By John Byrne Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Mayor Rahm Emanuel inched forward Friday with his new police academy, a project he pitched as a tangible symbol of his commitment to reforming the troubled department and an anchor for the West Side, but which has since become a flashpoint in the fight over how to improve the fractured relationship between cops and residents.

The West Garfield Park proposal has turned into a litmus test for the crowd of mayoral challengers vying to succeed Emanuel. The mayor has vowed to press ahead with the plan despite calls from several candidates for him to leave the decision for the next mayor.

On Friday, Emanuel announced the city was in talks with a joint venture led by multinational engineering and design firm AECOM to design and build the $95 million building. By heralding such an incremental step in the process, he was able to make it clear he plans to move this signature project toward completion before he leaves office in May. And he could help assuage the concerns of his City Council ally, Ald. Emma Mitts, 37th, that the development she believes will be an anchor for her struggling ward won’t get left by the wayside when Emanuel departs.

In a news release, Emanuel framed the academy project as a watershed moment for the West Side and the city, one that residents of West Garfield Park want.

“Community advocates, block clubs, faith leaders and aldermen join us today to celebrate this new economic engine coming to the West Side,” Emanuel said. “This new police and fire training facility will not only serve our bravest and finest, but also the residents who will be hired, the small businesses that will grow and the children and families who will be kept safe.”

Emanuel on Friday again talked about the dual goals of the facilty, which is set to train both police officers and firefighters.

“This is, first and foremost, about (police) Superintendent (Eddie) Johnson and (Fire) Commissioner (Richard) Ford’s rank and file and what we’re training them for,” Emanuel said at a West Garfield Park church to announce the next talks for designing and building the facility. “Then it also is about … making an investment in the West Side. If it had gone somewhere else, it would have been another thing the West Side missed.”

But Emanuel’s commitment to the project continues to draw fire.

Mayoral candidate Willie Wilson called on him to stop working toward it so the next mayor can decide whether to proceed. “Rahm is a lame duck and should not make any multimillion-dollar decisions that will bind citizens with debt in his last weeks,” Wilson said.

And candidate Lori Lightfoot said Emanuel has “botched the process from the beginning” by not seeking enough public input. His insistence on pressing ahead in the face of opposition from residents is emblematic of his dictatorial style, she said. Lightfoot said the new academy is clearly needed to modernize the department, but that Emanuel “wants the cake to be baked” when he leaves office so the next mayor can’t slow things down and get community feedback.

“To plop down this $100 million edifice to policing in this community — one of the poorest in the city where residents have a fraught relationship with the police — without getting a feel for how this will affect people on the ground, is just not the right way to proceed,” she said.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who’s running for mayor, said the city should listen to residents when determining budget priorities.

If elected, Preckwinkle said she would “ensure our city engages in a robust and inclusive dialogue on the future of policing in Chicago and how to best spend taxpayer dollars to improve public safety in our neighborhoods. I have long advocated that investing more in education, after-school programs, youth programs and jobs is key to improving public safety in our neighborhoods.”

Neighborhood activists began rallying against the training facility almost as soon as Emanuel unveiled the plan in summer 2017. Black Lives Matter and other groups repeatedly have filled the corridors at City Hall with chants of “No cop academy!” They argue the money would be better spent on job training, early childhood education and mental health services in minority neighborhoods that would get at the roots of crime.

Mayoral candidate Amara Enyia has aligned herself with that movement. She recently got the endorsement of Chance the Rapper, who testified at a City Council meeting last fall to try to convince aldermen not to fund the facility, part of a protest organized around the #nocopacademy hashtag. The council voted 48-1 that day to approve Emanuel’s plan to pay $10 million for the land for the building.

The police academy issue is more complicated than the question of a new facility, Enyia said in an emailed statement. It’s also about disinvestment in Chicago’s South and West sides and a lack of investment in communities hit hardest by violence, she said.

“What’s also troubling is that the police academy was being touted as an economic development project needed on the West Side, when in fact, it is not an anchor that will create any significant economic impact for the West Garfield Park community,” Enyia said. “Instead of trying to pass off police infrastructure as economic development, the city should actually commit to a comprehensive economic investment plan.”

But Mitts has strongly backed the plan, saying it’s about time her ward gets a major city project. And several mayoral candidates touted the need for the new building.

Gery Chico on Friday said the facility is necessary, while arguing the next mayor should see the project through.

“Let’s not just put a police and fire academy there in isolation,” he said in a statement. “Let’s build a school, let’s create a job training facility that brings job opportunities, a logistics hub, new transit facilities, improved streets, better lighting, shops and other uses that make up an entire community.

“Has all of this been thought through? The public doesn’t know all of the details. We will get it done once we have our administration in place.”

Candidate Bill Daley said police need better training, and if they require a new academy to get that training, then the city should build them one. But he said Emanuel needs to be very clear with Chicagoans about each step of the process.

“I understand there’s only one mayor, and he has five or six months in the job,” Daley said. “But right now, the people of Chicago need full transparency from the city to explain to us how this project is proceeding.”

Meanwhile, candidate Susana Mendoza said questions need to be answered before a decision is made on the proposal.

“How did the city get to the $95 million price tag?” Mendoza said in a statement. “How will the training center’s location impact the local community? Ald. Emma Mitts, whose ward would house the proposed training center, has said this will drive community investment. These are all things we need to review and consider before making a decision.”

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