Chicago’s version of Cop City is a precursor to Atlanta’s–both because of the ambitious size and scope of the project and the messy politics and blowback from activists and residents.
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The controversy over Atlanta’s proposed Public Safety Training Center, known by opponents as “Cop City,” strikes University of Chicago law professor Craig Futterman as deja vu.
“It sounds almost exactly like the conversations and debates that we’ve had in Chicago for years,” said Futterman, who founded the University of Chicago’s Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project in 2000 to represent people abused by the police.
Many Atlanta residents may not be familiar with Chicago’s Public Safety Training Academy 700 miles to the north, which opened in January after six years of planning, despite an organized community opposition campaign. Yet Chicago’s version looks like a precursor to Atlanta’s–both because of the ambitious size and scope of the project and the messy politics and blowback from activists and wary residents.
“I think there’s definitely parallels between what occurred in Chicago and what’s occurring right now [in Atlanta],” said Chicago Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, who cast one of the few “no” votes against the project in 2019, calling it “a new shooting gallery for cops.”
Can Atlanta residents learn anything from their neighbors to the north?
From Police Reform to Police Facility
In Atlanta, the 2020 police killing of Rayshard Brooks, less than three weeks after George Floyd’s murder by police in Minneapolis, galvanized the local movement for police reform. It sparked mass protests citywide over police killings of Black people that summer, with highly publicized incidents of both property damage from rioters and police excess.
Then-mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ announcement of a proposed Atlanta Public Safety Training Academy came several months later—in April of 2021. The official line is that the project was part of a plan to address rising violent crime during the pandemic, which Bottoms called “a public health emergency.”
Chicago’s turning point came years earlier— stemming from the 2014 police killing of Laquan McDonald—an unarmed Black teenager shot 16 times by a police officer. A host of activists and artists accused Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel of covering up the video ahead of his 2015 reelection, like rapper Vic Mensa, whose song “16 Shots” says: “The mayor lying, saying he didn’t see the video footage/And everybody want to know where the truth at.”
The high-profile McDonald case prompted an investigation by the Obama administration’s Justice Department. In 2017, the Justice Department released a report that described the Chicago police force as badly trained, largely unaccountable, and prone to unnecessary violence, with a pattern of bad behavior that violated the constitutional rights of citizens, especially of Black and Latino people.
The Chicago Police Department was forced to accept a consent decree that—among other conditions—required better training for officers and an upgrade in the city’s physical police training facilities.
“There are real similar issues when it comes to lack of police accountability in Atlanta,” said Futterman. “And very similar issues in terms of the quality of investigations into police misconduct and abuse in Atlanta.”
The federal consent decree opened the door for Emanuel, the Chicago mayor from 2011 to 2019 after serving as former President Barack Obama’s chief of staff, to announce a $95 million plan to construct a Public Safety Training Academy. The target for the campus’ location was a 30-acre vacant railroad yard on Chicago’s West Side next to West Garfield Park, a Black working-class neighborhood. Some local residents and community groups immediately opposed the plan, calling for the city to spend the $95 million to improve schools and mental health services instead of on more policing.
Over 100 grassroots groups mobilized an opposition campaign called #NoCopAcademy, with slogans like: “No $ for schools–but a cop academy is cool?” The Chicago opponents also questioned the decision to locate the police training facility next to a Black community that was already overpoliced.
Locally, the Atlanta Police Foundation’s plan to locate its 85-acre training campus next to Gresham Park, a Black working-class neighborhood, has stirred up vehement opposition from some local residents, as well as community groups and environmental activists.
They have raised concerns over both the purpose–which they allege is to train police in paramilitary tactics against the citizenry–and environmental damage. The campus would include a mock mini-city for urban battle practice, giving rise to the name Cop City. The 85-acre tract that the Atlanta Police Foundation leased from the city of Atlanta last fall to build the facility is part of 380 acres that the city owns in the South River Forest, one of the city’s largest remaining tracts of an urban forest, which has been described as one of the “four lungs of Atlanta.”
Like Atlanta’s facility, Chicago’s plan included multiple buildings with classrooms, labs, and virtual simulators for police and fire department trainees, as well as outdoor facilities, such as shooting ranges and a mock city block for “active scenario training,” which critics say is intended to train officers for militarized counterinsurgency tactics against protestors.
