Opinion: Atlanta needs new public safety training center now

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

The controversy over whether to build the city’s new Public Safety Training Center on 150 acres of city-owned property on Key Road is fraught with false narratives, misunderstood objectives and a distorted view of the urgency of the law enforcement needs of Atlanta citizens.

Governing is always about making choices. Rarely are choices perfect. But it is the job of our elected officials and those charged with protecting the public to make the best decisions possible, utilize available resources to their maximum effect and deliver the services mandated by those whose welfare they are sworn to preserve.

Few would question the city’s dire need for updated fire rescue and police academies. Even during the early days of my tenure as chief of the Atlanta Police Department, Atlanta’s facilities were unworthy of providing the comprehensive career training needed to meet the professional standards of 21st-century law enforcement.

Since then, new tools have evolved, new methods have been developed, and the expectations of our citizens have increased. Yet Atlanta’s current public safety infrastructure has decayed and crumbled.

The city has worked for years to identify an appropriate site to accommodate training needs. Developing one training center with facilities that can be shared by police and fire will save the taxpayers millions of dollars and provide a more efficient operating climate that will bond the agencies in their interrelated missions.

The Key Road site – a 150-acre parcel of 381-acres of land owned by the city of Atlanta for more than 100 years – has served as an outdoor tactical training site for more than 40 years. Three generations of Atlanta’s firefighters and police officers have trained there.

The land, once home to the city’s Prison Farm, has been closed since the 1980s. The site has been sequestered – strictly cordoned off -- except for the outdoor tactical training facilities, which all of Atlanta’s police officers and firefighters regularly use.

We understand that environmentalists are concerned about the destruction of trees and other natural growth on a site that planners have claimed as forestland and designated as a place where the public should be able to access greenspace.

But the current plans call for utilizing only 150 of the 381 acres and developing facilities on only 50 acres. The plan calls for opening the site to public access: installing an urban farm, usable greenspace for picnics and parks, walking trails and eventually a trail connecting the site to the Beltline. Only tactical training sites would be sequestered for safety reasons. While the current shooting range site lies 500 feet from the closest residential area, the new training location would put approximately one-half mile between any tactical site and residential area.

I am in full agreement with environmentalists’ sentiments. I am a citizen, too, and care greatly about tree cover, clean air and water and public access to green space. We are, however, in the midst of a crime surge, exacerbated by two decades of sub-par training facilities for first responders.

Critics say the city should find brownfield, unused or abandoned industrial space. An alternative parcel of land – we need 100-plus acres – simply doesn’t exist. Assembling it would cost tens of millions of dollars that the city doesn’t have, and take years, if not decades to assemble. Delay would cause further atrophy of the Departments’ readiness and needlessly degrade their capabilities.

A perfectly good site on Key Road-- already owned by the city, which has lain dormant for 40 years – can be quickly transformed to meet our needs. The city has committed to design and operate it consistent with the highest environmental standards.

Thanks to a commitment from the Atlanta Police Foundation, any trees that are destroyed by construction will be replaced, and a tree canopy that, contrary to some environmentalists’ complaints, has simply never existed there will be established.

Building the Public Safety Training Center at the Key Road site is a holistic solution to the City’s needs:

1.) It is affordable, leverages existing City assets, and has attracted $40 million in private sector support

2.) It is operationally sound and will enable the replacement of dilapidated facilities with state-of-the-art resources that will meet training needs for the next 40-plus years

3.) It will immediately motivate police and firefighters, improve morale, stem attrition, spark recruitment, and establish greater professionalism

4.) It will jump-start the career development of our first responders, enabling them to deliver the safety demanded by Atlanta citizens

5.) It can be constructed to meet appropriate environmental standards and will avail net new greenspace for public use

I devoted more than 30 years of public service to Atlanta. This Key Road plan is the most important and impactful public safety initiative City Council has considered in more than three decades. For the sake of our City, our citizens and the public safety personnel sworn to keep us safe, I urge City Council to approve it.

George Turner is a former Atlanta chief of police.