The story of the $95 million police training facility that the mayor, police and other advocates are pushing to build in West Garfield Park is the story of how power works in Chicago. The proposed facility, officially called the Joint Public Safety Training Academy, highlights how the public is often shut out from plans that shape civic priorities and the city itself.
Before the city can break ground on the project, it must pass through City Council, the city’s main legislative body. The council plays a crucial role in the trajectory of large development projects in Chicago, but the process by which projects are approved can be convoluted in ways that limit opportunities for public input and accountability. There are few public hearings and notices about the hearings may not reach all of those who might be impacted. The proposals can also move at a rapid pace that leaves little time for Chicago residents to understand and discuss its implications and ultimately direct their elected officials. Rather than facilitating public participation, the responsibility for tracking a proposal through various council meetings falls on concerned residents.
A coalition of Chicago community organizations, led by Black youth has engaged in the legislative process surrounding the academy by showing up at council meetings, protesting at mayoral events and holding educational meetings about the academy throughout the city. The coalition has used direct action, social media campaigns and popular education to voice public concerns in a process forcibly pushed by the mayor with little critical review from a council that often votes with him.
City Council has already reviewed and voted on portions of the plan to build the academy. Only a few steps remain before the council gives final approval to the academy. Over the coming weeks, council committees and the full council will review and vote on these final pieces.
Continue reading to understand the opportunities council members have to stop, slow down or let through the remaining ordinances that could lead to a new police academy.
But first ...
Who's your alderperson?
Chicago's council members are the officials directly accountable to residents for making big decisions like the police training facility. Enter your address, or that of a place you care about, to find your alderperson. As you read, you will see if they sit on key committees that still have to review portions of the academy plan. You can also see how they've voted on portions of the proposal already reviewed by the council. Spoiler alert: they probably voted to pass the proposal through various stages in the council.
Unlike some decision makers who advocate for or review major city projects, council members are elected - the alderperson in most of the city's 50 wards face challengers on the ballot for the February 26 municipal election.
Who has the power?
Two city council committees, zoning and budget, must review ordinances related to academy before full council votes on those ordinances.
The academy project will come before the zoning committee on February 28 and full council vote could happen as early as March 13. Council members could reject these portions of the project outright or could delay further council action to give more time for council and public review of the $85 million design and build contract.
On February 21, the commission unanimously approved the development plan for the academy.
The Plan Commission reviews Planned Development projects like the proposed academy. While the commission votes on whether to recommend a particular project, ultimate approval of the project requires a full city council vote.
The commission has 22 members including the mayor, a number of council members, officials from agencies like the Park District and Chicago Transit Authority and 10 members appointed by the major.
Ald. Ed Burke (14th) was a member of the commission until he was forced to step down after being charged with attempted extortion for using his control of zoning and permitting in his ward to direct business to his law firm.