Atlanta’s public safety training center feud could have lasting political fallout

Protesters confront police at Atlanta City Hall ahead of the final vote to approve legislation to fund the public safety training center on Monday, June 5, 2023. (Arvin Temkar /



Protesters confront police at Atlanta City Hall ahead of the final vote to approve legislation to fund the public safety training center on Monday, June 5, 2023. (Arvin Temkar /

The furor over Atlanta’s controversial public safety training center could have long-lasting ramifications, bleeding into Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens’ expected bid for a second term in 2025, and the races for governor and other statewide offices the following the year.

The progressive opposition has brought together environmentalists who oppose transforming a forest into a law enforcement facility and activists who worry it further militarizes policing in Atlanta despite demands for a community-driven approach.

The mayor and a bloc of 11 mostly liberal councilmembers who voted for the project have taken most of the flak for the project, and opponents rounding up signatures for a petition drive to block the construction have promised payback at the ballot box.

Dickens has come under fire for not only voting for the project as a councilman, but working with Republicans to make sure the facility gets built. In the latest alliance, the city and the state this month banded together in response to a lawsuit by calling the referendum effort “invalid” at it’s core.

Republicans have stepped up their calls for a project that supporters say is crucial to bolstering public safety and fueling recruitment efforts for the understaffed police department. And they’ve assailed what they see as examples of legitimate protest transforming into acts of domestic terrorism that have resulted in serious charges against opponents of the proposed $90 million center.

Gov. Brian Kemp and Attorney General Chris Carr speak to media after an anti-gang summit at Georgia State University in Atlanta on Tuesday, February 7, 2023. (Arvin Temkar /

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

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Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

The state’s top Democrats, meanwhile, have walked a careful line as dozens of protesters have been charged with domestic terrorism, and investigators probe the January shooting death of an activist by police during a raid of the forest site.

Many have avoided voicing explicit support for the project even while criticizing the demonstrations that turned violent.

“I think the choice between public safety and justice is a false choice, and not one that we have to make,” U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock said. “I support law enforcement, I support the right of people to have their voices heard in this conversation. I’m going to do everything I can as a U.S. senator representing the people of Georgia to make sure the people are safe.”

‘Take us backward’

Warnock and U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff have each raised concerns about the arrest of three people charged with financial crimes linked to the protests against the training complex.

The charges led DeKalb District Attorney Sherry Boston, one of the region’s most prominent Democrats, to withdraw her office from prosecuting cases, citing “fundamentally different prosecution philosophies” with Attorney General Chris Carr, a tough-on-crime GOP ally of Gov. Brian Kemp.

Carr, who is expected to run for governor in 2026, pits his stance in life-and-death terms: “We will not waver when it comes to keeping Georgians safe and putting a stop to violent crime in our state.”

Republicans say it makes political sense to highlight their stance on the center — and the liberal opposition to it.

Polls show public safety rivaled the economy as a top issue in the 2022 midterm, and mayoral contenders in the 2021 race hinged their agendas on ways to combat violent crime and recruit more officers.

“It’s hard to imagine a more out-of-step position than defending left-wing lunatics who are literally waging war on the police, and yet that’s where Georgia Democrats find themselves,” said Stephen Lawson, a veteran GOP strategist.

“For Republicans, it makes the law-and-order message pretty easy — and winning in 2024 and beyond that much more doable.”

Few Democratic officials have publicly opposed the project, which also means openly opposing Dickens and other Atlanta establishment party leaders, and risk being painted by Republicans as soft on crime.

Rep. Ruwa Romman, D - Duluth, talks with a fellow representative in the House Chambers on day 40 of the legislative session at the State Capitol on Wednesday, March 29, 2023. Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz/AJC

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Credit: Jason Getz/AJC

One of the exceptions is state Rep. Ruwa Romman, a Duluth Democrat, one of the only elected state Democrats who publicly oppose the project. She initially took a more cautious approach to the complex, but she changed her mind after a recent visit to the site.

“I’m opposed to the center now, but not out of some idealistic notion,” she said. “I believe it’s a misuse of public funds. I saw giant runoff ponds, construction debris and other issues. We still don’t know how much money this project will cost in the end.”

Like other opponents, she also questions the strategic aim of an elaborate site that includes a shooting range, a “mock city” to train authorities on conducting raids and a driving course for high-speed police chases.

“Crime prevention is so much more effective,” said Romman. “Policies that have failed us and left our jails overflowing with inmates only take us backward.”

A thorn for Atlanta leaders

Much to the dismay of local politicos, the widespread outcry over the training center didn’t stop when the clerk rang the bell on the funding vote last month. The next morning, opponents had already announced their next move: a ballot referendum to pose the question of the facility to voters.

Scarlett Mayoralgo, an organizer with the Georgia Working Families Party, said the referendum effort is just the beginning.

“I hope that the council and the elected leadership of the city understand and receive this as a sign that we will do whatever we need to do to make sure the will of the people is the direction in which Atlanta is going,” she said. “As we move forward, (we will) be sure we elect people who understand government is meant to act in accordance with the people.”

Over the course of more than 21 hours of public testimony against the controversial project at City Hall, speakers lambasted council members for their final vote OK’ing the hefty price tag for the project and also reminded them that constituents control their fate at the ballot box.

It’s unclear how the controversial project will impact reelection bids for Atlanta’s leaders, but the saga to overturn the city’s plans is far from over for organizers.

The mayor himself said in a March interview that he hoped the feud over the training center doesn’t define his first term as mayor.

Protesters yell at council members after the vote passed 11 to 4 to approve legislation to fund the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center on Tuesday, June 6, 2023, at City Hall. (Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz

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Credit: Jason Getz

“I’ll be honest, each day I tried to wake up and convince myself that this shouldn’t be top of mind,” he said. “Because I still am truly dedicated to declaring this year the ‘Year of the Youth.’”

But even some City Council members are skeptical whether or not there’s a path forward for local leaders who ran for office on a progressive platform.

“Trust is a very easy thing to lose and a very hard thing to get back,” said Council member Liliana Bakhtiari, the most outspoken opponent of the training center on council. “I do believe that the future consequences will be that there’s going to be less faith in us. And that there are going to be people that feel that they don’t have us to depend on and that they have to take matters into their own hands when it comes to issues of safety and community.”