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Columns John Ruch

How Atlanta might — and might not — share its controversial public safety training center

An overview illustration of the proposed Atlanta Institute for Social Justice and Public Safety Training at the old Prison Farm site. Credit: Atlanta Police Foundation

While controversy rages about Atlanta’s plan to build a public safety training center on a site pegged for parkland, Fulton County is quietly working on a similar center of its own in an industrial area — and says it talked with the city about a possible team-up.

As opponents of the Atlanta plan agitate for an alternative site, the apparent go-nowhere status of that potential joint Atlanta-Fulton center is an example of the complexities involved. There’s no question that police agencies can and do share training facilities today, and the training Atlanta needs could be performed at many of the more than a dozen existing centers or schools within striking distance of the city. But Atlanta’s police and firefighter forces are also the biggest in the state, with numbers of rookies that might overwhelm even large outside academies at current staffing levels.

An overview illustration of the proposed Atlanta Institute for Social Justice and Public Safety Training at the old Prison Farm site. Credit: Atlanta Police Foundation

In fact, it is more likely that other public safety departments would come to Atlanta. Some smaller police agencies say they are already interested in renting Atlanta’s new facility for their own training, a use that is a little-noticed part of the plan and would boost its activity beyond only local levels.

And there are decision-making factors beyond the legally required training. Fulton’s center is partly intended as an economic boost for its industrial location. Atlanta’s version is in part meant to boost police morale, recruiting and retention in a way the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF) likens to universities building fancy athletic facilities to attract student ball players.

“Nobody in the metro area has a training facility that is comparable to what we’re proposing,” said Rob Baskin, a spokesperson for APF, a private nonprofit that funds Atlanta Police Department programs and secretly developed the training center plan. The main intent is to provide top-notch training and to replace existing police and fire academies whose conditions range from aging to condemned.

But, Baskin said, use by other departments for a fee has “definitely been contemplated” as a natural longterm funding mechanism and APF has had preliminary discussions with several jurisdictions he declined to identify. “Everybody’s more or less said this would be an amazing facility,” said Baskin, predicting it will have “a tremendous amount of appeal” to public safety agencies across North Georgia.

The center also would be a “motivating force for morale” for first responders who feel the “city has not stood up for them in terms of support they need,” said Baskin. “… It won’t be empty words. It will be action.” He made the comparison to university athletic facilities built “to attract players to come to their schools.” Some officials and journalists have dubbed the nationwide competition for ever-fancier football gyms and locker rooms an “arms race,” and Baskin said he wouldn’t go too far with that metaphor in the police training world, but the idea of treating recruits well is similar.

“Recruitment, retention and professional development — including training — are critical to doing what our City of Atlanta firefighters need to do, and what is expected of them,” said Shirley Anne Smith, executive director of the Atlanta Fire Rescue Foundation, which supports the Fire Rescue Department (AFRD).

The current Atlanta Police Academy building at 180 South Industrial Park. Credit: David Pendered

The current APD academy building on Southside Industrial Parkway near the airport is not cutting it, says Baskin, and is already planning a temporary relocation to Atlanta Metropolitan State College. AFRD left its Southwest Atlanta academy last year after mold complaints and is now on Clipper Drive near the airport, and also operates a burning site in Douglas County, according to APF. Both agencies also conduct certain fire, shooting and some other training at the former Atlanta Prison Farm, a City-owned site within unincorporated DeKalb County.

The new plan, only recently revealed to the public, is to consolidate all of that onto a single, 150-acre campus at the former Prison Farm dubbed the Atlanta Institute for Social Justice and Public Safety Training. The plan has sparked enormous controversy about impacts on surrounding neighborhoods and the property’s previous inclusion in the South River Forest, a City-approved concept for a 3,500-acre network of green spaces. APF argues the plan preserves a lot of green space and, unusually for a public safety facility, would include public trails across the site.

The first of two public “listening sessions” about the plan is scheduled for July 15.

Alternative site ideas

Critics suggest that there are many other places for such a facility. Among them is Ryan Gravel, the urban planner who dreamed up the Atlanta BeltLine and, as a consultant to The Nature Conservancy, is now working on the South River Forest plan. Asked by SaportaReport about realistic alternatives, Gravel sketched out three general tactics an urban planner might use. Gravel is not a public safety expert, but it turns out his concepts are indeed used already by some agencies. The approaches he suggested include:

  • “Intown Network”: Instead of a central campus, a decentralized model that puts different kinds of training in different places, such as placing ones with gunfire and smoke away from residential areas. Smaller police departments, like those in Brookhaven and Sandy Springs, do this for their annual and ongoing training, using a mix of their own buildings and rented facilities in other cities. Sandy Springs Police, for example, have a standalone gym and rent a “shoot house” in Doraville, and are planning classrooms in a forthcoming new public safety headquarters.
  • “Suburban Retrofit”: If a centralized campus is better, find large sites around the accessible I-285 with not only enough room, but that are “declining corridors that could use new investment.” This is exactly what Fulton County is proposing with its training facility.
  • “Rural Retreat”: Put it all out in the boonies where none of the training will bother anyone and which first responders might enjoy as “a place to get away” and “a kind of retreat.” While no current police academy is purely rural, several are outside small cities on the edge of woodland, such as the state’s massive Georgia Public Safety Training Center (GPSTC) in Monroe County.

