OPINION: Govt 101 and the tough decisions surrounding ‘Cop City’

A person holds a sign in protest of Atlanta’s planned public safety training center during a candlelight vigil responding to the killing of a forest protester who exchanged gunfire with a State Trooper on Wednesday morning. Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

A person holds a sign in protest of Atlanta’s planned public safety training center during a candlelight vigil responding to the killing of a forest protester who exchanged gunfire with a State Trooper on Wednesday morning. Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

First, let me get this out of the way: It’s absurd that Georgia State Patrol does not require troopers to wear body cameras.

Last week’s shooting death of a protestor at the site where Atlanta wants to build its police training center leaves an unneeded hole in their account. Police say Manuel Teran shot and wounded a trooper as they cleared protestors from the wooded site and was then killed by return fire.

Anti-training center activists are spouting theories of coverup and gun-planting by police, although it’s pretty damning that in 2020 Teran bought that exact same gun found near the protestor’s tent, according to firearm transaction records. A body-cam video of the shooting could temper the conspiracies.

GSP touts an image of being the state’s premier agency, with ramrod-straight troopers and Smokey Bear hats. The department’s leader did not respond for comment, but has said body cams aren’t needed because GSP uses dash cams.

However, a Channel 11 investigation last year found that nine of 11 deadly shootings by GSP since 2017 were out of dash-cam range. And in 2020, DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston, after clearing a trooper in a shooting death, told the department it was “unreasonable” not to use body cams “in this day and age.”

That said, let’s visit this muddled, tragic political mess to see how we got here.

The Atlanta City Council has been criticized for rushing through the approval to build an 85-acre training facility where the Old Prison Farm once stood near Southeast Atlanta. The site is among 300-plus acres Atlanta owns outside the city limits, an area once destined (and much of it still is) to be an ecological haven near the South River. Critics say the facility will devastate a forest (much of it is recent regrowth, not old growth) and the effort is sanctioning the “militarization” of police.

The city’s current police training facility is a dump and city officials salivated at getting $60 million from the Atlanta Police Foundation to build a new $90 million facility. Excitement always accompanies “free” money.

The foundation is the semi-secretive, clout-wielding, 800-pound gorilla of local politics because “Police” is wedged in the middle of its name and because it has a large bank account. DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond, whose government is weighing the ecological impacts of the site while determining to issue a land disturbance permit, said he has never met with anyone from the Atlanta Police Foundation.

(Cox Enterprises, which owns my employer, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, has a charitable foundation that has donated to the police training center. However, neither Cox nor my AJC bosses have told me what to write, or not write.)

Also, council members have been castigated for “disregarding” the wishes of Atlantans. Critics note that there were 17 hours of public comments (1,166, if you’re counting) in September 2021 when the council considered approving the training center. One analysis found 70% of the comments were against. The council then voted 10-4 for it. The 10 included several liberals.

The mood surrounding policing in September 2021 was drastically different from a year earlier, in May 2020, when George Floyd was killed, and June 2020, when Atlanta police shot to death motorist Rayshard Brooks.

In June 2020, the council toyed with its own effort to defund the police. The plan was to withhold a third of the PD’s $217 million budget as leverage to get the department to change its culture.

The South Atlanta Wendy's where Rayshard Brooks was killed was destroyed last month during a large protest.

Credit: Ben Gray for the AJC

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Credit: Ben Gray for the AJC

That effort was defeated 8-7, with most of the council’s Black members from the south side among the 8. The residents of their districts were the victims of much of the crime and they wanted more police.

What had changed since June 2020 was 15 months of prolonged violence.

Councilman Matt Westmoreland, a white man and dutiful progressive, embodies the change that occurred between 2020 and 2021.

In 2020, Westmoreland was on the losing side on the issue of withholding some of the police budget and was later among those supporting the training center a year later. So was then-Councilman, now-Mayor, Andre Dickens.

“I’ve gotten my share of messages saying, ‘Shame on you. You’ve come a long way from when you were going to defund the police,’ “ Westmoreland told me.

This is not an issue pitting left versus right. Remember, this is Atlanta. It’s left versus farther left.

The council in its 2021 vote was doing a calculus. It was an election year and members believed the public leaned more for public safety. Two of the four voting against the center were not running for re-election. The other two got beat.

One of the ironies of this is we hear a lot about the caustic nature of police and that the protests are a pushback from the “community” to protect Black residents. Interestingly, of the 25 protestors arrested in four sweeps since May, only three are from Georgia and just one from is metro Atlanta. Also, just one of those 25 arrested is Black.

There has been a firebomb, construction machinery vandalized and a cop car burned last week in a protest.

The council’s decision was Government 101. Elected officials were making a hard, and not altogether popular, choice to go with what they believed their constituents wanted, not the wishes of some vagabond out-of-towners who climb trees in the woods to protest “Cop City.”