Opinion: Atlanta, we need the new public safety training center

OUR VIEW: ANDREW MORSE, PRESIDENT AND PUBLISHER
Atlanta public safety training center rendering

Credit: AJC file photos

Credit: AJC file photos

Atlanta public safety training center rendering

The people of Atlanta deserve to have the best trained, most responsible, most empathetic public safety officers in the nation. The people of Atlanta deserve to walk the streets without fear of violent crime and to have a police force and fire and rescue department they can depend upon to protect and serve them. All of them.

Therefore, Atlanta must build a modern training facility for our city’s public safety officers.

Yet, the people of Atlanta are on the brink of having their best interests undermined by a relatively small group of violent extremists who place a higher value on dogma and national crusades than on the safety and security of all Atlantans.

Andrew Morse, AJC president and publisher.

Credit: contributed

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Credit: contributed

To be clear, Atlanta’s Public Safety Training Center project has been flawed. But it must be built.

Former Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, current Mayor Andre Dickens and Atlanta Police Foundation President and CEO Dave Wilkinson share the blame for a process that has, at times, lacked transparency, clear communication and accountability.

These missteps don’t invalidate the need for the training center or justify the violent acts of extremists hell-bent on ensuring it is never built, but the result has been an erosion of public trust. This is unfortunate, since one of the primary fears of skeptics of the center is that they cannot trust public safety officers.

Reasonable critics have reason to be upset.

DeKalb County residents who live near the Key Road location were promised abundant greenspace in 2017. The city changed course.

The Mayor and the Police Foundation did not effectively explain the cost of the project or the sources of funding. They have since clarified the taxpayer burden, which remains roughly one-third of the overall budget, but the damage was done, in the eyes of a skeptical public. Failure to communicate was an unforced error.

Reasonable critics also have reason to be suspicious of the center – they have seen too many young, Black men fall victim to police brutality on America’s streets.

But reasonable critics are not the ones standing in the way.

Reasonable critics do not set fire to local businesses, as happened in Gwinnett County two weeks ago, they do not vandalize the homes and workplaces of community leaders, which has happened all year and they do not spew hatred. The diary of Manuel “Tortuguita” Teran, who was killed in an exchange of gunfire with police near the training center site in January, included vitriol such as “kill cops, burn police vehicles,” and “cops love being on fire.” The death of any young person is tragic, but Teran’s worldview belies an antipathy for public safety officers that cannot be seen as reasonable.

Simply put, there is no place for violent extremism and acts of terror in our city. Period.

There is an irony to one of the fundamental arguments of reasonable and unreasonable critics alike. They fear the true aim of the facility is to train and equip a paramilitary force to quell dissent and victimize young, Black men in Atlanta. There is no evidence of such a plan; only social media conspiracies. The best way to guard against that concern is to have a modern facility with world-class instruction, to train our law enforcement officers. The remedy for poor policing isn’t to disband the police but to train officers to be better. Last year, 171 people were murdered in Atlanta, 83% of whom were African-American males. Those numbers won’t improve if we take police officers off the streets or fail to equip them to do their jobs.

Much of the vitriol and violence in opposition to the training center has been driven by people who do not live in our city. They have come here to further a national agenda to “defund the police.” “Stop Cop City” has become a convenient rallying cry for the movement. It is understandable in a post-George Floyd world that some would fear heavy-handed policing, but the outside extremists don’t understand Atlanta. Our African-American Democratic mayor, our white conservative Republican governor and our openly gay police chief all stood before community leaders at the annual “Crime is Toast” breakfast last September and sang from the same hymnal. They were joined at the podium by some of Atlanta’s most decorated public safety officers, a diverse group reflecting the community they serve.

What our city needs now is for reasonable people to separate themselves from extremists. The site has been selected, the funds have been deployed, construction has begun and it is set to conclude by the end of next year.

The police foundation, city officials and community leaders must work together to chart a path forward in the best interests of the people of Atlanta:

If there are concerns about training and tactics, the police foundation must address them. For their part, the foundation has pledged that the center will be open to the public. Critics should take them at their word and hold them accountable. Trust, but verify.

The city and the police foundation must ensure the project comes in on budget and they must continue to be transparent with taxpayers about the costs.

If local residents will see their home values or quality of life decline by living next to the training center, rather than a park, the city should make them whole, or help them move. The city and the police foundation should identify more greenspace for residents of DeKalb County and make good on the initial promise made to residents.

Mayor Dickens must make good on his promise that the city can fund the Public Safety Training Center and still address urgent issues such as health care, housing and education inequality.

We need to choose reason over rhetoric. The center is not being built to suppress the people of Atlanta, but to protect them. The site is not being constructed on a pristine forest, but rather a plot of land that has been used for multiple purposes over the course of the last century, including a prison farm and a burial ground for zoo animals.

And the city of Atlanta has not suppressed the rights of voters. The city clerk will soon begin the process of validating the 116,000 signatures organizers claim to have collected in favor of a ballot referendum on the training center. If the city can verify 58,000 signatures (15% of Atlanta’s registered voters), the measure would be put to a vote next March. Mayor Dickens has promised transparency in the process, but rightly reminded Georgia’s U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock in a letter that “standing in front of your local grocery store to collect signatures from customers who may be residents, while commendable, is vastly different from registering to vote and casting a ballot.”

If the signatures can be verified, the matter should be put to a vote and the voice of the people should be considered. But if the petitions do not pass muster, critics must accept the outcome and move on. Short-circuiting the law will only serve to further undermine trust in our voting process just as Georgia prepares to once again play a critical role in determining the next president of the United States. This decision cannot be viewed in a vacuum. Not in 2024. Not in Georgia.

Eroding trust in our institutions does not serve our city. The people of Atlanta need to be able to trust their voting process. They need to be able to trust their public safety officers. They need to be able to trust their elected officials. And they need to be able to trust a free and independent press. Gov. Kemp continues to publicly blame “the media,” and specifically “the Atlanta paper” for pushing an agenda to support the protesters. That is no more productive than a call to defund the police.

The governor has taken a bold and commendable stance, calling for the community to support the training center and to denounce extremists who have resorted to violence, to the detriment of our city. I agree with him. Now is the time to focus on reason over rhetoric.

Eroding trust in our institutions does not make our streets safer.

Andrew Morse, President and Publisher. Email: LetterFromThePublisher@ajc.com

Note of disclosure: The James M. Cox Foundation, the charitable arm of Cox Enterprises which owns The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, has contributed to the training center fundraising campaign. It is among several Atlanta-based foundations that have contributed

Protestors against Atlanta's planned public safety training center, known by some as "Cop City," gather at Fulton County Courthouse in Atlanta on Monday, Aug. 14, 2023, as Fulton prosecutors present a their election interference case against former President Donald Trump and others to a grand. (Arvin Temkar/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Credit: TNS

Protestors demonstrating against Atlanta’s public training safety center clash with police in Atlanta on Monday, November 13, 2023. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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