Existing training centers

In strictly legal terms, it doesn’t matter where police officers are trained as long as the facility and instructor are certified, according to the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council (POST), a state regulatory body. Rookies must have a minimum of 408 hours of training at a police academy. Officers must get a minimum of 20 hours of additional training every year to maintain their arrest powers, which can be done by a POST-certified instructor virtually anywhere.

A Google Maps image of the 1,200-acre Georgia Public Safety Training Center in Monroe County and some adjacent facilities, including the county jail.

For the basic training, would-be officers have over a dozen POST-certified academies to choose from, variously operated by the state, some counties, Atlanta and some technical colleges. (For a full list, see POST’s website.) GPSTC runs the biggest network, with eight regional campuses around the state. GPSTC was established by the state in 1987 and provides free training for any department-hired rookie, from the GBI to small-town police departments.

GPSTC’s main facility just outside Forysth, about 60 miles south of Atlanta, is a 1,200-acre mega-campus with most of the features the Atlanta center proposes, including two driving tracks, eight shooting ranges, and such exotica as mock airplane and train disasters.

GPSTC spokesperson Chadd Wilson said officers from Atlanta and other agencies — including some from other states and countries — frequently attend the Forsyth facility for annual and specialized training. “Any day of the week… if you come drive through the parking lot, you’re gonna see Atlanta PD, Gwinnett PD, Cobb PD,” he said. And many attend online these days, too, as pure lecture-based classes can be handled that way.

“I don’t think any of us see each other as competition,” Wilson said of GPTSC and other training facilities. “We just have different things that we can offer.”

Some county-run academies, like Cobb’s North Central Georgia Law Enforcement Academy, combine sheriff and county police department training, and also welcome outside agencies for continuing education.

An Atlanta Fire Rescue Department training tower proposed as part of the new public safety center. Credit: Atlanta Police Foundation

All that being said, Atlanta really is a special case. On the police side, its unmatched size and requirements for extra training are why it has long had Georgia’s only city-level police academy.

“Yes, if you were interested in being a municipal police officer, any of the GPSTC academies or any of the regional or technical school academies will prepare you for such duty,” said Julie A. Bradley, director of operations at the regulatory body POST. “If you wanted to be an Atlanta city officer, they have their own academy that is longer than the state requirement. They are the only municipal academy.”

Wilson said GPTCS’s entire system sees about 1,300 students a year, while the Atlanta police academy alone may have 100 or more. If that entire academy moved to GPSTC, he said, it likely would overwhelm the facilities.

So it is unlikely that the police academy part of Atlanta’s facility would move elsewhere, but it’s likely that other agencies would rent it. The Brookhaven Police Department and the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office say they would consider opportunities to use Atlanta’s center.

Fulton’s training center plan

Why not simply share a joint facility? The situation with Fulton’s training center plan is a case where that’s not working out.

The current Fulton County Public Safety Training Center is on Merk Road in College Park in what was once the 1996 Olympics shooting facility, now a building next to the Wolf Creek Amphitheater. Since at least 2019, the county has been working on a little-noticed plan to build a new version of the center in the Fulton Industrial Boulevard district in South Fulton. Gil Prado, executive director of the Fulton Industrial Community Improvement District, says the 25-acre training center is part of a “Renew the District” plan that involves building several county government facilities there.

On June 2, that plan took a step forward when the Fulton Board of Commissioners approved a $55 million bond issuance that includes at least part of the training center at 1635 Westgate Parkway, as well as a new animal shelter and an emergency back-up government center in the district and a new “justice center” in Downtown Atlanta.

A public walking trail is included in the pitch for the new Atlanta training center. Credit: Atlanta Police Foundation

Officials remain tight-lipped about the training center, with no presentation available in government meeting minutes and the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office saying only that it is “in discussion.” A source familiar with the discussions told SaportaReport the current plan is for a preliminary, $12 million remake of 8 of the 25 acres. The full plan, the source said, includes offices, a cadet program, a shoot house, evidence storage, a simulation room, an auditorium and gym, and more.

Fulton government spokesperson Jessica Corbitt-Dominguez said that the county considered teaming with Atlanta on the Prison Farm site.

“Fulton County did talk with the City of Atlanta about a possible collaboration, but determined that the Atlanta facility will not meet our needs, especially with a proposed site in DeKalb County,” she said. “… The new Fulton County Public Safety Training Center will serve our multi-agency clients at a fraction of the cost of the proposed Atlanta center while also being an integral part of the economic redevelopment plan for Fulton Industrial Boulevard.”

What about Atlanta using part of the new Fulton center? Corbitt-Dominguez did not immediately respond to that question and Sheriff Patrick Labat remained unavailable for an interview. The Atlanta mayor’s press office didn’t respond, either, while APF said it thought the Fulton plan was an unfounded rumor.

Regardless, at one-sixth the acreage, the Fulton facility wouldn’t come close to fulfilling every item on Atlanta’s wish list or such bonus uses as a home for the force’s police horses and dogs. But the availability of such centers tempers some of APF’s argument for the urgency of a quick approval of the one it’s proposing.

Public safety training, says APF’s Baskin, is “not something we want to be sending people a hundred miles away for. If we need to, OK, we can do that.”

But, he said, the efficiencies of a centralized campus are significant. And, he said, Atlanta’s special status as home to the biggest public safety forces in the state means “we don’t want to be renting a facility. We want to control the facility… because our needs are extremely great.”

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