Opinion: Making Atlanta safer is our North Star



Mayor Dickens: Today’s dangers show public safety training center for first responders is sorely needed.

The afternoon I became mayor, I received a phone.

I hate that phone.

It buzzes each time a crime, fire, accident or other disaster puts a life in danger in our city.

It buzzed when we had an active shooter in Midtown with an unknown number of injuries. And the time when a father fired a shot at his family and then barricaded them inside their home. Those were in the last two weeks. While violent crime is down in our city, it’s still too high.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

As a father, I want a safe and vibrant city for my family and I know that each of us, no matter our zip code, wants that same thing.

To do that, we must invest in a balanced approach that includes both addressing the root causes of crime as well as investing in the recruitment, retention and training of our first responders. Atlanta is one of the largest cities in the Southeast, yet we do not have a training center for those who work to keep us safe when we need them most. This is unacceptable.

That’s why we are building the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center to give firefighters, emergency medical service providers and police personnel the skills to better serve our neighborhoods. I have often said that I believe in drawing circles: Bringing people together rather than drawing lines that divide us. For many months, the conversations about this facility have been fueled by fear, misinformation and an “us vs. them” mindset.

I want to offer another perspective, grounded in facts, that speaks to my commitment as your mayor. First, the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center will not be “cop city.” The training center is about comprehensive public safety. Recent incidents like the tragic shootings in Midtown and Atlantic Station show that when a crisis hits, we rely on all our first responders to be on top of their game.

The center will provide enough space to allow for joint training exercises among our city’s public safety departments. The world around us is changing quickly and our first responders need training in the latest techniques and technology to effectively fulfill their mission to keep us safe. The purpose of the training center is to equip our public safety personnel with the skills and knowledge they need to do their jobs the right way, every time, and avoid the deeply troubling situations we have seen in places like Minneapolis and Memphis.

Our administration and our public safety leaders will not tolerate or shield public safety personnel who abuse their power and commit unspeakable acts. Our North Star is that no family or community will ever have to suffer through what happened to Eric Garner or George Floyd and, yes, even some families in our own city.

To do this, our public safety personnel must have modern, top-quality training programs and facilities throughout their careers, from their first day in the academy to routine training thereafter -- including learning and practicing de-escalation skills, anti-bias training and building relationships with citizens whose trust has been breached.

The center also provides an opportunity for Atlanta to lead the nation around reform and justice. It will help us introduce new and more responsive public safety models, including our emerging violence reduction efforts and expanding our co-responder model, which seeks to reduce the arrest and incarceration of people facing extreme poverty, substance abuse or mental health concerns.

Beyond public safety, this conversation actually presents an opportunity for us to make a historic investment in green space. The city of Atlanta owns 385 acres of land in the area. Roughly 85 acres will be used for the training center. The remaining 300 acres will be permanently preserved, ecologically restored and opened to the public for the first time in over a century.

For months, local residents who served on our Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee have significantly adjusted the overall site plan to better align with the community’s visions. And my newly created South River Forest and Public Safety Training Center Community Task Force will add more voices and broaden the scope of community input to include the surrounding green space as well as our public safety training curriculum.

In December 2021, the Atlanta City Council unanimously authorized the city’s chief financial officer to identify up to $35 million in public capital toward the completion of the training center. On Monday, legislation was introduced fulfilling that commitment made by the previous council and administration and requesting that allocation not exceed $31 million. In the coming weeks, we will meet with community members to continue gathering feedback and answering questions.

As a father, I would do anything to keep my child safe. As your mayor, I will do everything I can to do the same for you and your family.

Andre Dickens is mayor of the city of Atlanta.