Hundreds speak out against Atlanta’s proposed public safety training center

Tribune Content Agency

ATLANTA — Hundreds of people spoke out against Atlanta’s planned public safety training center at Monday’s City Council meeting — the second time this year an overwhelming number of residents have railed against a project they refer to derisively as “cop .”

It may have been the public’s last chance to make their feelings known to Atlanta City Council members. The council was scheduled to vote on a $67 million funding plan at some point Monday night after the public comments concluded.

It was unclear when the vote would occur.

Five hours into the public comments, only four people had spoken in favor of the training center. Meanwhile, opponents lined up early to sign up to speak. They chanted, waived signs and cheered each other on as an overflow crowd watched the proceedings from the City Hall atrium, outside the council chambers.

By the time the first speaker took the podium at 1 p.m., more than 350 people had signed up, with well over 100 more waiting in a line that snaked through the atrium when the sign-up list was cut off. Still others protested outside the building, which security officials said had reached its capacity under the fire code.

As protesters chanted “let us speak,” Atlanta City Council members approved a motion from Council member Michael Julian Bond to allow the council to avoid the city’s public speaker limitations and allow more people to address the body.

“Stop Cop City! Viva Viva Tortuguita!” chants rang throughout the building as organizers told speakers directly impacted by the training center or police violence to move to the front of the line. The calls referred to Manuel “Tortuguita” Teran, an activist who was shot and killed by state troopers on Jan. 18 during what public safety officials called a clearing operation of the site.

The usually bustling offices at City Hall were empty Monday, as city officials suspended services there in anticipation of the large crowd.

The Rev. James Woodall asked council members to send back the legislation to a council committee for continued debate.

“This proposal was not the organizing cry of the social justice movement of 2020,” Woodall said. “Our demands … were for justice and accountability. And in this legislation, neither of those are included.”

The funding legislation calls for city taxpayers to cover a larger share of the facility’s costs than previously known. For years, city officials and the Atlanta Police Foundation have said the cost will be split evenly in one-third shares, with taxpayers, the foundation and private donors each contributing around $30 million.

Instead, documents presented to the council last month show the city would spend $31 million on construction, in addition to paying the foundation $1.2 million in annual lease payments over 30 years. Those payments, part of a “lease-back” agreement, would add another $36 million to the city taxpayers’ contribution.

The annual payments will be used to pay off a $20 million loan that makes up the majority of the foundation’s purported share.

A review by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that the payments were never explained publicly until last month, even though decision makers have been aware of them since key parts of the project were first approved in September 2021.

The local debate over the proposed training facility has become a national flash point in conversations over the role of law enforcement across the country. Speakers recalled the racial justice protests of 2020, in the wake of the high profile police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta.

At the same time, cities all across the country, including Atlanta, have struggled to address high rates of violent crime that rose during the pandemic — fueling counter calls to better equip and train police.

Since the last crowded meeting on May 15, where 300 spoke, tensions have only risen.

The recent arrest by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation of three training center opponents on fraud and money laundering charges last week further fueled outrage against the project.

“A community should be able to assemble without fear of being attacked by the people that are sworn to protect them,” said state Rep. Ruwa Romman, a Democrat who represents parts of Gwinnett.

A large security presence inside City Hall grew throughout the day. Atlanta police officers lined tiered balconies surrounding the room while others led bomb sniffing dogs through the hallways. Signs posted outside of security listed extra precautions — like a ban on liquids and aerosols — put in place due to “increased security concerts.”

Many supporters and opponents of the proposed training facility do agree that Atlanta’s police and firefighters need an enhanced training center to better prepare to respond to emergencies.

Speaker Keleon Boatley said when he was accepted to the Atlanta Police Department as a recruit in 2017, officers struggled to train at the Herbert T. Jenkins Atlanta Police Academy — a condemned elementary school that was supposed to act as a temporary solution.

“A major aspect of this profession is being hands-on,” Boatley said. “This profession cannot just be taught in a classroom, you need to go through scenarios.”

Critics of the training center represent a broad coalition of groups opposed to the project for a wide variety of reasons from environmental concerns to fears about police militarization.

“Today’s vote is not simply about constructing a facility it is about perpetuating militarized policing that will endanger the lives of our residents, our visitors and put the Black people and brown people in Atlanta at a heightened risk of police violence,” said Gary Spencer, senior council to the NAACP legal defense fund.

The controversial site of the 85-acre training facility is also referred to as the “Weelaunee Forest,” a reference to its historical significance to the Muscogee Creek nation.

The Rev. Chebon Kernell, a Muscogee leader, told the council he came to City Hall to remind those watching who originally inhabited the land. That land, he said, would still be there long after the center is gone.

“I have never, ever considered myself as a nonresident of these territories,” he said. “This is my home and I’ve told my children I want to come back home one day.”