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Despite ‘Cop City’ protests, Atlanta moves forward with plan

ATLANTA (AP) — In the wake of the shooting death of an environmental activist, Atlanta-area officials reiterated Tuesday that they are moving forward with plans to construct a huge police and firefighter training center that protesters derisively refer to as “Cop City.”

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens held a news conference to announce that the city had signed a memorandum of understanding with DeKalb County to build the $90 million Atlanta Public Safety Training Center. He also said officials have pledged to enact certain environmental protections after consulting with a “community advisory committee.”

It was one of officials’ most full-throated defenses of a plan that has faced consistent pushback from both locals and out-of-state leftist activists, some of whom moved into the South River Forest over a year ago and built platforms in surrounding trees. Self-described “forest defenders” say the project involves cutting down so many trees that it would be environmentally damaging. They also oppose investing so much money in a project which they say will be used to practice “urban warfare.”

Dickens emphasized that the facilities will be built on a site that was cleared decades ago for a former state prison farm. He said the tract is filled with rubble and overgrown with invasive species, not hardwood trees. The mayor also said that while the facility will be built on an 85-acre site, about 300 other acres would be preserved as a public greenspace.

“This is Atlanta, and we know forests. This facility would not be built over a forest,” Dickens said.

Outside City Hall, a few dozen protesters gathered to oppose the project, chanting, “We don’t want your compromise! Stop Cop City!”

The news conference came nearly two weeks after the death of an activist known as Tortuguita, who was killed by authorities after officials said the 26-year-old shot a state trooper. Authorities said they fired in self-defense, but protesters have said they do not believe the police narrative, noting the lack of body camera footage from the Jan. 18 shooting.

The fatal shooting of Tortuguita, whose given name was Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, prompted a large Jan. 21 demonstration in downtown Atlanta that erupted into violence as a masked contingent lit a police cruiser on fire, threw rocks and launched fireworks at a skyscraper that houses the Atlanta Police Foundation, shattering windows. No injuries were reported, but six people were arrested that night and charged with domestic terrorism.

Atlanta Police Chief Darin Schierbaum and Fire Chief Roderick Smith argued in favor of the project Tuesday, saying it would replace substandard offerings and boost morale, especially as the police department has struggled with hiring and retention.

In addition to classrooms and administration buildings, the training center would include a shooting range, a driving course to practice chases and a “burn building” for firefighters to work on putting out fires. A “mock village” featuring a fake home, convenience store and nightclub would also be built for authorities to rehearse raids.

Officials on Tuesday did not say when they expect construction to begin, but Schierbaum said he does not believe there are currently any activists still camping out at the site.

The training center was approved by the City Council in 2021 after 17 hours of public comments — the majority of which were in opposition to the project. Some locals cited noise concerns, while others said the planned destruction of nature significantly undermines the city’s efforts to preserve its famed tree canopy and would exacerbate local flooding risks.

Many activists also oppose spending so much money on a police facility that would be surrounded by poor, majority-Black neighborhoods in a city with one of the nation’s highest degrees of wealth inequality.

Immediately after the news conference was over, DeKalb County Commissioner Ted Terry began seeking out reporters to push back on local officials’ claims that the planning process has been transparent and open to community engagement.

“I learned about this press conference today,” said Terry. “I represent this area of DeKalb County and there’s still a lot of outstanding questions that haven’t been addressed. I think we’re off to a bad start because transparency and accountability mean everyone should be at the table, and that’s not taking place right now.”