to save the high school, and the school remained open only after concerned parents and grandparents staged a historic 34-day hunger strike, which garnered national media coverage. In 2016, against parent, teacher and student desires, a small elementary school charter operating out of a CPS property, the Bronzeville Lighthouse/Hartigan building, closed its doors.
Advocates from all over Chicago have been calling out the Emanuel administration’s hypocrisy: Adequate city funds for Chicago Public Schools are not materializing, but the city is more than willing to sell old properties and dip into tax increment financing (TIF) coffers to support a massive expansion project for CPD.
Through FOIA requests, the authors discovered emails from the mayor’s chief of staff attempting to facilitate the use of the recently closed Bronzeville Lighthouse/Hartigan school building for expanded CPD training, before the construction of the new academy.
The commissioner of Fleet and Facilities Management, the director of training for CPD and Emanuel’s chief of staff corresponded for weeks in an attempt to stave off a private bid for the closed building, so that CPD officers could make use of it. Here’s an excerpt from the emails uncovered through FOIA:
“Attached is a list of vacant CPS buildings. I took a quick look at those closed in 2015 and 2016 via Google Maps. The facilities highlighted on the list appear to have ample parking … I didn’t look at the buildings closed in 2013 or earlier since they will likely be boarded-up and harder to put back into service than the recently closed buildings.” — David J. Reynolds, Commissioner, Fleet and Facilities Management, October 17, 2016.
The Chicago Police Department has a precedent of using closed school buildings for tactical training and K9 training, but this particular negotiation hits close to home for organizers fighting school closures in the same neighborhood of Bronzeville.
Larry Dean is a member of Black Youth Project 100, an organization of young Black activists fighting for justice and freedom for all Black people, and he has been supporting the effort to fight school closures on the Southside. “I think it’s part of a larger strategy by Mayor Rahm Emanuel to continue to facilitate the school-to-prison pipeline — to take buildings that were dedicated to education in underserved communities and Black communities — and turn them into uses for the police department, which already gets $4 million per day,” Dean told Truthout. “It just is not in the interest of the people who live there, and I think that the fact that that’s something that’s not well-known, that the community doesn’t have insight into, is further proof that the mayor just hates Black communities, doesn’t support what we do and is not going to give us an equal right to education or life in this city.”
A Regional Police Training Hub in the Heart of Chicago’s Westside
Emails uncovered through FOIA requests also revealed that members of 2FM, CPD and the Chicago Fire Department visited Appleton, Wisconsin, in 2017 to tour Fox Valley Technical College’s Public Safety Training Center (PSTC). The PSTC opened in 2015, and its website boasts that the facility is “a national leader in public safety and resources” able to “provide you and your staff with the knowledge you need most.” Indeed, the PSTC has garnered national recognition for its simulation technology, which is comprised of “several mock crime scene scenarios … including a hotel with adjoining bar, a convenience store, a bank, and two houses for the study of forensic science investigation.” These innovations sound strikingly similar to ones planned for the cop academy.
Initially, Appleton, Wisconsin, seems an unlikely inspiration for Chicago’s proposed cop academy, as it’s located on a rural site, miles from the nearest schools and population centers, in a town of 70,000. However, there is evidence Emanuel envisions that the expanded cop academy in West Garfield Park — a densely populated, historically divested from, majority-Black neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago — will operate similarly to PSTC. Emanuel has stated his hopes that regional, national and international police departments will travel to Chicago to learn law enforcement techniques — all from a corrupt department that has never been meaningfully held accountable for the violence and abuse it perpetrates.
#NoCopAcademy: Charting a New Course for Ending Police Violence
Emanuel wields a great deal of influence as the mayor of one of the nation’s largest cities, as well as a long-time Democratic power player. His views on police reform and what he believes it should look like doubtless influence other major cities dealing with the scourge of overwhelming police violence that is focused almost exclusively on marginalized people. Resisting Emanuel’s proposal is a critical part of refusing to allow the liberal establishment to dictate the terms/solution to the problem of police violence around the country.
Supported by more than 50 organizations across Chicago, young people from Assata’s Daughters — an organization of young Black women in Chicago fighting for Black liberation — have been on the front lines of fighting Emanuel’s agenda and demanding a radical transformation of budget priorities in Chicago, as well as a resolution to the crisis of police violence. In under six months, the #NoCopAcademy campaign has been wildly successful in turning what would otherwise have been a mundane city maneuver into a national controversy, by demanding that rather than expand CPD training capabilities with a $95 million new cop academy, Chicago invest in young people instead. In that way, the youth leaders with the #NoCopAcademy campaign are both visionary and upholding a Chicago tradition.
More than a year before the DOJ released its report on Chicago police violence, young people of color with We Charge Genocide and Black Youth Project 100 had clearly and consistently stated in their own report and actions that the only way to stop police violence was to halt the constant increase of funds that facilitate said violence. As the #NoCopAcademy campaign pushes back on Emanuel’s false solution, young Black people across the city are demanding resources for schools and communities. Rather than taking at face value the word of a politician who has repeatedly shown his capacity to hide and alter the truth for his own political gain, we would do well to listen to young Black people about what they need to survive and thrive in Chicago. Similarly, instead of allowing police departments and mayors to dictate the terms of what creates safe communities, and how to respond to the violence inflicted by those same departments, more cities should listen to marginalized young people and follow their lead in charting a new course forward.