A conceptual illustration of tree plantings at the main buildings of the proposed public safety training center. (Image by Atlanta Police Foundation.)

The City’s original review committee for the public safety training center is complaining about its lack of input in a newer version, perhaps the ultimate example of the transparency and inclusion controversies swirling around both groups and the entire project.

The Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee (CSAC) voiced the concerns at an Aug. 15 virtual meeting, its first in months. The discussion came as it was asked to comment on recommendations issued this month by the newer group, a kind of vision-brainstorming body given the unwieldy name South River Forest and Atlanta Public Safety Training Center Community Task Force. The groups share space on the training center project website.

CSAC chair Alison Clark complained that much of the Task Force input came from “outside our community” and wants to be sure that the implementation of the ideas is “in our voice.”

“I just feel like, in reading through some of the recommendations that were made, that some points that would have come out in further engagement directly with the community were missed,” she said.

CSAC member Amy Taylor was among those concurring, saying that “as far as the Task Force goes, I felt like we got left out of that. So yes, some real community engagement from those of us that live here and will be directly impacted would be appreciated.”

An irony is that the CSAC itself has been best with numerous inclusion and transparency problems since its start in October 2021, such as kicking off a skeptical member and confusion about who is even officially appointed to the body

Secrecy and lack of input are fundamental points in the overall training center controversy — dubbed “Cop City” by protesters. With planning led by the private Atlanta Police Foundation (APF), many details remain secret, as was the surprise selection of the site, which is outside City limits in unincorporated DeKalb County, a situation that means local residents have no direct political representation in it.

That’s a problem for protesters as well in such efforts as “Vote to Stop Cop City,” which would place the training center’s lease on the ballot in an election where only Atlanta residents could vote. Activists recently won a preliminary court victory allowing DeKalb residents and any other outsider to collect signatures for petitions seeking to get the question on the ballot, but they still would not be able to vote.

The CSAC was created to address concerns about the lack of public input but quickly ran into its own issues. Environmental groups critical of the plan were removed from CSAC membership even before it was formalized. The group never publicly reviewed the overall plan, which APF withheld in the name of security. Meeting recordings and minutes were long unavailable, and an updated website and new account on X, the platform formerly called Twitter, contained no notice of the Aug. 15 meeting, though it met a legal requirement by appearing on the Atlanta Municipal Clerk website.

The CSAC also has politicization issues. Members ran into ethical trouble for accepting Christmas gifts from APF, and several of them agreed with an Atlanta Police Department proposal to spread a “narrative” that protesters are outsiders and domestic terrorists. Some members appeared in City promotional materials advocating for the training center to be built, including Clark, who was the main narrator on a video that did not identify her as a CSAC member. On the other side of the political coin, Taylor filed an appeal against the training center’s initial construction permit, setting off a legal battle that is still pending.

Earlier this year, Mayor Andre Dickens created the Task Force as yet another attempt to quell transparency and input concerns. It was a kind of blue-ribbon commission of residents and organization leaders aimed at combining input on the training center and a separate, entirely conceptual idea for a surrounding green space called the South River Forest. 

However, the Task Force ran into immediate transparency controversy as well, with the ACLU of Georgia publicly quitting the group due to the secrecy of an initial meeting and renewed concern over the police killing of a protester. While the group issued its recommendations on Aug. 2 on a variety of policing and green space items, many aspects of the report remain unclear, including exactly who will receive it and what leverage it will have. 

A fundamental problem is that, like all other official City documents about the training center, it works with an incorrect and impossible size of the site’s green space. The City regularly refers to the overall site as over 380 acres, when, in fact, APF controls 296 yet is required by the lease to preserve 265 acres of green space. These unexplained errors appear connected to an effort to allow the APF to count surrounding green spaces outside its controlled boundaries to meet the lease requirement. One discussion by the Task Force’s parks subgroup focused on green space that included part of the training center, 171 adjacent City-owned acres, and part of DeKalb’s Intrenchment Creek Park, which already has its own master plan; it did not include other properties that APF appears to be counting. 

Signs of that error continued into a presentation of the Task Force recommendations to the CSAC on Aug. 15, led by Carter Coleman of the consulting firm APD Urban Planning and Management. Shortly before repeating the City’s complaint about “misinformation” from critics, Coleman incorrectly described the site as 400 acres. 

The CSAC has never tackled the impossible acreage math, but it did raise its own concerns about Task Force input.

Member Shaun Billingslea said that local residents should be involved in any implementation. “Not people from Buckhead, different areas — Roswell…. This is our community, the 30316 [ZIP code] area,” he said. Projects should have “our vibe,” he said, and say “‘us’ instead of people who don’t even come here and live here and deal with the things we have to deal with. We want to build this thing from within and actually have our footprint on it.”

Taylor mimed applause at his commentary.

CSAC co-chair Sharon Williams said there was a lack of information on existing community-made plans, such as the nearby vision for Michelle Obama Park. She said that CSAC members should be invited to further community engagement.

Clark added that it should be the “CSAC and beyond CSAC, through our communities — whatever that looks like.”

Coleman said his understanding of the Task Force was that its recommendations were to come from “people who were experts” or “had some identity” and understanding of “what we were trying to put together,” but that local residents would be involved in implementing the ideas.

Clark said Dickens had requested CSAC feedback and that she intended to “send a response to the mayor indicating the committee’s stance” on all of the recommendations. She asked CSAC members to submit comments to her via email by the end of Aug. 17.

Another CSAC controversy has involved the scope of its powers, and engaging in such commentary or project implementation could add to it. The CSAC is strictly limited by council legislation to reviewing APF’s training center projects, not outside projects and issues. However, the interpretation has varied in internal debates, with the group generally viewing its power as limited when it comes to criticism of the project and expansively when it comes to criticism of protesters or the ability to plan adjacent park space.

On another topic, the CSAC delved into minute details of a multiuse path planned for part of the training center’s perimeter. As in most CSAC meetings, the discussion omitted any mention or sense of reviewing perhaps the most controversial project in Atlanta’s history, the massive legal and political attempts underway to halt it, and the issues underlying those concerns — aside from its own input complaints about the Task Force. The political tensions emerged in the form of repeated clashes between the pro-training center Clark and critic Taylor on the latter’s notion of delaying approvals or discussions to get more information about such topics as alternative sidewalk materials.

One sidewalk alternative debated before approving APF’s call for a concrete version was a boardwalk. Undiscussed was that Atlanta has at least two boardwalk-sidewalks in place or coming soon: Downtown’s Broad Street Boardwalk and the Buckhead Community Improvement District’s boardwalk coming soon to Lenox Road outside the luxurious Lenox Square Mall.

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