The public safety training center deserves a real public review
By John Ruch
As the Atlanta public safety training center advisory committee presents another ridiculous soap opera episode of scrutinizing its own members more than the City’s secretive plan, the public shouldn’t fall for tuning out. For planners, this is no accident or failure; in a sham process, it’s a success beyond the wildest dreams of distraction to have the public fighting itself rather than questioning authorities.
No, stay tuned to watch City leaders who are continuing the shameful “Atlanta Way” tradition of letting tycoons and favored special interests do whatever they want — in this case including such grossly undemocratic acts as a secret site selection and a developer running its own review committee. Give this old drama a loud review because it’s time to force a gut-check on a new mayor and City Council who claimed to be down with “We, The People” back in the campaign season. Because DeKalb and Southeast Atlanta neighborhoods deserve to be better armed as a local front in this tumultuous era’s defining battle of an angry, disenfranchised public versus decaying institutional power.
You can tell a lot about how a city government views its people by how it runs community meetings — especially in this luxurious time of dying media when virtually no journalists scrutinize them. The Neighborhood Planning Unit system is a jewel of Atlanta civic culture, but over at NPU-R, the City has let a bizarre power struggle fester for years for reasons that might be anything except an interest in what all residents there have to say about public policy and developers. The City long hid behind the laughable pretense that one of America’s great cities is totally helpless in the face of cleaning up its own monthly neighborhood meeting.
The same attitude with worse results is transpiring with the Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee (CSAC) for the training center. The City Council created it last year as a sop to public outrage over the private Atlanta Police Foundation’s (APF) unjust surprise that DeKalb would be getting the facility, like it or not. Run by the APF itself, the CSAC has few powers and was neutered further by being cleansed of potentially trouble-making local environmental groups.
As a fig leaf on an intended fait accompli the CSAC has been allowed to make some neighborhood-minded tweaks to the plan, but it is certainly not the ersatz zoning review some DeKalb leaders falsely hoped and it has been told to its face by APF that much information will be kept secret from it. The group has naturally flailed through serious transparency problems while City officials as high as the deputy chief operating officer look on with a silence that, if it is not smug satisfaction in fact, is the same thing in practice.
A cherry on top was a disgraceful appearance by the City’s chief transparency officer, who told the CSAC it was “doing great” without mentioning any of its major issues. It was as irresponsible as praising a student driver about how cool the car Daddy bought them looks while they’re cruising down the wrong side of 285, explicable only as a lack of concern for where it eventually crashes. A City that cared about impacted residents would be saying it’s there to help and empower the CSAC and its communities. The unspoken but plain message here is: “Keep fooling yourselves and thus everyone else.”
Who is really being empowered? The APF, a powerful, corporation-funded nonprofit that for far too long has operated as a black box for planning and operating City police functions. That includes building one of the nation’s largest surveillance camera systems with little public input or oversight, and — as I revealed in 2020 — when the cameras go down without notice, City Council members only hear about it secondhand. Nonprofits certainly have their place in supporting public programs, but Atlanta is often willing to abdicate responsibility to them to an extraordinary degree that raises questions of who is in charge of policies and programs.
Hence, APF’s secretly planned, corporate-funded training center, characterized by the previous mayor as a privately funded gift but plainly more of an offer that Atlanta could not refuse. There’s no question that police and firefighters had deplorable academies for years — though both are now housed in decent temporary sites — and APF and the City had long discussed new facilities. But the final plan came without public input and little evidence of serious alternative studies and was sprung on the City Council during a crime spike that gave it maximum political moment and minimum official scrutiny, all from a nonprofit exempt from open records laws. It’s a case study on how not to make government decisions, but here we are.
New Mayor Andre Dickens is a highly intelligent, analytical sort who wants a more democratic government, but he obviously can’t challenge the APF and APD on this plan — not with the crime-driven Buckhead cityhood movement still simmering. Thus his administration joins the City Council in following the worst tendency of modern politics: Supporting a proposal not despite its information flaws and illegitimate process, but specifically because of that — the sheer absurdity making support a pure demonstration of loyalty to the real power. It’s positively Trumpian.
The rest of us are not so hamstrung in discerning the pitch of supporting law and order from the current reality of power and control. I’m sure if I climbed a makeshift tree house at the old Prison Farm, I could find an anarchist protester to tell me those are always the same things, but why bother when the APF, APD and the City are making that abundantly clear?
The law? The APF broke a state law — the Georgia Open Meetings Act — with the very first CSAC meeting. That’s as much a misdemeanor as any protester’s trespassing rap, and obviously more detrimental to the public good. The latest CSAC meeting included the interim police chief intoning about respect for the First Amendment rights of peaceful protesters shortly before the committee resumed its likely illegal attempts to punish one of its own members for peacefully protesting the plan, without a peep from him or any other ostensible leader.
The law of this process is the law of the jungle — the ends justify the means. Those means are often arrogant and manipulative, down to telling the committee that public documents are confidential.
The APF and APD have legitimate security concerns that are presented as part of the secrecy rationale. Some protesters indeed have trespassed at and vandalized various offices — including APF’s — and the facility site, but this only emphasizes many unanswered, though obvious, planning questions.
Why is a protest magnet being built in a neighborhood? Why is a secure facility being built in a forest? If officials have trouble securing a construction site, what intrusive measures will it take to secure the actual facility? How many more details will be made secret? How many public promises will be broken in the name of security, as APF has already warned may happen with a perimeter fence?
And these are not just questions for the training center site. The APF and APD previously said they will relocate an existing explosives disposal facility from the site to somewhere else to be determined, about which they will not answer questions. Another surprise coming to another neighborhood. Maybe yours.
None of these questions are being asked in the sham process. Instead, the CSAC increasingly has a Stockholm syndrome vibe and, while still talking about doing substantial work on green space and education programs, is also reflecting the APF’s interest in “controlling the narrative.”
The public should be controlling everything through normal government mechanisms for doing so. The options are many, such as tearing up the APF’s lease on the City-owned property and subjecting the training center needs and site location assessments to normal City Council and administration study. At the very least, there’s nothing stopping the City from voluntarily undergoing a version of DeKalb’s zoning review process or requiring APF to do so.
This requires changing an overall attitude and method of doing business that has rotted out the core of Atlanta government for decades. But change can happen. NPU reform is finally underway, thanks to new City Council members, a new interim planning commissioner and a nonprofit’s recommendations. With the training center, official discontent is growing.
Whatever happens, these big institutions are not getting rid of today’s populist movements so easily. Dickens is right to be concerned that, despite the political suicide of its leadership, the Buckhead cityhood agitators are not going away. ACAB anarchists and Earth First! descendants are certainly not abandoning the once-in-a-century cause of battling the training center. Heck, the right and left wings of the tree-cutting opposition haven’t even united yet. And those are just the radical edges of a general public discontent with the City’s decades-long parade of murky deals, corruption scandals and shoddy results.
Atlanta is no longer a city where the public will sit quietly at a kiddie table while the Good Ole Boys bully each over power lunches to decide what’s best. Anyone who doesn’t get that yet is in for a lifetime of political heartburn at the ballot box and in the streets.
Here and now, that raises a simple question: Does Atlanta plan public safety facilities or private safety facilities? It’s not too late to create a process not only to ask for but to demand the right answer.