Officials tout Atlanta police, fire training center plan, face public’s questions ahead of key vote

Officials from the city and Atlanta Police Foundation continued to pitch the need for a new training center for police officers and firefighters during a public presentation Thursday, as they faced questions ahead of a City Council vote about the scale and environmental impact of the new center.

But leaders faced criticism that the virtual meeting was one-sided and didn’t allay residents’ concerns about the plans.

The City Council is set to vote Sept. 7 on whether to lease 85 acres at the site of the old Atlanta prison farm, just outside city limits in unincorporated DeKalb County, to the police foundation for the construction of the center. Supporters say the facility is critical to bolster recruitment, training, and retention amid a citywide shortage of police officers and firefighters.

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“There’s no alternative — we must move forward and get us a training center,” Atlanta Fire Rescue Department First Deputy Chief James McLemore said.

Councilmember Natalyn Archibong, who organized the meeting, said over 14,000 residents joined by phone at one point, with nearly 5,000 people staying on their phones for 45 minutes. Over 150 people joined by Zoom and nearly 50 people watched live on Facebook, she said.

“I wanted to give citizens more opportunity to receive information about this proposal and to provide their feedback,” Archibong wrote in an email to the AJC.

Residents and activists have argued the police foundation rushed through the public engagement process and should consider other locations for the training center. The council previously delayed the vote to gather more public input, as several councilmembers said that the police foundation’s previous public engagement efforts were not sufficient.

While Thursday’s event allowed attendees to ask questions and leave comments directly in the Zoom chat, critics said the meeting — which featured officials from City Hall, the police foundation, and the police and fire departments largely speaking in support of the plan — also didn’t amount to thorough public engagement.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

“I was hoping that Councilmember Archibong would have a person from the community speak, but instead it was a bland promotional advertising opportunity for the development,” said Jasmine Amussen, a 32-year-old resident of the Chosewood Park neighborhood in southeast Atlanta.

More organized opposition is planned ahead of Tuesday’s vote, with protests scheduled for Friday and Sunday.

Over 100 questions were submitted ahead of the event, Archibong said.

Asked how the city decided on the old prison farm site for the training center, the city’s deputy chief operating officer Jestin Johnson said it fit the requirements of being owned by the city, large enough and close to the city.

“There was a lot of work done for several years and this concept had been presented and vetted … several years ago,” Johnson said. “We, at the end of the day, landed back at this location … based on the initial needs assessment that was conducted quite a while ago.”

The proposal was publicly announced earlier this year, after a city-commissioned advisory council formally recommended the site off Key Road after considering two other locations, Greenbriar Mall and Atlanta Metropolitan College. If the city greenlights the plan, a community advisory council would be created to provide feedback on the design of the project.

Archibong asked some questions she had received from residents, including whether a helicopter landing pad would be located on the site — officials said it would. Police foundation officials also said the first phase of the environmental study would be finished over the next few weeks.

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