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With so much unknown about training center plan, everyone’s a protester

The training center site plan as shown in the final land-disturbance permit application filed with DeKalb County.

By John Ruch

With all the heat these days on who’s right and wrong about Atlanta’s public safety training center, it’s remarkable how little we know about what the plan actually is. Not only is the public ill-informed, but also in many cases the elected officials who are nominally in charge.

With a combo of deliberate secrecy, calculated spin and wilful ignorance, the training center has become an exercise in power, not in power-sharing. Without full info and no decision-making leverage, the public’s only given role is to pick a side and fight – in an ugly cycle of protest, counterprotest and counter-counterprotest that is already plainly going on longer than City leaders saw coming.

Actually, there’s one other task for the public, though protest debates have conveniently distracted from it: smashing their piggy banks for the project’s blank check. The only thing we can say for sure about construction costs is that, given inflation, they will be much higher than the unvetted $30 million figure tossed about by the private Atlanta Police Foundation (APF) behind it all.

While leaders withhold much info from the public, sometimes they withhold it from themselves, too. Back in January, Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens and DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond attempted to cushion news of the training center’s land-disturbance permit (LDP) by announcing a legal agreement of environmental-type principles and programs. Yet they did not provide the LDP application itself – a document chock full of actual details – nor did any journalist attending the press conference demand it.

I did, assuming the application must be sitting on those leaders’ desks as they toiled over their agreement. Yet the City told me it didn’t even possess the document, and DeKalb took weeks to get me a copy – which you can download here. From both governments’ non-answers, it appears that the mayor and the CEO never even read the LDP application.

Dickens and Thurmond are exceptionally smart men fully capable of comprehending the document, so that’s not the reason. Politically, it just doesn’t matter what light that document shines – or shadow it casts – on such topics as the actual amount of public green space, the actual footprint of the training center, the tree loss and replanting, and structures that came and went mysteriously from the plan or were put in dubious locations. Narrative is everything.

That’s also why Dickens and Thurmond touted the APF-run, City Council-appointed Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee (CSAC) as a valuable input tool rather than also a widely criticized charade. In fact, the City can’t even tell you who is actually a member of that body – something else our leaders chose not to know or say.

After I reported that, the mayor announced a new task force and process. Naturally, it does not involve more public input and information, but rather further confusion and distraction – this time by blurring the training center into the South River Forest vision, which is a concept and does not even exist yet as a process.

It’s been this way from the start when the City Council approved the training center land lease without any coherent needs or site assessment and over a majority of opposition voices in a public comment session that lasted longer than a season of “The Wire.” The explanation is a reaction to political protest.

The training center is the subject of an extraordinarily effective protest movement involving traditional pressure, direct action, laser-focused narrative with a site-defining nickname, and occasional illegal activity.

No, I don’t mean the Defend the Atlanta Forest protests with their “Cop City” slogan and occasional Molotov cocktails. No, those are really counterprotests, chronologically speaking. This started with police protests.

While improved police and firefighter facilities were long (mostly secretly) discussed, the actual plan got its momentum from police protests in the wake of 2020’s momentous events. Amid police-reform debates and former Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ bungled handling of police brutality controversies, the Atlanta Police Department was hit with a “Blue Flu” sickout. And amid a crime spike, the Trump-endorsed Buckhead cityhood movement – another populist protest – gained momentum, including support from some of those disgruntled officers.

Those were major political threats and the APF and its corporate backers seized the momentum. A “Buckhead Security Plan” intended to tamp down the cityhood agitation, privately written with heavy APF involvement, included a bullet point about garnering support for the new training center. Initially, APD and APF, in a nod to blue Atlanta, attempted to dub the training center the “Institute for Social Justice,” which did not have the staying power of “Cop City.”

Speed to make the plan a fait accompli has been an obvious tactic, including bulldozing that repeatedly surprised County officials, though ultimately being ruled OK. The CSAC played fast and loose with open meeting laws. The APD’s second-in-command went there to tout the apparently illegal arrest of a man for filming officers on the site and to spread what he explicitly called a narrative that out-of-state protesters are not only illegitimate but also domestic terrorists. Meanwhile, APD and state police arrests of protesters and journalists are producing lawsuits alleging a counterprotest pattern.

From the pro-police perspective, there are merits to protesting. Atlanta, like several other metro cities, has poured tax money into civic ego projects like stadiums and “live-work-play” pseudo-downtowns while leaving police and fire stations rotting. Morale-boosting is a big argument for the training center – which the APF once likened to fancy college-football gyms. But that doesn’t answer the most basic questions: Do we need this facility? All in one spot? All on this spot?

As for the plan itself, the very few of us trying to figure out details were often stymied. While many media are reporting and editorializing on protest hot takes, I and the Atlanta Community Press Collective were the only ones who reported the blow-by-blow of CSAC meetings – the only place details could be gleaned. The process was bizarre, with major details overlooked or dropped between meetings, while an obsession with political narrative often dominated.

