“It’s not a Chamber of Commerce moment, but you want to make sure it’s a good visit for the city because we’ll be in an international spotlight,” said Joe Whitley, a former U.S. attorney in Atlanta who served as a top Department of Homeland Security official.
Fani Willis, Fulton’s district attorney, has heavily suggested she will seek criminal charges against Trump next month after spending two-and-a-half years investigating him and his closest allies for interfering in Georgia’s 2020 elections. In a letter to law enforcement this spring, Willis urged leaders to get ready for “heightened security and preparedness” because her decision could “provoke a significant public reaction.”
They appear to be heeding Willis’s advice.
The Fulton Sheriff’s office confirmed it sent deputies to study the security in Miami and New York City, where Trump in April was arraigned on state charges. (The Atlanta Police Department also assigned a major to travel to Florida.) Fulton Sheriff Pat Labat recently told Channel 2 Action News that his office is seeking to understand “what safety and security looks like so we are prepared holistically.”
Unlike New York, Trump wouldn’t need to be present in Fulton Superior Court for a potential indictment to be unsealed. But he would need to travel here on a date agreed upon by his attorneys and law enforcement to surrender to authorities.
‘A special events city’
Big events with sensitive security needs often require the coordination of layers of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies.
David Wardell, who recently retired as vice president of operations and public safety for Central Atlanta Progress, said Atlanta is well-known for those relationships.
“They all work very well together routinely because we’re a special events city,” Wardell said. “But having a former president (being indicted), that’s another dimension to the whole game.”
Representatives for the sheriff’s office, APD, State Patrol and Secret Service all declined to comment for this article. The GBI and FBI’s Atlanta branch said they were not involved in planning discussions at this point.
In Georgia, one obstacle could be guns. The state has looser firearms laws than Florida or New York; it permits guns in most public spaces. State law prohibits carrying guns into courthouses, but not the surrounding areas. And legislators relaxed gun laws even further in 2022 to allow “lawful” gun owners to carry a concealed weapon without obtaining a permit.
Additionally, Willis is expected to bring charges focused on democracy and elections, which could draw more blowback than the cases in New York and Florida .
Another factor that could complicate planning: the location of the Fulton courthouse. It’s situated blocks from other institutions that are expecting their own surge of visitors at around the same time as any potential indictments and arraignments. Georgia State University, a few blocks away, begins its fall semester on Aug. 21, and students will be moving into the dorms in the days prior. Mercedes-Benz Stadium is scheduled to host Beyoncé, Atlanta Falcons and United games in August and September.
Atlanta has long hosted major events that require extensive security planning, from the Democratic National Convention in 1988 to the 2019 Super Bowl.
But many former security and law enforcement officials point to the 1996 Olympics as the event in which state and local agencies burnished their credentials.
Officials shared tips and information in real time. They solidified plans for when things went wrong. Just as importantly, leaders got to know one another. And they maintained those relationships after the games.
“The Olympics is where we all played well together, and that culture has manifested itself over the years to be just unbelievable,” said Wardell, who worked on security planning for events including the Olympics and Super Bowl.
‘A parade of horribles’
All of that experience will be a boon to local officials as they plan for a potential Trump indictment and arraignment. The Fulton sheriff’s office is tasked with guarding the courthouse and county jail. The Atlanta Police Department has jurisdiction over the city streets, while the U.S. Secret Service will be deeply involved in planning since it protects the former president. Other agencies, including the GBI, FBI and State Patrol, could also have roles.
Ex-law enforcement officials said stakeholders are likely running what are known as “tabletop exercises,” war games-like drills in which they practice how they would operate under worst-case scenarios.
Former U.S. Attorney Kent Alexander remembered some of the tabletop exercises that were run ahead of the Olympics. They included what would happen if terrorists took over MARTA or attacked Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport or the electrical grid.
“You basically review a parade of horribles,” Alexander said.
In the days before most major events, police set up a command center which is staffed around the clock with officials from different law enforcement agencies.
“All those people know each other so that when the FBI guy is getting intel on, let’s say, a Proud Boys thing… (they) can tell PD, ‘we’re getting accurate threat reporting on this person, here’s a picture and you can push it out,’” said Robert D’Amico, a former FBI agent who is now principal consultant for Sierra One Consulting.
Officers may also be banned from taking time off on days where there could be major activity. Even if they’re not working at the command center, some will likely be stationed nearby to quickly deploy if needed.
A balancing act
People who are indicted usually surrender at the Fulton County jail. But due to Trump’s unique security needs as a former president — and political concerns, given the Justice Department’s recently-launched investigation of the jail — it’s likely his lawyers will try to negotiate with the sheriff’s office to have him surrender at the courthouse.
Safety at the latter has been a priority since March 2005, when Brian Nichols, who was on trial for rape and other felonies, killed four people after overpowering the Fulton deputy tasked with guarding him.
The rampage prompted a security overhaul. Millions were spent to install new cameras and a command center, replace old X-ray machines, change the way prisoners are transported and schedule more patrols inside and outside the building.
Authorities preparing for Trump had somewhat of a dry run in May 2022, when a 23-person special grand jury was selected to help Willis compile evidence. Officers blocked vehicle traffic at all four corners of the square block surrounding the courthouse, and officers from several agencies, including deputies with assault rifles, secured the perimeter of the building.
In recent months, security at the courthouse has tightened due to the ongoing Young Slime Life gang trial.
As news of the New York and Florida indictments surfaced, Trump called for mass protests, raising fears of violence like what was seen during the insurrection of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. But his push for large demonstrations in Manhattan and Miami did not produce massive crowds.
For law enforcement, it will ultimately be a balancing act. They’re tasked with ensuring everyone is safe, while not taking away First and Second Amendment rights.
“The public should feel that there’s enough security in place and they feel safe,” said Wardell. “But they don’t want it to look too militarized, with armored vehicles parked out front, with police elbow to elbow…. But they’re ready and they’re coordinated in advance, and the resources are close by if they need to respond.”