AUSTIN — Police and firefighters will conduct training exercises in a mock neighborhood at the controversial cop academy on the West Side, raising the total cost of the project to $128 million.
Construction on the $33 million, state-of-the-art “tactical scenario village” used for police and fire training will include a fake city block, a six-story burn tower, a car crash rescue area and other settings and props to simulate real-life emergencies. Construction is scheduled to begin this summer.
Construction on Phase 1 of the training campus at 4301 W. Chicago Ave. is nearly complete, and includes a building with classrooms, administrative offices and an auditorium.
Renderings for the tactical village show a typical neighborhood block in Chicago, including multiple two- and three-flat residential brick buildings complete with fences, curbs, sidewalks and yards. Each building will have back stairways, porches and a two-car garage. One of the “homes” will have a basement. An alley with mock dumpsters will separate those buildings from a multi-story structure with mock shops and businesses on the ground floor with apartments above.
The $33 million price tag for the “mini city” scenario village is in addition to the $95 million cost of the rest of the Joint Public Safety Training Campus, bringing the total cost of the project $128 million. The Public Building Commission increased the budget for this portion of the project from $20 to $33 million in September 2021 without community input or opposition.
Despite facing strong opposition from activists and organizations like No Cop Academy when it was announced five years ago, City Council approved plans for the new West Side cop and fire academy in 2019. Instead of pouring more money into the police budget, activists wanted City Hall to spend the money on housing, social services and schools to address root causes of violence.
Those organizers are now drawing parallels between Chicago’s scenario village and a $90 million safety training center set to begin construction in Atlanta, which is facing fierce public opposition.
Since the approval of the plan, organizers from No Cop Academy have continued to protest surveillance and over-policing, said No Cop Academy organizer Citlali Perez.
“The reason that so many people got involved in the campaign, and not just West Garfield Park, is because of the historic disinvestment of our neighborhoods on the West and South sides,” she said.
Destiny Bell, another organizer with No Cop Academy, has struggled to find housing for more than a year.
“To find out that they’re building a scenario village when there are thousands of people, homeless, with nowhere to go … it’s sickening,” she said.
She said the cop and fire academy will bring hundreds more police officers to the West Side.
“… We’re going to start to feel like we’re being militarized … . We shouldn’t feel like that in our own homes. It probably will make people want to move out of their neighborhoods,” Bell said.
Model towns and neighborhoods have been used as training methods by the police and military at least since the ’60s, said policing scholar Stuart Schrader.
“This is one of the clear ways that military training and operations have influenced police training,” Schrader wrote in an email. “It’s no coincidence that in the wake of wars including both Vietnam and Iraq, we see increasing adoption of this sort of training for police.”
Officials have defended the academy, saying it will play an important role in training officers and recruits so they’re better able to respond to emergencies. The village is a part of that training, officials said.
The campus will allow the Police Department to “strengthen our collaboration with fellow public safety partners and continue enhancing training for our officers,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “This facility will also provide [the Police Department] with the tools and resources needed for modern, 21st-century policing based on national best practices.”
Police and fire personnel currently train at seven different locations throughout Chicago’s city limits, including a vacant Chicago Public High School in South Shore that the city leases for $1 a year from the Board of Education. The police also train in a residential building called a “Safe Entry training home” across the street from the main police academy at 1300 W. Jackson Blvd.
Each of the seven training locations are slated to close once the new campus opens.
Construction on the mock tactical buildings is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2022. The mini-city is being designed and constructed by a joint venture between construction companies Berglund and Brown & Momen. The contractors did not respond to Block Club’s request for comment.
The residential-style buildings will not have water or gas service, and the interiors will be stage sets, Elizabeth Scanlan, deputy managing architect at the Public Building Commission, said during a presentation to potential contractors in July 2021.
“These buildings are intended to be used for tactical maneuvers and are intended to give simulation for practice within real-life situations,” Scanlan said during the presentation. “They are simulations. They are to provide practice.
“… They are actually better described as structures or even props. These are not complete buildings.”
Besides the “neighborhood block” part of the village, there will be a six-story burn tower, a multi-story mixed-use live fire building, a haz-mat transportation area, a rail prop area, a car crash rescue area and a driver training course.
The two-story technical rescue prop is designed to resemble a collapsed parking structure or train station. The rescue prop will have a series of angled and partially broken slabs of concrete with sacrificial panels meant to be removed and put back in place.
The prop will have a series of vaults and pipes to create confined space training opportunities for Fire Department cadets and other first responders. The prop will also serve as a training scenario for parking garage incidents, confined spaces, trench rescue and collapsed building rescue.
Current and future firefighters will train in a live-fire commercial training tower meant to simulate high-rise and low-rise scenarios, such as putting out a blaze in an office building, warehouse, hotel, retail or industrial building. Mounted to the top of the structure will be heavy-duty, bomb-proof anchors for tying off ropes for rappelling and other training exercises.
There will also be a dedicated area for training on how to respond to car crashes and provide emergency medical treatment during extrications.
The live-fire buildings, driver training course and rescue prop areas are expected to be finished by early 2023.
“The campus will expand the city’s ability to prepare for new and emerging threats through joint-training exercises and address inadequacies of the city’s existing training facilities,” a Public Buildings Commission spokesperson said in a statement. The commission is responsible for planning, designing and overseeing the construction of municipal buildings. “The ability to stage accidents is ideal for advanced training and can be utilized to conduct multi-department training that improves communication and Police and Fire as well as other city agencies.”
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