On a 171-acre plot in Georgia’s South River Forest lies the construction site of Atlanta’s Public Safety Training Center. The planned police and firefighter training ground, commonly known as “Cop City,” has drawn fierce resistance in Atlanta and across the country.
Activists argue that the center is detrimental to the environment and will further militarize the city’s police force. In an effort to deter construction, dozens have camped in trees, damaged property and confronted authorities. Law enforcement has arrested and charged multiple protestors with domestic terrorism, which activists argue is a form of political oppression. As “Cop City” continues to be constructed, it’s essential to understand how the project originated and why it now symbolizes a broader struggle against increased militarization in policing.
Why is the training center being constructed?
For most of the 20th century, the Atlanta Prison Farm resided on the land now holding Cop City. Prisoners held in the city-owned complex grew crops and raised livestock. The building was abandoned in the 1990s and then used to dump tires.
In 2003, the nonprofit The Trust for Public Land dedicated a 136-acre forestland connected to the old prison structure for DeKalb County to build the public Intrenchment Creek Park.
More than a decade later, in a reversal of fate, the Atlanta Police Foundation unveiled its Vision Safe Atlanta Public Safety Action Plan, calling for a new training center that encroached on the same land. The police department cited that an improved facility could help lift its “morale and recruitment numbers.”
“A big reason why this site was chosen was because even though it is property owned by the city of Atlanta, it's outside of the city limits,” said Andrew Douglas, a professor of political science at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. “The people who live around, predominantly non-white population, have no direct way to use electoral politics to express their opposition to the project.”
By 2021, the Police Foundation released its first renderings of the training center to replace the previous dilapidated police academy. The facility contains shooting ranges, burn towers, bomb simulations and a mock city to enact “real-life scenarios.”
“The activist groups that are opposed to the project complained, in my opinion rightly, about how this is a militarized policing facility and will create opportunities for the department to use the space to perfect militarized urban warfare tactics and crowd suppression,” Douglas said.
City Councilmember Joyce Sheperd introduced a piece of legislation months later authorizing the mayor to lease the 150 acres for the training center. An added amendment then scaled down the land use to 85 acres.
As a staunch advocate for crime reduction, former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms also announced her support for the training center in her State of Union Address that year.
In September 2021, flocks of local residents gathered at the City Council meeting on whether to authorize the lease ordinance.
“We went to City Hall, and we spoke all day and night to the City Council telling them all the many reasons why they shouldn't be doing this,” East Atlanta Village resident Joe Peery said. “There's no good reason to keep going and they just voted for it anyway.”
After 17 hours of heated public comment, the city council approved the project.
Since the City Council granted the Police Center Foundation 85 acres for use in 2021, the group has expanded the site to 171 acres of land. Earlier this year, the City Council also approved $31 million in funds drawing from taxpayer money and funds raised by the foundation to pay for the $90 million facility.
Why have there been protests?
The aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and Black Lives Matter protests three years ago raised conversations about police reform and calls to divert the department’s funds to other safety initiatives. A new training center for Atlanta’s law enforcement seemed baseless for residents, especially at this moment.
“We have seen Black communities over-policed and under-resourced and what we have is a storm of interdiction for police officers to create adverse situations in the community,” Keyanna Jones, the organizer of the movement Stop Cop City, said.
In Dekalb County, made up of predominantly Black neighborhoods, the announcement stoked the community’s distrust toward the police force. Some also fear a future where other police agencies in the country take on similar militaristic endeavors.
“The interaction between police officers and community members has become increasingly negative,” Jone said.
As the construction of Cop City moves forth, over 171 acres of the South River Forest land will be used up. The land has reportedly been pulverized of its tree canopies to be poured on with cement.
The South River Watershed Alliance (SRWA) sued the city and the police foundation earlier this year for violation of the project's Clean Water Act permit and water quality standards. The organization claimed that construction discharged sediments which polluted the nearby river.
“It impacts the creek, the marine vertebrate community in the creek, the aquatic life in the creek,” acting president of SRWA Jackie Echols said. “No one should be saddled with 171 acres, ultra destructive on the environment because nobody wants it in their backyard.”
Last year, Fossil Free Northwestern, an environmental and climate justice club, hosted an Atlanta forest defender who gave a presentation on the Stop Cop City movement.
“I think we all as an organization learned a lot about how [Cop City] affects us as students and has connections broader than just the city of Atlanta, because we can start seeing parallels in other places,” Weinberg second-year and Fossil Free NU member Ruth Debono said.
In May 2022, police arrested eight protesters on site, who allegedly pelted them with rocks and Molotov cocktails. Again in December, as police returned to remove encampments enclosing the center, they arrested and charged five protestors with domestic terrorism. Those arrested had come from Maine, California and Wisconsin — indications of the national attention Cop City had garnered.
The community erupted in January 2022 when environmental activist Manuel Paez Terá was fatally shot by the Georgia State Patrol. The police alleged they returned fire after Terán shot a state trooper. Several acts of protests and vandalism have followed, including the storming of the construction site in March. Following an investigation, Georgia Republican Attorney General Chris Carr announced that in August, 61 people have been indicted on racketeering charges.
What happens now?
Protesters have banded together in the last few months to collect signatures to move forward with a referendum campaign to have the city repeal the lease with the police foundation.
Organizers have secured about 100,000 signatures, more than enough to add the referendum to the November ballot, as reported by Time. They submitted the petition two months ago.
Despite the city of Atlanta’s efforts to dismiss the referendum, the 11th Circuit Court will make a final decision on whether to allow the referendum to proceed later this year. Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock sent a letter to Atlanta’s Mayor in September urging the city’s officials to be more transparent with the training center’s progress with community members. Many activists have voiced frustration at the state’s top Democrats, who have remained silent.