Lightfoot’s cop academy bombshell raises questions about leadership style

By short-circuiting the conversation, as Rahm Emanuel did, the new mayor risks further polarizing the debate over police reform.

Print More

Photo by José Alejandro Córcoles

“No Cop Academy” activists protest the Chicago City Council’s approval of funds for a new $95 million police training academy on May 23, 2018, at City Hall.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot dropped a bombshell this week when she said that the new police and fire training academy that her predecessor championed is going to cost much more than originally projected.

“I want it to be the best-in-class training facility for first responders anywhere in the country,” she said after touring the current police academy.

That would cost a whole lot more than the $98 million projected by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, since New York City recently built a new policy training facility at a cost of $950 million.

Emanuel faced energetic protests from activists who said the money would be better spent on violence prevention and social services. At the time, then-candidate Lightfoot called for delay of the proposal, saying the West Garfield community where the academy is planned hadn’t been consulted.

“This is typical Rahm,” she said last November. “Rather than engaging the community in the conversation on the front end and being transparent to elicit their input on something that’s going to dramatically affect their lives, he once again has done a top-down, shove-it-down-the-throats-of-the-community conversation.”

Here’s a chance for Lightfoot to show that she operates differently. Instead she appears to be announcing her conclusion rather than starting a conversation.

Of course, her conclusion just opens the big question: where will the money come from? But that may not be the best starting point for a discussion of such a contentious issue.

Lightfoot has consistently said that the Chicago Police Department needs a new training facility. It was at a candidates’ forum at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics in March — where veteran police reformer Charles Ramsey touted New York’s new academy — that she went the furthest of any candidate, saying, “If you’re really going to do it right, it’s going to be far more than [$98 million].” She said she’d talked to potential contractors who told her the Emanuel administration’s plan “doesn’t look like it was drafted by people who actually know what a real training facility ought to look like.”

She also raised the possibility, which she repeated Tuesday, that by “monetizing” the facility and renting it to law enforcement agencies from other jurisdictions, it could “pay for itself” and provide a revenue stream for other investments needed for police reform. 

Frankly, without seeing an actual business plan, that sounds a little pie-in-the-sky to me, especially if the project is going to cost a lot more than $100 million. So do promises of economic development in the wake of the project, which Lightfoot also reiterated Tuesday — unless it’s intended as an anchor for gentrification. Maybe the West Garfield Park area needs a community benefits agreement.

On the one hand, I found the U.S. Justice Department’s report on CPD convincing regarding the need for a new training facility. That report found that “deficiencies in CPD’s training” were among factors that “have contributed to unconstitutional use of force.” It found a total lack of meaningful in-service training. It identified “a trend in shootings” with officers “using reckless, untrained tactics,” putting themselves in jeopardy and limiting their options to deadly force. 

People are being killed because of poor police training.

Part of the problem, according to the report, was constraints on instruction created by facilities that are outdated and “insufficient to meet the needs of a department as large as CPD.”

On the other hand, I don’t think we’ve had a conversation in which this case has been clearly made to the general public — much less an open discussion about where, when, and how much should be spent on a new academy. At a time of budget crisis, are there temporary facilities that could be used as CPD ramps up in-service training under the new consent decree?

By short-circuiting that conversation, as Emanuel did, Lightfoot risks further polarizing the debate over police reform. Some folks will never support a new police academy, but their concerns are legitimate and their voices should be heard. 

By making her first major policing initiative a huge new construction project, Lightfoot risks coming across as having the traditional politician’s edifice complex. There are discrete, immediate changes she discussed during the campaign that would help build trust with the broader police accountability movement. 

These include new department policies banning chokeholds and restricting foot pursuits. To reduce lawsuit payouts (and protect human rights), the department needs policies banning handcuffing or pointing guns at young children. From what I hear, there’s no sign of a new direction in negotiations over the police union contracts. 

And to address concerns about the city’s budget priorities, a commitment to reopen public mental health clinics — at the cost of just a few million dollars — would go a long way. 

Lightfoot has won respect for her independence and her high degree of competence. But will her leadership style involve building consensus or dictating from on high?