The Public Safety Training Academy wasn’t just Mayor Emanuel’s pet project. The plan had institutional support from the Chicago Infrastructure Trust (CIT), which he enlisted to oversee the projects’ development and construction. Emanuel formed the nonprofit government agency in 2012 to attract private investment for big public infrastructure projects.
Its murky role is similar to that of the Atlanta Committee for Progress (ACP), the corporate CEO-led partnership that supported Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’s tough-on-crime initiatives in 2021 and backs the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center.
Plans for Atlanta and Chicago’s cop campuses have also been championed by the cities’ respective police foundations—nonprofits with boards made up of executives from powerful local corporations and law firms.
The Atlanta Police Foundation (APF) has a much bigger footprint, however. It raised $28.4 million in contributions in 2021 from local corporations and foundations, making it the second-largest police foundation in the country after New York City. That dwarfs the Chicago Police Foundation’s $258,000 in 2020 contributions.
The APF has taken a much more hands-on approach with Atlanta’s police training facility since it will own the facility that it plans to build on land leased from the city. The APF estimates the 85-acre training campus will cost $90 million, and Atlanta-based corporations, including Chick-Fil-A, Delta Airlines, and Home Depot, have committed $60 million to fund it. The remaining funds, estimated at $30 million, will come from public bond financing.
This private funding strengthens Atlanta’s case, said Robert Friedmann, an anti-terrorism expert at Georgia State University who founded its Georgia International Law Enforcement Exchange, a leadership development program for law enforcement executives.
“In most cities, taxpayers pay for 100% of these projects, but here the city is only paying $30 million,” Friedmann said.
But in Chicago’s case, that cost kept ballooning. The $95 million projected cost ended up being only 56% of the actual $170 million price tag. Is Atlanta being too conservative with its own $90 million estimate, and will taxpayers have to pick up the rest of the tab?
“I’m sure these initial numbers are underestimates,” says Futterman. “And the question remains: why do our public safety dollars keep going to more prisons and police? We’ve put a lot more money into both police jails and prisons than many of our Western European peers, and we haven’t been made safer.”
The Case for Cop Campuses
Corporate and political leaders in both cities have articulated similar talking points when explaining the need for supersized and centralized new police and firefighter campuses over upgrades to existing facilities that they say are old and outdated: Police reform and economic development.
Chicago’s local power structure said a new police and firefighter campus would benefit a blighted, heavily policed majority-Black neighborhood on the city’s West Side.
“Not only will the new Academy provide start-of-the-art training opportunities to the men and women of Chicago’s public safety departments, but it will also represent a significant investment by the city in the West Garfield Park neighborhood,” said Leslie Darling, CEO of Chicago Infrastructure Trust, in 2017, when the Emanuel administration first pitched the project.
What that “investment” looked like in practice, according to Alderman Ramirez-Rosa–who cast one of the eight “no” votes out of 50–was a real estate deal to gentrify the poverty-stricken West Side and displace poor Black people.
“I think it was almost a way of putting an occupying force in the western part of the city to say like, ‘We are going to gentrify this area, right, we’re going to bring police officers,’ ” he said.
That part of the deal has held up, said Ramirez-Rosa. “There are tons of new developments there and new shops and restaurants. And so in some ways, the police academy, having been built there, accomplished what was meant to do.”
Similarly, the Atlanta police and fire facility’s proponents talk about the potential for green jobs and better green space on a defunct site that was once a prison farm. For police reform, better education and better facilities go hand in hand, said Friedmann. “That starts with the old school building that’s in unbearable conditions for a modern police force. Expectations are so high for police officers. if you don’t provide a good quality of training and on-the-job training, you’re not going to have a well-qualified police force. That’s why Atlanta is in a good situation moving forward.”
More than a hashtag
Years before #NoCopCity, the rallying cry for opponents of Atlanta’s proposed police training campus, Chicago activists took to #NoCopAcademy.
