Mayor Dickens: I’m committed to public safety center

Protests over Atlanta’s planned public safety training center have followed Mayor Andre Dickens from when he sat on City Council to the day he first walked into the mayor’s office.

He remembers angry crowds outside of city council members’ houses while they took the virtual vote during the pandemic that approved the controversial project.

Two years later, violent protests, a fatal police shooting and national outcry has dominated his first term as the city’s top official. But Dickens says he still sees a path forward for the facility, that the city needs it, and he won’t back away from the project now.

In a lengthy interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Friday, Dickens addressed a wide variety of concerns about the training center — from ongoing legal challenges to hefty domestic terrorism charges leveled against protesters.

“This isn’t my fault, but it is my problem to deal with,” Dickens said. “And I like to see things through.”

Aerial photograph shows the site of the proposed Atlanta public safety training center at the site of the old Atlanta prison farm in Atlanta on Aug. 9 2022. Key Road shows in foreground. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Dickens said he is committed to building a training ground for Atlanta’s police and firefighters who have long endured inadequate facilities, while at the same time the city is facing high rates of violent crime.

“Right now we do not have a place of our own that is training the state’s largest police force and the state’s largest fire force,” he said. “That’s scary.”

But Dickens also highlighted that the project will also clean debris from hundreds of acres of woods and outfit the area with trails for public use. He has gone door-to-door in nearby neighborhoods and says most residents support the project.

Photograph shows the site of the proposed Atlanta public safety training center at the site of the old Atlanta prison farm in Atlanta on Aug. 9, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The first-term mayor is under mounting pressure to pause the project. He recently instituted a new task force to increase community input, but canceling the lease approved between the city of Atlanta and the Atlanta Police Foundation is not on the table, he said.

“This has stood the test of legality. We’re standing on approved ground,” he said. “This ground is approved by City Council, by Fulton County, by DeKalb,” as well as by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division.

“Trucks could be moving right now, but I’m also having a conversation with the community and I want it to be a fair and balanced conversation,” the mayor said.

Construction equipment was set ablaze earlier this month when a group of protesters dressed in all-black launched Molotov cocktails and fireworks at police officers securing the site. The incident also jeopardized power lines that transmit electricity to buildings in downtown Atlanta, including Grady Hospital.

Atlanta police and construction personnel are on the construction site of the police training center March 6, 2023, in Atlanta examining equipment set on fire and destroyed by violent protests March 5. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

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Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Public safety officials say protesters from outside of Georgia hijacked an otherwise peaceful music festival in demonstration against the site. Nearly two dozen people face weighty domestic terrorism charges that carry a five- to 35-year prison sentence.

Dickens would not say whether or not he agrees with the charges.

“I’m not a judge, I’m not a prosecutor and I’m not the police, so I don’t set the charges,” he said. “They got charges that the police and the prosecutor thought were appropriate, and now it’s carried out in court.”

Some city council members have voiced concern that Atlanta police officers have been relocated to help other local agencies patrol the construction site — although the department won’t disclose the exact number of officers pulled from regular duties.

Dickens said that he doesn’t see a need for additional Atlanta officers to patrol the area, and that DeKalb agencies are responsible for unincorporated areas not owned by Atlanta.

“We’re ready and capable of protecting the site that we’ll be doing construction on,” he said. “Also remember we still have a whole city to maintain safety, so as we add police presence there, we still have to make sure that every other neighborhood and business in Atlanta is safe.”

A multi jurisdiction law enforcement operation took alleged trespassers into custody on May 17, 2022, at the site of the Old Atlanta Prison Farm at 1420 Key Road where the new Atlanta law enforcement training academy facility is slated to be built. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

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Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Chad Hale (Center) holds a sign during a protest to stop the development of the Atlanta Police Training Center, at Gresham park in Atlanta Saturday, March 4, 2023. (Steve Schaefer/steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Credit: Steve Schaefer/AJC

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Credit: Steve Schaefer/AJC

The ongoing clashes between protestors and police have dominated both the local and national news cycles.

The mayor recognized that controversy surrounding the project will likely play out for years to come, and said he regrets not getting ahead of the narrative before misinformation about the facility spread.

“From a political and communication standpoint, maybe we could have done some things to get out ahead of it so that the narrative would have been in our favor,” he said. “This makes it an uphill battle but we still have the facts in our favor, more so than the narrative.”

Still, Dickens worries that conversation around the planned public safety training center will stymie other initiatives he hoped to focus on when he took office, like curbing youth violence.

“I’m trying to keep those things in mind as we talk most of the day about people that’s asking us questions on public safety training center,” he said. “But I still have a whole city to run.”

Mayor Andre Dickens answers questions in an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Greg Bluestein (center) and Riley Beach (right) on the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center in DeKalb County.

Credit: Ryon Horne / Ryon.Horne@ajc.com

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Credit: Ryon Horne / Ryon.Horne@ajc.com