Training center protester killed by police after shooting state trooper, GBI says
By John Ruch
An alleged protester was killed by police after shooting and wounding a Georgia State trooper during a Jan. 18 raid at the site of Atlanta’s proposed public safety training center, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI).
The incident is likely to mark a turning point in the escalating controversy over the facility and the “Defend the Atlanta Forest” protest movement. Both law enforcement officials and protesters alike say the gunfire is an example of the violence of the other side that drives their actions.
The GBI, which is investigating, has not released the name of the dead person, who officials indicated was male and involved in protests, pending notice to next of kin. The wounded Georgia State Patrol (GSP) trooper also has not been publicly named and is said to be recovering from a shot to the abdomen. The Georgia Department of Public Safety said in a Jan. 19 press release that it would not release the trooper’s name “because disclosure would compromise security against criminal or terroristic acts due to retaliation. Nondisclosure of the Troopers name is necessary for the protection of life, safety and public property.”
The department also told SaportaReport that it will not identify any other trooper involved in the shooting. “We are aware of threats of retaliation which have been circulating on social media over the last 24 hours, which we are taking seriously,” a spokesperson said. “None of the identities of any troopers involved are being released.”
In a televised press conference, GBI Director Michael Register said that the alleged shooter opened fire “without warning” on a multiagency police task force that was clearing out trespassing protesters at the site on Constitution Road in DeKalb County. As the trooper was wounded, other officers – including a SWAT team – opened fire in self-defense. The protester was “killed in the exchange of gunfire,” he said.
The incident remains under investigation and details are impossible to immediately confirm independently. Register at one point gave speculative information about the alleged shooter, saying, “I don’t think that he was seen until he fired. I’m not sure, right?” In a press release issued later, the GBI contradicted that speculation, saying officers encountered the shooter in a tent. “Officers gave verbal commands to the man, who did not comply and shot a Georgia State Patrol Trooper,” claimed the press release.
Protesters with the Defend the Atlanta Forest and Stop Cop City movements on social media and in press releases questioned the police story, reporting a burst of gunfire and suggesting the trooper may have been a victim of friendly fire as one of several possibilities that still include the protester. Protesters said that after the shooting police officers continued to use rubber bullets and tear gas and supervised bulldozers that took down trees.
Register said four people were detained at the site and are under investigation, but could not say if they will face any charges, had any weapons, or are suspected of involvement in the shooting. Two other protesters were allowed to leave when they gave their names and complied with a trespass warning, he said.
GSP Col. Chris Wright, the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Safety, said in the press conference that the wounded trooper is in stable condition but “certainly has a road to recovery” and is “not out of the woods yet.”
Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens and Gov. Brian Kemp weighed in on Twitter.
“My team and APD [the Atlanta Police Department] are providing full support to our state and county partners as they secure the site in DeKalb County and investigate the incident,” wrote Dickens. “Our prayers of a speedy and full recovery are with this Trooper.”
Kemp wrote that he and his family are “praying for this brave Trooper and public safety officers across all law enforcement agencies today. As our thoughts remain with him and his family, our resolve also remains steadfast and strong to see criminals brought to justice.”
The training center plan has received political and some public support as a tool for fighting crime and building APD morale and recruitment. It also has been widely controversial for its secretive selection of a wooded site and for boosting police – though it also would train firefighters – in the era following the police murder of George Floyd. This has made it a target of environmentalist and police-reform protests.
The protests have ranged from peaceful marches to civil-disobedience camping in tree houses on the site to destructive acts like vandalism, vehicle arson and throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at or near police officers and civilians.
After a raid last month, authorities controversially charged six trespassing protesters with domestic terrorism on unclear grounds that protesters called an attempt to chill free speech and that a top APD official later promoted as a political narrative. Meanwhile, civil liberties lawyers accused police agencies of engaging in their own agressive counter-protests with allegedly unconstitutional arrests of demonstrators and journalists. APD is conducting an internal investigation about one of those incidents against a journalist on the training center site last year.
Protesters on the Defend the Atlanta Forest Twitter account said the shooting is another example of police violence that motivated the demonstrations in the first place.
“Police killed a forest defender today, someone who loved the forest, someone who fought to protect the earth & its inhabitants,” they wrote. “This is why we organize to stop Cop City. And we will. In honor of their life, and the lives of everyone killed and imprisoned by the police.”
A Stop Cop City press release quoted an anonymous “organizer” as saying police have regularly used firearms and violent actions against protesters and passers-by at the site, which protesters call the Weelaunee Forest.
“Police are the ones entering the forest with firearms and threatening to shoot,” the press release quote said. “They’ve been doing this routinely for months. It’s sadly no surprise that eventually they would hurt someone. We urgently call for the demilitarization of Weelaunee before police paranoia and aggression harm more people.”
Register said the shooting and supposed social media chatter about retaliation against police shows that authorities are dealing with “criminals,” not protesters. “Let me reiterate, there’s a difference between protest and what’s happening there,” he said in the press conference.
He also presented the training center concept as an answer to agitation for police reform. “The City of Atlanta is trying to build a public safety training center. And you know, we talk about things around the country like police reform,” he said. “…[A] state-of-the-art center to train police officers to be effective in the community is a great thing.”
The protest movements claim to be autonomous and decentralized, essentially meaning they have no leaders and anyone can join them. They also tout peaceful messages, so it is unclear who has engaged in destructive or violent actions – protesters with different ideas, organizations showing up on their own, police agent provocateurs, or both, or more. Register said in the press conference: “You have individuals and you have organized groups out there. You have both.”
He said that among the crimes committed around the site have been “arson, attacking citizens, shooting police officers, using explosives, beating people up and burning their car down.”
While the GBI is involved in policing the site and Register has made public commentary about the case, the agency said it will not seek an outside agency to investigate the killing.
Another question is the long-term status of protests on the site. APD Assistant Chief Carven Tyus said just the night before the shooting, at a meeting of a training center planning advisory group, that protesters were no longer on the site. But protester statements and Register agree that they are still there.
That advisory committee meeting included discussion of a plan for the facility to include a memorial wall for first responders killed in the line of duty.
Protesters groups planned a vigil for the person killed in the police shooting on Jan. 18 at 5 p.m. in Little Five Points.
Update: This story has been updated with comment from the GBI about the possibility of an outside agency’s investigation, details from a GBI press release, and information on the withholding of the troopers’ identities.