Chicago leaders: City can afford shiny new police academy, just not schools or community services

The mayor just happened to step out to call his mom right as his most prominent critic pointed out his commitment to cops over schools.

Former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel smiles at the crowd after winning the mayoral race, Feb. 22, 2011 in Chicago. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel smiles at the crowd after winning the mayoral race, Feb. 22, 2011 in Chicago. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

What can Chicago afford?

The city couldn’t afford to keep 50 of its public schools open in 2013, Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) decided. The previous year, he deemed six of the city’s 12 mental health clinics didn’t have a seat at the table either, pushing thousands closer to the prison system one local sheriff has described as the city’s new last-resort clearinghouse for people who belong in treatment.

Emanuel’s schools raid shaved about $800 million off the city’s expenses. Shoving the clinic patients into a chaotic transition of delicate care regimens saved another $3 million.

But now he’s getting a green light to build a brand new $95 million police training facility. City aldermen voted 48-1 in favor of the plan Wednesday, after hours of angry public comments from citizens who attended the hearing.

The city will finance the new project in part by selling existing public properties. Even after those conversions, the project will need close to $40 million in cash from the same budget Emanuel insisted could not bear the demands of educating kids in his city’s blackest neighborhoods or maintaining mental health care for more than 5,000 people. He has continued to privatize mental health facilities around the city in the years since.

Emanuel’s preference for police resources over other public services is consistent with his longstanding approach to leading his city. The man who once advised then-President Barack Obama to “never waste a crisis” has repeatedly toggled budget math around to justify pushing money away from one policy space and toward another. He has pleaded poverty on city worker pensions only to turn around and find a surplus to fund teacher salaries. Up until that reversal, he’d insisted the money wasn’t there throughout teacher contract negotiations — all while promising to expand the Chicago Police Department by 1,000 officers, at a cost of approximately $135 million per year.

In Emanuel’s partial defense, the crisis his police policies aim to address isn’t invented. Last year, 762 people were murdered in Chicago, an alarming 58 percent jump from 2015 according to the University of Chicago Crime Center. The policing staff-up, which is contributing to the mayor’s arguments for spending millions on a new training academy, follows years of news coverage that made Chicago a punching bag for political rhetoric about crime across the country.

The press focus on Chicago’s gun crimes has treated the city as an avatar for dubious claims of a national surge in violent crime. Coverage of the city’s spiking murder rate and frequent non-fatal shootings has often implied that something recent, sudden, and dramatic has changed between Chicago citizens and their police force.

But the truth is that the department destroyed its own relationship to the communities it is meant to serve long before Emanuel took office — and continued, with his help at times, to shred opportunities for repairing the breach.

Police now solve less than one murder in four across Chicago — a damning statistic driven in part by the stonewalling that greets detectives who go seek out witness testimony from communities their uniformed colleagues have terrorized for years. Chicago’s police department has made dark headlines for episodes like the Homan Square illicit detention facility exposed by reporters in 2015, itself an echo of former Lieutenant Jon Burge’s “midnight crew” of racist torturers who ran the city for two decades.

Today, the department floods city streets with reckless officers who federal investigators described as bringing a “cowboy” mentality to public safety work. Police shot at civilians once every five days on average over a recent six-year span. About 80 percent of those struck by a police bullet in that time period was a black man, according to the Chicago Tribune’s study of the shootings.

When Officer Jason Van Dyke shot and killed Laquan McDonald in 2014, officers cobbled together a cover-up to justify Van Dyke’s shooting. Van Dyke now faces homicide charges. Multiple other officers are being charged with corruption for aiding the cover-up. Emanuel’s office knew of video disproving the cover-up narrative months before Emanuel’s most recent re-election. It remains unclear if Emanuel himself ever watched the tapes, which were only released after local reporters sussed out the con and persuaded a judge to order the city to publish them.

The city eventually paid a multi-million-dollar settlement to McDonald’s family. Chicago police officers’ use and misuse of force has cost the city $642 million in legal costs and settlement payments since 2004 — about a third of it since Emanuel became mayor in 2012.

The context for Wednesday’s vote to spend tens of millions on new police facilities, then, is a city whose officer corps has bled it of huge sums through conduct deemed dubious enough to merit settling lawsuits. With that money drained from city coffers, the mayor’s office has pushed more funding into policing and drawn blood from the stone of social services.

It was with all that in mind that Chancelor Bennett, better known as Chance the Rapper, queued up to address the mayor and city aldermen ahead of Wednesday’s vote. Bennett has used the platform his music has earned him locally and nationally to raise money for arts and education programs in the city that raised him. He pointed out that one school he has worked with lacks a pool and a library.

“There’s a lot of ways to transform the city that don’t have anything to do with police training,” Bennett said. “What are we doing? I’ve been asking for months, over a year now, to fund these classrooms. And on the 4th of July weekend they announced, in like a cool finessing way, that they have $95 million?” Bennett said. “What else can I say. What is y’all doing? What is y’all doing? It doesn’t make sense. I’m very confused.”

Bennett’s celebrity presence ended up leading local coverage of the vote, over and above the actual city expenditure decision made by elected leaders. But his actual point — that investing in community programs and services should be giving police funding a harder run for its money among city fathers looking to remedy Chicago’s violence — is well supported in new research from New York University professor Patrick Sharkey.

Sharkey shows that the vaunted, much-debated crime drop of the 1990s and 2000s owed in large part to an explosion in locally-focused non-profit organizations that combated violence by promoting economic opportunity and renewing community bonds in inner cities. For every 10 new community-oriented non-profits formed in cities of 100,000 people in those decades, murder rates fell 9 percent and overall violent crime fell 6 percent.

Unfortunately for Bennett and those he hoped to speak for, the mayor wasn’t there to hear him. Emanuel left the room before the rapper spoke. It was his mother’s birthday, he explained to reporters later. He stepped out to call her just before Bennett made his remarks.