A few months in, I noticed that a key environmental study did not match the actual facility footprint, a problem the APF fixed but remained a point of contention in getting a dissenting member booted off the CSAC. I found out separately that a full-service fire station is part of the plan – a fact the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department weirdly denied, then admitted, and either way never discussed at the CSAC. How it fits into service needs and the City budget remains unclear.

In a recent CSAC meeting, one member asked for the specific number of trees coming down and was told it wasn’t immediately available; that was never even mentioned at the next gathering. The mayor and CEO have touted the CSAC getting a firing range relocated away from houses, but the plans show it’s still next to a youth jail, a concerning point that also was discussed by the CSAC and also dropped with no explanation. The public green space remains a mathematical mystery.

Other facilities have come and gone from the plan without explanation or even anyone noticing. For a long time, it included an observation tower for a driving course. In December, I noticed that had suddenly become an unidentified “future building.” The mayor’s press secretary told me the tower had been removed “quite a while ago” after being “deemed unnecessary.” Yet in the LDP application, the tower is back – 2,800 square feet and accompanied by 40 parking spaces.

More surprises are coming, like whoever ends up being the neighbor of an explosives range – an offhand announcement by the APD at one CSAC meeting that was never explained and raises the point that some facilities don’t need to be all in one spot after all.

The latest CSAC meeting to date was another trip to Wonderland and was especially bizarre as it came just hours before the controversial police killing of protester Manuel Esteban “Tortuguita” Paez Teran, allegedly after the protester shot a state trooper. Despite the lethal police raid that was coming, APD’s second-in-command claimed there was no evidence of protesters on the site anymore. A main topic of discussion was some kind of memorial to the site’s previous use as the Atlanta Prison Farm – a kind of labor camp in a time of overtly racist policing and imprisonment – which was led by white planners who quoted Martin Luther King Jr. and never said the word “racism.” Some CSAC members suggested memorials to fallen officers; no one mentioned how today’s training center protesters consider themselves to be finishing the job of ending racist policing and prisons.

Now the training center site is where a cop and a protester were shot – one wounded, one dead – in a historical fact that opens up even more unanswered questions. Like, what sort of recruits will be attracted to a facility where that happened? How will that be memorialized or not? And how long will this site remain a protest magnet to which local communities have to react?

Bigger questions abound. What stops the APF and the City from changing other design elements for “security” or “cost” or just because? Who is monitoring the opportunities for corruption in a public-private project with no public budget, no info on the reality of donors’ commitments or identities, and priorities that can change freely?

The details haven’t mattered because the City chose a side and is letting it come up with its own answers. But in this populist era, that’s just the beginning. We now have the irresistible force of Defend the Atlanta Forest meeting the immovable object of the police-corporate union, and all signs are that’s just getting started – while Atlanta bids on the Democratic National Convention, an event that in the best of times is a mini police state and protest magnet.

You can argue all day about what protests are legitimate. But when there are this many unclear facts and narratives replace the public process, everyone’s a protester one way or another, agitating for their ideology. Sure would be nice, though, to know exactly what everyone’s protesting.


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  1. Carlen March 14, 2023 9:40 am

    This has been the projects problem from the start-no transparency, lies, shove it down the neighbor’s throat with no discussion. The meetings they had to let neighbors give their input? There was no option for input. It was a sales job by the the police, with canned questions that were vetted or maybe just made up. All the neighbors on the zoom meetings were muted. Andre Dickens voted for Cop City when he was in the city council so why would anyone think he would do anything meaningful now?Report

    1. Muddy Waters March 17, 2023 12:13 pm

      Yup, and if hizzoner isn’t careful to scuttle this fraud on taxpayers, his fealty to this boondoggle and the corporate cronyism behind it will forever stain the legacy of his time at city hall. The real road to “law and order” is already paved, beginning with reverence for the 1st Amendment and not the lugged-sole bootprints of a militarized police force in service to the northwest Atlanta “haves.”.Report

  2. Helen Ensign March 14, 2023 9:52 am

    Where are the voices of the actual neighbors of this project, is what I want to know? And whatever happened to the big park with amphitheater that Dekalb County was promising a few years back? Seems like that area would be much better served by parkland than by shooting ranges. That quadrant of the metro area is ripe for more positive development than this, seems to me.Report

  3. Alida Silverman March 14, 2023 12:23 pm

    Thank you for covering this matter persistently and as thoroughly as possible. Between your coverage and that of the NYT and our Metro newspaper it is possible to do some piecing together and conclude that – well – ‘something is rotten in the state of Denmark’ as the line goes.Report

  4. Joe Santifer March 14, 2023 1:11 pm

    Fantastic reporting as always! Thank you!Report


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