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Atlanta lawmakers approve funds for police training center despite fierce opposition

The City Council, after hours of mostly critical testimony, voted to allocate $30 million to help build the 85-acre facility, dubbed “Cop City” by opponents.
Law enforcement drive past the planned site of a police training facility that activists have nicknamed "Cop City," near Atlanta on Feb. 6, 2023.
A police car passes the planned site of a police training facility near Atlanta that activists have nicknamed "Cop City." Cheney Orr / AFP via Getty Images file

A plan to build a massive public safety training center in Atlanta cleared its latest hurdle early Tuesday when lawmakers voted to help fund a facility dubbed “Cop City” by opponents.

Despite hearing more than 14 hours of testimony, mostly from opponents of the project, the Atlanta City Council agreed to allocate $30 million toward development of the $90-million, 85-acre facility where police, firefighters and emergency responders would train.

The 11-4 vote around 5:30 a.m. local time prompted outrage and jeers within the chamber, where audience members chanted, "'Cop City' will not be built."

Activists march through the Atlanta Forest, the site of a proposed police training center, on March 4, 2023 in Atlanta.
Activists march through the Atlanta Forest, the site of a proposed police training center, on March 4.Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis via Getty Images file

The vote comes after years of fierce opposition from protesters who worry the proposed campus will harm the environment and be used by police to “practice urban warfare.”

In January, officers fatally shot an environmental activist as workers across several agencies tried to clear out the site. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation said Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, 26, known as Tortuguita, shot at officers first without warning, wounding a state trooper — an account his family disputes.

Days later, a vigil in Atlanta honoring the slain activist ended in property damage and several arrests.

A photo of Manuel Teran, who was shot and killed by a Georgia State Trooper, at a makeshift memorial in Weelaunee People's park on Jan. 21, 2023 in Atlanta.
A photo of Manuel Teran at a makeshift memorial in Weelaunee People's Park in Atlanta on Jan. 21.Elijah Nouvelage / The Washington Post via Getty Images

Ahead of the vote, more than 350 people signed up to give remarks during a public comment period, which began around 1 p.m. Monday and went into the night.

The vast majority of the speakers were emotionally opposed to the development, saying it would not make the city safer but would perpetuate military-style policing and encourage the use of force.

The City Council voted Monday to amend its agenda to allow for people who had missed the sign-up period to speak. 

In anticipation of the vote, officials closed several City Hall offices Monday, moved services online and issued a temporary ban on liquids, aerosols, gels, creams and pastes from being carried into the building “due to increased security concerns.”

Tuesday’s vote means taxpayers will pay less than the city had agreed upon, city officials said. The greenlighted legislation, they said, allows the city to consolidate multiple leases that it currently pays for “suboptimal” training facilities that police and firefighters use separately. Such a move would save the city $200,000 annually or $6 million over 30 years, Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens’ office said in a news release.

The Atlanta Police Foundation, the independent nonprofit group spearheading the project, has said it would privately raise the rest of the money needed for construction through philanthropic and corporate donations.

The proposed project includes creating a “mock city” for police and firefighter trainees, a shooting range and an emergency vehicle operations course, which would be a first for both the police and fire rescue departments, the Atlanta Police Foundation said.

The group said the new campus is necessary because current training facilities “fail to meet the training needs required of a major urban law enforcement agency,” which it said ultimately worsens morale, recruitment and retention issues.

The project would be built on a parcel of land that the city of Atlanta owns in unincorporated DeKalb County, around Intrenchment Creek and the South River Forest Basin. 

The land is known as the Old Atlanta Prison Farm, where prisoners labored in poor working conditions for much of the 20th century. It is the only city-owned area large enough for such a project, the Atlanta Police Foundation said.

The group said it will not have to cut down acres of trees because the targeted parcel of land, which was cleared decades ago, does not currently have significant tree cover. The tree cover that does exist, it said, is overwhelmingly dominated by invasive species.

The Atlanta Police Foundation pledged to replace any hardwood tree destroyed in construction with 100 new ones. Nearly 300 acres will be preserved as green space, parkland and trails, it added.

The Atlanta City Council first approved the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center in 2021, following anti-police violence protests. City officials said the new center would be integral to the reforms residents had been demanding, but protesters remain staunchly opposed.