COVID Needs Are Urgent, But Many Cities Are Prioritizing Police Funding Instead

We are in the midst of a global pandemic that has produced a massive economic crisis, in which millions are struggling to meet their basic needs. Meanwhile, in many mid-sized cities – including Houston, San Diego and Pittsburgh — police funding continues unabated, even as funding for crucial programs is cut.

Chicago is another prime example. In this city, tens of thousands of people are facing severe hardship, unemployment and housing insecurity, and winter is coming. The City of Chicago has a budget deficit of more than a billion dollars, yet Mayor Lori Lightfoot is pushing full speed ahead on building former Mayor Emanuel’s proposed police academy: a 30-plus-acre walled compound for expanded police training located in a historically divested, majority Black neighborhood on the west side of Chicago.

Plans for the cop academy are proceeding with no comprehensive budget, timeline or transparency, and are doing so in the face of massive city-wide support for divesting from policing, not expanding it. Many Chicagoans have embraced the call to defund the police, with months of sustained protests as uprisings have swept the country. In Chicago, the scale of these protests was unprecedented, with actions happening across the city. Tens of thousands of people were in the streets for weeks after the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade. A coalition geared toward defunding the Chicago Police Department (#DefundCPD) has emerged and grown. Lightfoot’s own budget survey last month revealed that 87 percent of Chicagoans favor diverting funds away from policing and into community services.

After months of protests and no real police reform, Lightfoot recently made moves to allocate an additional $20,250,010 for the cop academy, despite the fact that not a single brick has been laid yet.

On September 10, the Lightfoot administration asked the Public Building Commission (PBC) to approve an additional $20 million for “Phase 2” of the cop academy, and on October 1 they approved another $250,000 for a “Formulation Request” for Phase 1A of the cop academy. Scant details are available on the PBC website as to why this money is needed, what it will be used for, who will receive these funds, or where the funds are coming from.

At the October 7 city council meeting, Mayor Lightfoot also introduced an ordinance to allow the city to purchase a lot from the Chicago Transit Authority for $10 in order to build two restaurants, Peach’s and Culver’s, on the site of the proposed cop academy. While not as costly, it’s a concerning move that shows her determination to move forward with a vision that is directly counter to calls to defund police. The move to include the restaurants took place years after initial planning and just weeks before the final city council vote on the cop academy in 2019, likely to make the project more enticing to aldermen in light of the massive disinvestment facing the neighborhood slated to receive the cop academy. Yet, there is no evidence that the creation of these two restaurants on the cop academy campus will bring anywhere near the number of new jobs, services and programs West Siders or other Chicagoans have demanded for years, and could be funded with the more than a 100 million now earmarked for the cop academy. It is meant to make the spending on the police more palatable when a growing consensus of Chicagoans want less money spent on the department.

The cop academy was an ill-conceived project from the start, with no clear budget or plans for how it would be financed, not to mention the ways Black communities and young people were shut out from the decision-making process. When Rahm Emanuel announced the proposed cop academy in July of 2017, he promised it would cost $95 million dollars. Ten million would be spent to purchase the land for the site, and $85 million on the design/build contract.

How would he pay for it? Emanuel himself never said. Why? Because they had no real budget for the cop academy or comprehensive plans for how to pay for it.

Through a years-long Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, the #NoCopAcademy campaign, a massive youth-directed effort to stop the cop academy and fund Black youth and communities instead, found that Emanuel’s office instructed those working on the project to “just be vague” about where the funds would come from.

So what’s up with the additional $20,250,010 Lightfoot is pushing? Before construction has begun?

Budget season is upon us, and Chicago’s communities are struggling harder than ever. Pouring tens of millions of dollars toward this project is irresponsible, and takes away desperately needed funds that could help ensure Black, working class and immigrant communities in Chicago can literally survive the long-term recession we are facing. As the #DefundCPD campaign is making clear, just like #NoCopAcademy before it, this city has money and could build lasting safety for its residents by investing in affordable housing units, jobs for young people, or comprehensive substance abuse treatment. There is more public support than ever for the reality that we can’t continue to police our way through every crisis.

Will Mayor Lightfoot and the city’s aldermen listen to their constituents, abandon the cop academy before hemorrhaging hundreds of millions into an ill-conceived, unnecessary and ultimately harmful project? Or will they stay true to the Emanuel tradition and press on full steam ahead, no budget, no problem, leaving Chicago’s struggling communities to foot the bill?

The question is similar to those being asked around the country, as movements are forcing cities accustomed to spending much of their budgets on policing to reconsider these priorities. In Austin, Texas, community organizers succeeded in cutting their police budget by one-third, and rerouting those funds directly to community services. In Oakland, California, activists won a $14 million dollar cut, along with a new non-police emergency responder model.

But in many bigger cities, the cuts happening, if at all, are merely cosmetic. Los Angeles cut its police budget by $150 million, but Orange County is moving forward on construction of a new mental health jail, revealing a lack of investment for actually divesting from carceral systems. And in New York City, the majority of supposed cuts to the police budget were actually a transfer of the school-based policing program from NYPD to the Department of Education, which had already been paying for it.

The facts on the ground are the biggest indicators of material change. Building more jails and police academies during a national reckoning with the crisis of racist policing reveals a sad clinging to the past on the part of elected officials.

At the same time, this moment is in no small way historic, as so many elected officials are forced to respond to the movement to defund the police. Even these cosmetic changes are indications of the power of the grassroots. But cities will only choose to embrace new approaches to public safety with comprehensive, non-cosmetic reallocations of resources if we all engage in bold, dramatic action in the months and years to come.