Loose gun laws. Multiple defendants. Possible Trump indictment brings security challenge


                        Former President Donald Trump waves as he arrives at the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse in Manhattan, April 4, 2023. The former president is expected to appear today in a Manhattan courtroom and plead not guilty to charges related to his role in a hush-money payment to a porn star in the last days of the 2016 presidential campaign. (Benjamin Norman/The New York Times)

Former President Donald Trump waves as he arrives at the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse in Manhattan, April 4, 2023. The former president is expected to appear today in a Manhattan courtroom and plead not guilty to charges related to his role in a hush-money payment to a porn star in the last days of the 2016 presidential campaign. (Benjamin Norman/The New York Times)

When Donald Trump arrived in Manhattan early this month to face criminal charges, Fulton County sheriffs’ deputies were watching. Knowing Atlanta could be Trump’s next stop, Sheriff Patrick Labat dispatched a team to New York to study the intense security surrounding the former president’s unprecedented trip to the courthouse.

Now they need to put that intelligence into action. In letters this week to top local law enforcement officials, Fulton District Attorney, Fani Willis said she will announce this summer whether Trump and his allies will be indicted for allegedly meddling in Georgia’s 2020 election.

The message: get ready.

Criminal charges against Trump could mean a security challenge the likes of which Atlanta hasn’t seen since the Super Bowl in 2019. Officials said they have been tested in recent years by heated protests, blockbuster events and high-profile court activity.

And while Fulton County officials learned from their counterparts in Manhattan the situation in metro Atlanta is different.

Here there are fewer police – New York City has roughly 18 times as many officers as the city of Atlanta. In Fulton County there are also likely to be multiple defendants. And Georgia has looser gun laws, raising the prospect of pistol-packing protesters outside the courthouse.

A 2014 Georgia law limits local governments’ ability to restrict guns in public spaces, said Anthony Kreis, an assistant professor of law at Georgia State University who specializes in civil liberties and constitutional law. State law prohibits carrying guns into courthouses, but not surrounding areas.

“My best guess is that, as a consequence of Georgia’s loose gun regulations, law enforcement may try to close down pedestrian access altogether around a sweeping perimeter of the Fulton County courthouse except for those members of the public seeking to get into the courthouse,” he said.

Georgia relaxed gun laws even further in 2022 to allow “lawful” gun owners to carry a concealed weapon without obtaining a permit.

Former Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields said Georgia’s open-carry laws are old enough that police are already used to dealing with them, including at protests; but newer officers should get refresher training on the precise rules to avoid later legal trouble.

But Gary Kleck, professor emeritus in the College of Criminology & Criminal Justice at Florida State University and an expert on gun control and politics, said Georgia’s laws will make it tougher for police.

“Given the many Trump supporters who possessed guns on the Jan. 6 protests, Atlanta police have good reason to regard gun carrying by protesters as a serious threat and to see Georgia’s permitless carry law as a complication of their duty to protect people in the vicinity of a courthouse,” he said.

Fulton County Police Chief Wade Yates said the area has seen a number of protests in which his department worked closely with the sheriff, Atlanta police and Georgia State Patrol.

“All of the agencies involved have gotten a lot of practice in that over the last several years,” Yates said.

6/6/20 - Atlanta - Metro Atlanta has hosted many protests in recent years.  Some of the largest came after police shootings in 2020.  Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Credit: bandres@ajc.com

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Credit: bandres@ajc.com

The Fulton County Police Department is responsible for the county government center and the county public safety building, but both are adjacent to the county courthouse, so county police have been engaged in security discussions with other local law enforcement agencies since a special grand jury began investigating Trump, he said.

“We had a lot of high-profile visitors who testified in that,” Yates said.

The sheriff’s office is coordinating with local, state and federal agencies and is working on a comprehensive plan for increased security during the next few months.

“One of my biggest concerns is the number of people that potentially could embark on Fulton County – what that looks like – and our goal is to keep our courthouse safe,” Labat said.

Labat reviewed courthouse security last year while Yates did the same for the adjacent buildings. Security at the Fulton courthouse is already ramped up because of the ongoing YSL gang trial.

Fulton county Sheriff Patrick Labat will lead security efforts related to indictments handed down in Fulton County this summer. He is shown here on December 29th 2022. (Ben Hendren for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Hendren

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Credit: Ben Hendren

Willis has spent two years probing alleged interference in the 2020 presidential election. A special purpose grand jury investigated for eight months and, in a report to the DA, recommended multiple people be indicted. Most of that report remains sealed. Willis said in Monday letters to police agencies that she will announce possible criminal indictments between July 11 and Sept. 1.

Trump, accusing prosecutors of overreach, has previously called for mass demonstrations, raising fears of violence similar to a pro-Trump mob’s storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. An indictment in Fulton County could draw crowds of protesters and counterprotesters along with heavy media attention.

Willis’ letters, hand-delivered to law enforcement officials, urged “heightened security and preparedness.” She named Labat as the “lead law enforcement officer constitutionally responsible for ensuring the security of the Fulton County Courthouse.” Atlanta city police are responsible for securing the surrounding area. Willis urged collaboration between multiple law enforcement agencies.

In New York, where Trump was arraigned in early April on a 34-county felony indictment related to hush-money payments to porn star Stormy Daniels, police put up barricades and shut down streets near the Manhattan courthouse. About 35,000 city, state and federal officers were on call in case of trouble. Other courtrooms in the building were closed, and the route Trump took to and from the courthouse was shut to other traffic.

In the end, however, demonstrations were nonviolent and relatively small.

Shields praised the effort in New York.

“They really made it uneventful, which is your goal,” Shields said.

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