Mayor Dickens’ training center task force finalizes recommendations

Task force members want more community involvement in the project, but some question impact of the recommendations
An officer walks through a building at the old prison farm during an Atlanta Police Department and Atlanta Fire Rescue media tour of the site for the proposed Atlanta Public Safety Training Center on Friday, May 26, 2023. (Arvin Temkar /

Credit: Arvin Temkar

Credit: Arvin Temkar

An officer walks through a building at the old prison farm during an Atlanta Police Department and Atlanta Fire Rescue media tour of the site for the proposed Atlanta Public Safety Training Center on Friday, May 26, 2023. (Arvin Temkar /

The Atlanta mayor’s personal training center task force wrapped up on Wednesday after finalizing a variety of recommendations on ways to improve the planned facility.

Members expressed a significant need to rebuild public trust by increasing community ownership of the project. Recommendations ranged from letting residents weigh in on law enforcement training, to building urban farms as part of the 300 acres of public greenspace.

The South River Forest and Public Safety Training Center Community Task Force is part of Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens’ attempt to push back against criticism that the public wasn’t engaged in plans for the controversial $90 million facility from the beginning.

“So much of this is about trust,” Dickens said. “Mistrust and trust missed.”

The 38-member group was made up of individuals and organizations that both support and oppose the training center, from the NAACP to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Meetings ran completely separate from the already established Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee that was formed by City Council in 2021 shortly after it approved the ground lease for the project.

But the new task force had a messy start.

The mayor’s office originally confirmed to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the meetings would be closed and unavailable for public viewing. After backlash, Dickens defended the decision by saying that some members were concerned about their safety.

The city doubled-back on its decision and began streaming all the task force meetings, which have been happening since May. Members were split into four subgroups: parks and greenspace; prison farm history; sustainability; and law enforcement curriculum.

During the final recommendations meeting, some members said they were rightfully skeptical when they joined the task force — the mayor faced criticism for hand-picking the group — but ultimately felt the process had allowed for a “thoughtful reexamination” of the highly controversial project.

But others question whether or not their recommendations will solve any of the major concerns from environmental destruction to fears about the militarization of police.

“There’s no conclusion here — this week,” said Richard Rose, former president of the Atlanta NAACP.

February 6, 2023 Atlanta Law enforcement was out en masse Monday morning, Feb. 6, 2023 at the site of Atlanta’s proposed public safety training center, clearing the woods in anticipation of construction on the controversial facility beginning in earnest. SWAT teams from the Atlanta, DeKalb County police departments, as well as Georgia State Patrol troopers and representatives from other agencies, were seen at the site in southwest DeKalb County. Construction contractors were also there with equipment. Amid the beeping of trucks backing up and the clanging of heavy equipment off Key Road, construction workers busily prepared the site with a backhoe and a bulldozer. Police officers in olive green uniforms patrolled the area atop all-terrain vehicles. The operation was taking place several days after officials announced that initial land disturbance permits had been approved for the $90-million facility — and about three weeks after a similar clearing operation resulted in the death of 26-year-old Manuel “Tortuguita” Teran. During that fatal Jan. 18 incident, Teran is accused of firing at troopers “without warning,” wounding one. Teran died after several other troopers returned fire, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation has said. (John Spink /


icon to expand image


Rose helped craft recommendations for the law enforcement curriculum that includes things like regular mental health checks for police officers.

But he’s skeptical of the group’s impact while the training center conflict represents a much bigger issue on how America reckons with the relationship between policing and race.

“There’s got to be a commitment to intentionally change the policy and change the mindset,” he said. “I want Atlanta to be a model for all of us to understand where we really are and what our attitudes are about race.”

Early skepticism

Dickens announced his new training center task force in March while tensions surrounding the project ran high.

At the time, the city was recently shaken by the death of 26-year-old environmental activist Manuel ‘Tortuguita’ Teran, who was shot and killed by Georgia State Police. Behind closed doors, talks about City Council signing off the on funding package for the $90-million project started to ramp up.

Just days after his announcement, a violent protest broke out at the construction site in which several pieces of construction equipment were set ablaze and 23 protesters were arrested and charged with domestic terrorism.

The ACLU of Georgia chose to pull out of the mayor’s task force over a lack of transparency. Meanwhile, not everyone accepted the invitation to take part in the effort. A handful of invited members expressed interest but declined due to the time commitment while others turned down the request on principle, according to emails obtained by the AJC.

Protesters confront police at Atlanta City Hall ahead of the final vote to approve legislation to fund the public safety training center on Monday, June 5, 2023. (Arvin Temkar /


icon to expand image


“I think participating in this might be a crucial last resource for those of us who believe these facilities shouldn’t be built at all,” said an assistant professor at Spelman College. “But joining the task force now would contradict those beliefs.”

During the final meeting, Dickens said he wasn’t blind to the skepticism behind his decision to launch the task force and the uncomfortable position it put some members in.

“We know that this wasn’t a quick nor an easy nor a fully comfortable process,” he said. “You all had to individually muster up your own individual constitution, personal decision, to say, ‘I will stick with this, I am invested in this,’ regardless of what was happening around you.”

Lasting impact

Task force members who did accept the mayor’s invitation were first and foremost given an unwavering message: the public safety training center in DeKalb County would be built no matter what.

Political consultant Leo Smith, who sat on the sustainability and resilience subgroup of the task force, said that the work on the facility has to move past the question of whether or not efforts to halt construction will be successful.

“The next step is the way to deal with the surrounding space and how do you make that useful and something that people can have a beloved vision for rather than the antagonistic vision that we have,” he said.

Protesters gather outside Atlanta City Hall ahead of the final vote to approve legislation to fund the public safety training center on Monday, June 5, 2023. (Arvin Temkar /


icon to expand image


Mixed within the final task force recommendations were proposals on how to make sure the suggested improvements are implemented and long-lasting.

The parks subgroup asked for dedicated funding and legislation that protects vulnerable areas like streambanks from construction. Members analyzing sustainability want a community farm and career programs for residents in surrounding neighborhoods.

A bulk of the outcry over the training center itself stems from mass calls in 2020 for more oversight and accountability for police.

Members of the public safety curriculum group recommended frequent mental health checks for officers, community feedback and complaints to be a regular part of officer performance assessments and for a robust public database for officer-involved incidents.

And to memorialize the brutal history of the site including a prison farm once operated by the city of Atlanta, the task force recommended a variety of historical displays and preservation of remaining buildings and artifacts.

Over the next 30 days, the mayor’s office said, Dickens’ administration will review the recommendations. Although it’s unclear how they will be implemented or who will oversee the process.

Opponents of the project said the task force recommendations ignore the biggest concerns around the project.

“While the task force continues to recognize that community input is essential, the City continues to ignore their wisdom by fighting tooth and nail against the voters of Atlanta being able to decide this issue for themselves, " said Kamau Franklin, with the Cop City Vote Coalition.

“Paying lip service to democracy while fighting it in court is just the latest demonstration of the disrespect that Mayor Dickens, the City Council, and APF have for the people of Atlanta,” he said.