Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens said Wednesday that the narrative surrounding the city’s new public safety training center “got way out of hand” in the last year-plus and his administration could’ve done a better job laying out benefits of the plan.
“The mayor’s office didn’t own it, as in ‘we’re gonna paint this picture for the public,’” Dickens said. “We didn’t do that. And because we didn’t do that it started getting painted by anybody that had a brush.”
“This one we probably left a lot of meat on the bone for disinformation,” he added.
Dickens, a former city councilman who recently completed his first year as mayor, sat down with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s editorial board and several reporters on Wednesday to discuss a variety of issues, including: crime, guns, MARTA, dangerous apartment complexes and the city’s odds for hosting next year’s Democratic National Convention.
But much of the hour-long conversation involved the training center, a $90-million police and fire facility pitched for a wooded area of southwestern DeKalb County. DeKalb issued land disturbance permits for the project on Tuesday, clearing the way for construction to begin in earnest.
That came about two weeks after months and months of protests, which culminated with the death of a 26-year-old activist named Manuel “Tortuguita” Teran.
Teran, who was camping in the woods near the training center site, is accused of shooting at and wounding a state trooper before fellow troopers returned fire.
Arrests made that day and during subsequent protests in downtown Atlanta brought the total number of activists charged with domestic terrorism to 19. The weighty charges carry potential sentences of 35 years in prison and, while most of those arrested have been accused of some type of run-in with police, few have been tied directly to the most violent actions attributed to the amorphous “defend the forest” movement.
Their terrorism charges are based primarily on their alleged affiliation to that larger movement.
Asked about the charges, Dickens said he hadn’t studied the “legalese” and hadn’t personally pushed for them — or any others.
“Whatever the charges that the [district attorney] gave or the police gave, those are the charges that were properly assigned and they will be defended,” the mayor said. “I do believe that everybody needed to be put on notice that hurting people or damaging property is gonna have a significant consequence.”
Dickens said there is a “tactical plan and a set of strategies” for protecting the training center site and keeping workers safe as construction gets underway. But he hopes that “respect and understanding” play a role as well.
He regrets that his office wasn’t more proactive in explaining the project, the need for it and its potential benefits. It would’ve been impossible to make everyone happy, but perhaps things wouldn’t have gotten to this point.
“We didn’t design the presentation as well as we were designing the mission and scope of the finished product,” Dickens said.
Other topics included:
Dickens said the Atlanta Police Department hired 212 new officers last year — a little shy of his stated goal of 250. (It was unclear how many officers were lost through retirement or attrition.)
“That’s higher than most people were able to get in this market,” Dickens said. He praised retention bonuses that the city offered and called its new take-home vehicle program “a huge success.”
Recruitment has been promoted as a primary reason for building the training center.
‘Year of the Youth’
Dickens also touted his “Year of the Youth” program, which officially kicked off Monday — and urged everyone in the city to get involved.
The program is aimed at “creating predictable pathways to prosperity” for Atlanta’s youngsters by keeping them busy and out of trouble.
On the City Hall side, that means additional funding for parks and recreation programs, more support for nonprofits, entrepreneurship programs, hiring as many interns as possible.
“We want every kid to have an afterschool assignment,” Dickens said. “Them not having any kind of structure it’s what’s causing a lot of this.”
The mayor hopes the program inspires others to chip in where they can.
“The year of the youth is like, everybody,” he said. “How can all of us help the children?”
The DNC in ATL?
Dickens said he has conversations throughout every day about Atlanta’s bid to host the 2024 Democratic National Convention.
The pitch, he said, is basically that the city has shown Democrats that “if you make investments in Atlanta, we’re going to turn around and do our part.” He also referenced a recent letter from leaders across the South urging President Joe Biden to pick the Peach State’s capital.
“Sixty Southern leaders are saying that, if you put the DNC in Atlanta, you have a great chance of expanding the congressional and presidential map for the Democratic Party,” Dickens said.
Atlanta and Chicago are believed to be the two frontrunners for the nominating convention.
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