A loose coalition of approximately 100 local grassroots organizations —from Black Lives Matter Chicago to United Working Families and Women’s March Illinois—endorsed the 18-month-long #NoCopAcademy campaign. They called on Chicago’s city council to instead use the $95 million promised for the public safety campus to fully fund public schools, mental health clinics, and after-school and job training programs.
In 2018, #NoCopAcademy staged a “die-in” in the Chicago City Hall lobby with cardboard tombstones bearing the names of people killed in police shootings, as well as names of schools shut down during the Emanuel administration.
Ramirez-Rosa ultimately agreed with them and committed to voting against the Chicago facility. “It was a very powerful grassroots campaign,” he said. “In all my years in city council, I’ve not seen that many people come down to City Hall about an issue like that.”
Nor do high-profile celebrities ordinarily testify against a city council vote—which is what happened with Chicago’s Chance the Rapper. “This proposed plan doesn’t make sense,” Chance said during a November 2017 hearing.
That organized opposition ultimately failed, despite winning over seven more “no” votes from Chicago council members. Chicago’s city council voted 38 to 8 in 2019 to approve a construction contract.
On Jan. 25, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who opposed the facility as a mayoral candidate but flipped after being elected, attended a ribbon-cutting event for the $170 million facility, located at 4433 W. Chicago Ave. “It’s a very important day for police and fire, but it’s a really important day for our city,” Lightfoot said.
Ramirez-Rosa still believes that the project was a mistake. The city could have refurbished the previously existing police academy and funneled tens of millions of dollars in savings into crime-prevention programs and new jobs. “Ultimately, the money that was spent would have been better spent in investing in jobs, programs or programs, all the things that we know, based upon decades of research, are more effective at keeping us safe,” he said.
Cop City’s story, meanwhile, is still being written.
To Friedmann, the roots of Atlanta’s police problems are related to job turnover, a lack of positive culture, and insufficient training—all of which can be solved by the training center project.
But what Atlanta can learn from other cities that have already spent tens of millions of dollars on police and fire training facilities is that a change of scenery doesn’t necessarily mean a change in police culture, says Futterman, the Chicago Police Accountability Project founder.
A brand-new campus could be a mirage disguising a lack of more substantive police reform, he cautions. “A new training academy can look bright and shiny, and it’s a sign that [cities] can point to say, ‘We’re developing a solution to address civil rights issues.’ But in reality, it can just be a false prophet or a way of distracting the public from addressing the core issues,” Futterman says.
700 miles from Chicago is not the same as right down the street (literally) in one of the few forests left in the city.
Absolutely correct! BAD VALUES are being sold when MONEY is being funneled away from both PEOPLE *and* profound environmental costs. DESTROY a FOREST when an entire City needs to be expanding, not contracting them. CopCity is a DREADFUL idea – “edifice complext” run amok.
By resorting to guerrilla tactics, opponents of Cop City have relinquished the higher ground in this controversy. Promoters and city council have stomped on neighbors’ and environmentalists’ concerns. Better training for first responders is a worthy goal but there’s bound to be a better place for it. The new “Stitch” comes to mind … It is time for a face-saving solution that will allow everyone to declare victory.
I highly disagree they’ve ceded the higher ground. When the city government is ignoring community voices, proper environmental reviews, and shows no interest in listening to the concerns of the people what other choice do people have to try and stop city hall’s madness? This is on the city for refusing to listen and pushing events to this point. And it’s worth noting the cops being the only side in this whole event who has actually killed someone, and without the body cam footage that would relieve the public of having to rely on police testimony of their own actions.
But actually one Atlanta area reporter, George Chidi who does support a new training facility but not at this location, notes that the city does have land it owns that isn’t in a natural state, in within city limits, that’s currently a golf course. The North Fulton Golf Course could be changed into a police training center, not threaten poor black areas with environmental harm (or anyone really since it’s already not a natural environment), and the area it’s built at (Buckhead) would be in a place where folks talk a lot about the need to crack down on crime (that’s the whole argument for the Buckhead city movement right?). So if the city wants this so bad, inconvenience some rich people who will be fine either way.
Let’s discuss the problem of Criminal City in Atlanta and Chicago. We’re sick of left-wing trash normalizing crime and violence by black men.
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