Atlanta’s “Cop City” Is a New Frontline in the Debate Over Policing

ATLANTA — When construction crews rolled into a patch of pine and maple trees southeast of Atlanta last month, the scene had more in common with a military incursion than a municipal building project in the suburbs. Police officers in armored trucks escorted construction workers as they cleared a pathway for heavy equipment and installed anti-erosion fences.

For 18 months, this parcel of woodland — once a prison farm for low-level convicts, now mostly reclaimed by the surrounding forest — has galvanized both environmental advocates who want to preserve one of the region’s largest remaining woodlands and activists concerned about the increased militarization and aggressive tactics of police forces.

Mounting protests and scattered violence culminated in January in what the police described as a shootout that left a protester dead, a state trooper seriously wounded and Georgia’s governor authorizing the National Guard to intervene. Now, with organizers again calling for mass demonstrations starting this weekend, officials worry that confrontations may resume, and that the conflict could escalate.

The tension was sparked by a plan, authorized by the Atlanta City Council in 2021, to build an enormous training center for the city’s Police and Fire Departments on property owned by Atlanta in DeKalb County. Blueprints for the 85-acre complex include classrooms, an amphitheater, a driving course, a shooting range, pastureland for police horses and what is described by supporters as a “mock city for real-world training” that includes apartments, a nightclub and a convenience store.

Opponents deride it as “Cop City.”

Protests against police violence have been a feature of big-city life in the near decade since the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and the chokehold death of Eric Garner on a Staten Island sidewalk, which galvanized a movement. The demonstrations have often erupted after a police killing of a Black man and the release of video, such as in the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols in January, which led to five Memphis officers being charged with murder.

What is happening in Atlanta, according to some experts, is different: It is a movement squarely confronting the police over their training, and questioning how much support cities should provide to law enforcement. These issues have become increasingly fraught as police forces adopt military-inspired tactics and equipment, and as widely publicized incidents like the Nichols beating appear to show officers escalating routine interactions into deadly violence.

“Very rarely do you see the flash point be about training,” said Arthur Rizer, a former police officer in Washington State and a scholar of policing. Like many of the critics and protesters, he thinks Atlanta’s plan for the training facility is a recipe for increased police militarization — a trend that accelerated after the Sept. 11 attacks with the infusion of surplus military equipment and money for antiterrorism efforts and training.

“I do share the concern of the citizens of Atlanta,” Mr. Rizer said, “that the apparent focus is going to be a paramilitary-type training, urban assault tactics, which quite frankly have not been effective at reducing crime.”

Atlanta officials say that for years, the police have run their academy out of old school buildings or, more recently, a college, and have needed a more modern facility. And the Fire Department has long wanted to teach rookies how to drive fire engines on a training track, instead of on city streets at night.

Bryan Thomas, a spokesman for Atlanta’s mayor, Andre Dickens, said the center — approved under Mr. Dickens’s predecessor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, who joined the Biden administration after deciding not to run for re-election — was designed to help officers train for situations that have become increasingly common in modern America, such as convenience store robberies and mass shootings.

“We need to make sure officers are prepared for real-life scenarios, like if you have a shooting in a nightclub or a gas station,” he said. “And that’s where this facility comes in.”

Other cities operate large police training complexes, including New York, where Rodman’s Neck — part of a peninsula sticking out from the Bronx into Long Island Sound — is used for firearms training, much to the annoyance of nearby residents on City Island, who say the regular barrages of gunfire are a source of stress.

The Atlanta plan has drawn a broad “Stop Cop City” coalition, including criminal justice reformers, environmental advocates, antifa activists and others. Their objectives are both to oppose what they call the further militarization of policing and to preserve the nearly 400 forested acres near a predominately Black neighborhood in DeKalb County called Gresham Park.

“Environmental racism and police violence go hand in hand,” said Kate Morales, who has helped organize the upcoming “week of action” set to start on Saturday, including a comedy show and music festival in the woods, and guided forest tours. Organizers are encouraging demonstrators to camp and “get to know the forest.”

As months of protests grew increasingly tense in January — activists have thrown Molotov cocktails and destroyed construction equipment, the police say — an attempt by officials to clear out the forest ended in what the authorities described as an exchange of gunfire. A protester, Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, 26, was killed, and a state trooper seriously wounded.

Before January, some protesters, calling themselves “forest defenders,” had taken to sleeping in crude tree houses in land marked for clearing. Prosecutors charged some protesters with domestic terrorism, a move that some legal experts described as heavy handed, given that those charges, under state guidelines, can carry a prison sentence of up to 35 years.

Anthony Michael Kreis, a law professor at Georgia State University, noted that plenty of laws would allow the government “to prosecute wrongdoing like property destruction without citing terrorism and imposing outsized punishments.” He said such charges “chill group protest if peaceful protesters fear that they could be deemed guilty for associating with an event where a few bad apples are suddenly branded as domestic terrorists.”

Opposition to the Atlanta project grew out of reserves of anger over the 2020 murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis and the fatal police shooting weeks later of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta, as well as concerns that the city’s famed tree canopy was dwindling.

For years, a plan had been slowly advancing to connect patches of remaining woodland into a giant 1,200-acre park, larger than Central Park in New York. The decision in 2021 to put a large police training facility in the midst of it struck many as gutting the park plan and providing a giveaway to the police.

“These are the last large swaths of undeveloped forest” in the region, said Ted Terry, a DeKalb County commissioner who used to lead the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club, an environmental organization. “If we lose these acres, it cannot be reversed.”

Critics in Atlanta also say officials have insulated the project from public outcry by outsourcing it to the Atlanta Police Foundation, a nonprofit organization that has wealthy business executives on its board, and that is raising most of the anticipated $90 million for the training site.

Rob Baskin, a spokesman for the foundation, said it had become involved because for years, successive mayors and police chiefs had said the city urgently needed a new training center and had asked the foundation to take the lead in drawing up plans. “The whole purpose we have in building this facility is to make sure our officers are well trained,” Mr. Baskin said.

Mr. Thomas, the spokesman for the city’s mayor, said the Atlanta police were committed to “community-based policing and de-escalation techniques.” But plans for the mock city have exacerbated fears that much of the training will focus on tactics for armed confrontations, rather than how to reduce reliance on deadly force.

The scenes of armored trucks and officers with long guns moving into the construction site have only reinforced those concerns.

“The militarization of the last 20 years or so has done more to worsen the relationship with the community,” said Richard Rose, president of the Atlanta chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. “The armored trucks, the different uniforms, the humongous guns — all of those strike fear into the heart of the community, even if you are a law-abiding citizen.”

The 26-year-old protester who was killed in January was known by fellow “forest defenders” as Tortuguita, or “Little Turtle,” and dreamed of becoming a doctor, but felt compelled to join the effort to save the woodlands for both political and spiritual reasons, the protester’s mother, Belkis Terán, recalled recently in an interview.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which is looking into the shooting, has said that on Jan. 18, as the police sought to clear the forest of protesters, Tortuguita fired first “without warning,” striking a trooper. Officers returned fire, according to the authorities.

Tortuguita’s mother described her child as a “pacifist” and said an independent autopsy showed 13 gunshot wounds. Activists question the authorities’ account of what happened and have demanded an independent investigation.

Tortuguita’s mother said her child “wanted to be in the forest” and was “feeling God there.” She hoped, she said, that her child’s death was not in vain.

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