Public safety training center to have secret timelines, possible fence due to illegal protests
By John Ruch
Atlanta public safety training center planners will keep construction timelines secret and may surround the future facility with an unwanted fence in response to lawbreaking protesters who are now under FBI and GBI investigation, officials say.
The controversial facility on City-owned land on DeKalb County’s Key Road has been the target of protests — mostly peaceful but some involving acts like sabotage and vandalism — for over a year. Protests have only been mentioned rarely in passing during the first six months of the Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee’s (CSAC) review of the planning. That changed at the CSAC’s April 26 meeting, where some members appeared surprised to learn that 12 arrests had been made on site and that protests could affect the plan’s content and transparency.
Atlanta Assistant Police Chief Darin Schierbaum, who is also a CSAC member, said the on-site arrests related to trespassing and vandalism, but that police were concerned with protesters targeting others who work on the project at other locations. He said the FBI and GBI agreed to an assistance request last week from Atlanta Police Chief Rodney Bryant. Schierbaum said that “we look forward to working with those agencies to ensure this is a safe project that is occurring here and addressing any criminal acts that may be occurring on site to try to stop the project from proceeding.”
“We’re not aware of any [criminal] efforts targeted to this body,” he added about the CSAC.
Marshall Freeman, chief operating officer of the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF), the nonprofit leading the planning, said that exact timelines of a summer groundbreaking and such activities as tree-clearing would be kept secret due to fear of criminal protests. Such details have been few anyway and the APF has sometimes not responded to update requests, possibly due to the protest concerns.
“I will say again, to be 100 percent frank so that this committee is aware, in the event when we do have a solid timeline for the work that will happen at the site, it will not be published to this group, again, for the protection of the folks that are actually doing the work out at the site,” Freeman told the CSAC in its virtual meeting. “Again that’s an unfortunate thing, because when we talk about transparency, since Day One I’ve been trying to give everybody as much information as I could, but I do… have a responsibility to protect people that are out there actually doing the work as these calls continue to be public.”
As a gesture to community relations, the facility has been planned as largely fence-less, with partial public access to its grounds and an open border with an adjacent area that presumably will become some kind of public park. But planners raised the specter of a perimeter fence, an idea that Freeman said came out of FBI and GBI discussions. Freeman said that “I don’t think there is a current desire or want to fence it off,” but indicated it is on the table.
Bob Hughes of the consulting firm HGOR, which is helping APF design the facility, said no fence decision had been made. “There’s several of us [working] on this that will go down screaming if we have to go that way,” he said, saying a perimeter fence would be “antithetical” to the intent to “create symbolically this idea of police and the community living in a similar environment.”
Schierbaum also warned of such changes to a plan he said has “a stark difference and an improvement” thanks to CSAC input. He said the plan could be “delayed or deferred because of the actions of a very few” and said that is why police agencies are working to “address [criminal protests] very quickly so it doesn’t get to that realm.”
There is no doubt some protests have broken laws. Last year, some protesters trespassed and vandalized the lobbies of the APF and its construction consultant. Some protesters, apparently loosely affiliated with a decentralized movement, have camped at the site with such aims as preventing tree-cutting and opposing more police spending for what they mocking call “Cop City,” according to their social media posts. At the site on Jan. 18, APF spokesperson Rob Baskin previously told SaportaReport: “Windows of construction machinery were smashed and the electrical system of a piece of bulldozer-type of equipment was destroyed. Protestors also threw rocks at a worker on the site, who fled to escape harm.”
But many protests have been peaceful and the plan has generated general public controversy about such issues as the secrecy of its development and site choice, while also garnering much public and political support. The Atlanta City Council last year approved the facility but also created the CSAC specifically to remedy the lack of public input. Some CSAC members are skeptics of the overall concept and at least one actively protested through such legal means as a YouTube video lecture.
In raising fears about the impacts of illegal protests in the April 26 meeting, officials sometimes blurred them with the idea of any type of opposition, and Freeman even implied that some CSAC members might defend violent protests. Freeman said that the council meetings were the place for peaceful protests and that now is the time for planning to proceed. He said opposition by vandalism or intimidation “is unacceptable, and I would hope that the folks on this committee, again, would also take that same position when we speak to the community about their position regarding the facility.”
Regardless, the CSAC is limited by council legislation to actively planning the facility, not debating whether it should exist. CSAC Chair Alison Clark emphasized that in saying she hopes the group does not become a focus of protests because it is “not the right channel to move through.”
Co-chair Sharon Williams said she was surprised at the number of the arrests on the site for what she described as “ecoterrorism” and thanked Freeman for “transparency” in explaining why he could not be transparent on construction timelines.
Schierbaum said he would inform the CSAC of any further arrests or special law enforcement activity on the site.