Battle brews over land, plans for new Atlanta police and firefighter training center

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

For years, Katherine Dillard has taken her dog on daily walks through the forests around the old, abandoned Atlanta prison farm, ruins of an old system in which inmates worked the land to produce their own food.

But one day earlier this year, Dillard noticed, it looked like city crews had been to the site. She called a friend, who told her the city of Atlanta was making plans to build a new $90 million police and fire training center across the 150 acres of land in unincorporated DeKalb County.

“We had no idea it was coming,” said Dillard, 65, who lives in the Starlight neighborhood down the street from the property. “It makes me feel pretty helpless.”

The City Council could vote to lease the land, which the city owns, to the Atlanta Police Foundation within the next month, and construction could begin as early as this fall to build the training center. But the proposal has led to a barrage of criticism and pushback from activists, DeKalb County officials, and nearby residents.

Groups representing a range of interests have spoken out against the idea, including environmental organizations who want to preserve the land; groups pushing for less investment in police; and DeKalb residents concerned that the city has not gathered enough public input.

The police foundation, as well several city officials including Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, say a new, state-of-the-art training center is critical to improve hiring and retention among police and fire rescue forces, which both currently train in dilapidated facilities. Renderings show the new facility would include a mock village for police to train in and a building for firefighters to practice putting out live fires.

“People are scared to death of this crime surge,” said Atlanta Police Foundation CEO and President Dave Wilkinson. “We have a plan in place now to get past this, but building this public safety training center is the key, the big symbolic thing that shows we’re behind police and fire.”

City officials first publicly announced the plan for the new training facility at the site of the old Atlanta prison farm in April. While the 350-acre tract of land is owned by the city of Atlanta, it sits in unincorporated DeKalb County, off Moreland Avenue about a mile west of city limits.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Bottoms convened a group to look into possible locations for the facility earlier this year, said Atlanta Police Foundation Chief Operating Officer Marshall Freeman. He said they considered multiple locations for the training center but did not find any other suitable spots. The police foundation did not solicit public input before identifying the site and creating designs and renderings for the facility, but recently held two public “listening sessions” to answer questions.

On June 7, Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd introduced an ordinance that would lease the land to the police foundation for the center’s construction. According to the foundation, the facility would span 150 acres out of the 350-acre property. The training center would be built across 85 acres, while the rest would be preserved as green or public park space.

Under the foundation proposed funding structure, the city would contribute $30 million towards the total $90-million project either through a $1-million-per-year lease beginning in 2024 and spanning 30 years, or through a general obligation bond.

Fighting ‘Cop City’

Among those campaigning to stop the development from being approved are groups advocating to move resources away from the police department. A coalition of activist groups, including Defund APD, Refund Communities, Community Movement Builders and the Sunrise Movement, have canvassed and distributed flyers in neighborhoods around the site to inform residents about the plan, which they have nicknamed “Cop City.”

Shehza Anjum, a Georgia Tech student who leads the Atlanta branch of the Sunrise Movement, a youth-run environmental advocacy organization, said the proposal seemed out of touch, citing last year’s protests against police brutality. She said none of the nearby residents she had spoken with supported the plan.

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

“This isn’t a sustainable public safety endeavor,” Anjum said, citing concerns about lead poisoning from the firing range and the tree removal. “There is no investing in communities, and that’s what we want them to do, we want City Council to divest resources from policing.”

Local environmental groups would prefer to see the area preserved as natural land the public can safely access. They pointed to a 2017 study and plan adopted by the City Council that identified the land as part of a future “South River Forest,” a massive connected greenspace that could become a regional destination.

After the city’s plans were announced earlier this year, “it was kind of frustrating to be caught so off guard with such a fully laid-out proposal,” said Allen Doyle, an East Atlanta resident and co-manager of the South River Forest Coalition. “It just seemed to be like a secret proposal that was suddenly dumped out on the community.”

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

His group, as well as organizations like Save The Old Atlanta Prison Farm, have advocated against development on the site for years. Doyle said he is not opposed to a new training facility for police and firefighters, but believes it could be located in a place where some development already exists.

The plan’s supporters say that the center will encourage police reform and community policing by providing a space for officers to go through retraining and areas where the public could see aspects of training. The police foundation has emphasized that the center would be for firefighters as well, who currently train in Douglas County after abandoning their run-down training center years ago.

Wilkinson said the police foundation is engaging with experts to minimize any adverse environmental impacts, and will follow state and federal guidelines. All trees cut down for the project would be replaced, and any hardwood tree cut down would be replaced with 100 hardwood trees, the police foundation said.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

The new firing range would be placed half a mile from nearby residences, Wilkinson said, further than the current Atlanta firing range which stands 500 feet from the closest neighborhood.

DeKalb County Commissioner Ted Terry said he was frustrated that the city has not gone through the county’s normal rezoning and development process, which involves meetings with the community council, public hearings and a vote by the county commission.

“My constituents really don’t like the idea, especially because they don’t get a say in it,” said Terry, whose district includes the old prison farm land.

‘Systematic enforcement of segregation’

Scott Petersen has led thousands on tours in the forests surrounding the South River since 1996 and had hoped for the area to be converted entirely into public greenspace. While he does not oppose the training facility in general, he said there needs to be better recognition of the land’s history that could be overshadowed by the facility.

“There’s never been a reckoning about how brutal the prison farm system was on African Americans,” Petersen said. “I think they better have a really serious look at how police were part of the systematic enforcement of segregation.”

At the turn of the 20th century, the U.S. established several farms nationwide where violators of low-level crimes worked the land to produce food. After purchasing a portion of the land in south DeKalb in the mid-1900s, the city of Atlanta turned it into a labor prison that was disproportionately made up of Black people who had committed minor crimes, Petersen said. The facility closed in 1995 and has been abandoned since.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

A museum for police and fire is expected to be built on the new facility, Wilkinson said, noting that an exhibit highlighting the prison farm’s history would be included.

The proposal is still pending in the City Council’s public safety committee, which is set to discuss the proposal on Aug. 9. If successfully approved by the committee, it would reach the full council for a vote on Aug. 16.

Once the council approves the lease, the police foundation said it plans to put together a stakeholder group, including nearby community members, to work out specifics for the project.

Wilkinson said that after speaking with several council members, he was “encouraged” by their support.

“Not one council member has said to me they would vote against this,” Wilkinson said.

Several council members have spoken out publicly in favor of a new training center, though Councilman Antonio Brown said he does not support building on the site of the old prison farm.