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Atlanta City Council approves $30 million increase in funding for police training facility

More than 400 people provided comments to the council, with a vast majority expressing opposition to the so-called "Cop City" facility.

ATLANTA (CN) — The Atlanta City Council early Tuesday morning approved a final funding package that clears the way for the construction of a $90 million public safety training center.

A motion just before the final 11-4 vote sought to send the funding plan back to a committee for more debate, but it failed by the same margin.

The vote came around 5:30 a.m. Tuesday, after the council heard over 14 hours of public comments that began Monday. The four council members who voted against the plan were Jason Dozier, Liliana Bakhtiari, