Leaders restate their case for (and against) Atlanta training center

Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporters and editors meet with Mayor Andre Dickens at City Hall in Atlanta on Wednesday, February 1, 2023. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporters and editors meet with Mayor Andre Dickens at City Hall in Atlanta on Wednesday, February 1, 2023. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Land disturbance permits were approved last week for Atlanta’s public safety training center, clearing the way for initial construction to begin on the deeply controversial project.

City leaders, who had been largely silent on the matter for months, took the opportunity to restate their case for the facility — reminding folks what is and isn’t included in the proposal, reiterate why they think it’s needed and pitch the benefits they believe the community will see from the $90-million complex.

Opponents, of course, responded in kind. And a growing list prominent local officials called for, at the very least, more public conversation about the project.

“We are hopeful that answers will be found,” a group of seven Democratic state senators wrote in a statement, “and that the voices of those living in the communities most affected by this conflict will be listened to above all others.”

A draft rendering of part of Atlanta's proposed new public safety training center.

Credit: SPECIAL PHOTO

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Credit: SPECIAL PHOTO

In a Tuesday afternoon press conference announcing the new permits, as well as in a subsequent sit-down with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens described the planned training center in southwestern DeKalb County as both a “critical need,” a “true community asset.”

A total of 85 acres would be developed, with the remaining 300 or so acres in the area remaining publicly available greenspace — most of it the forest that exists on the eastern side of the property now, with trails and such added, and the rest scattered amid the facility’s various buildings.

“A park that will have a training center on a modest footprint within it,” as the mayor put it.

So-called “cop city,” Dickens stressed, would be not just for police but fire-rescue cadets as well. It would include classroom and meeting spaces, a driving course, academy housing, a “burn building” for firefighters, kennels and other facilities for K-9s, and stables and pastureland for equine units.

The public would also have access to meeting space and outdoor amenities like pavilions.

Also planned, of course, are a firing range and a “mock village,” a life-size work up of various buildings you’d find in a city, used for tactical training. That portion, which was not directly mentioned by Dickens this week, is the most controversial aspect of the site plan.

A recent site plan for Atlanta's proposed police and fire training center in southern DeKalb County.

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Credit: SCREENSHOT

Atlanta police Chief Darin Schierbaum described the current training situation for Georgia’s largest law enforcement agency as “disjointed.” APD rents classroom space at Metropolitan State College and goes to Fulton County or other neighboring jurisdictions for more active training.

Likewise, Atlanta fire chief Rod Smith said his agency has been “operating in a fractured state for over 30 years.” For decades their classroom training was in a vacant elementary school (which has since been condemned). They bus folks to DeKalb County or Douglasville for live fire training.

Fire department recruits used to learn to drive “big boy ladder trucks,” as Dickens put it, in grocery store parking lots. Stores recently nixed that, complaining the heavy machinery damaged the asphalt.

Recruits now learn to drive on the actual streets of Atlanta, at night, and hope for the best.

Officials have suggested the new training center would be a boon for recruiting and morale.

At the same time, Dickens said last week that APD hired 212 new officers last year, shy of his stated goal of 250 but “higher than most people were able to get in this market.” (It was not immediately clear how many officers left the department over that same time period.)

Dickens also said the department already has “the most extensive” training requirements in the Southeast: some 35 weeks, when the state only requires 10. The syllabus already includes things like crisis intervention and de-escalation training; implicit bias and cultural sensitivity courses; and Civil Rights history education.

“This training needs space,” Dickens said. “And that’s exactly what this training center is going to offer.”

A draft rendering of part of Atlanta's proposed new public safety training center.

Credit: SPECIAL PHOTO

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Credit: SPECIAL PHOTO

‘Complex discourse’

It hasn’t always been communicated well, but little of the information discussed on Tuesday was new. Dickens himself later conceded that the city hadn’t done a good job of “painting the picture.”

Left-wing activists that have opposed the training center for well over a year now remain unimpressed, especially after the Jan. 18 death of comrade Manuel “Tortuguita” Teran. The 26-year-old was killed that day by state troopers conducting a clearing operation near the training center site.

Teran is accused of shooting first, wounding a still-unnamed state trooper.

(While the Georgia Bureau of Investigation says it has tied the bullet that struck the trooper to a gun found at the scene, and provided documents showing Teran purchased the weapon, there is no body camera footage from the incident.)

Several days after Teran’s death, venerable Atlanta institutions like the King Center and the Carter Center issued statements calling for “dialogue” between parties involved in the training center conflict. The Sierra Club’s Georgia chapter and the Southern Center for Human Rights have decried the proposal.

“It’s really an urban warfare training facility,” SCHR’s Micah Herskind said during a recent online “teach-in” about the training center. “That’s really what the plan is.”

Demonstrators protest the construction of a new public safety training center during a press conference at City Hall in Atlanta on Tuesday, January 31, 2023. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Elsewhere, Atlanta City Councilwoman Liliana Bakhtiari, who took office after the training center vote in 2021, wrote a lengthy letter that, among many other things, urged activists and others to “remain engaged” and “provide space for complex discourse.” DeKalb County Commissioner Ted Terry, whose district includes the training center site, continued to raise questions about transparency and the true level of community input.

Georgia NAACP chairman Gerald Griggs said that his organization remains opposed to the center.

“We believe more police accountability not training will be the solution,” Griggs tweeted last week. A lengthy accompanying statement said Atlanta leaders had ignored public outcry over spending $90 million for the facility “when the root causes of the city’s problems, such as poverty, homelessness, education and social services, have gone unaddressed.”

The city, to be clear, has pledged to put $30 million toward the training center. The rest was raised through corporate and philanthropic donations.

And as of Friday afternoon, 37 faculty members from Atlanta’s Morehouse College had signed onto a new open letter calling for the training center project to be cancelled.

“Atlanta, our home town, has become the epicenter of the struggle over the future of policing in America,” the letter said. “Now is the time to STOP COP CITY.”

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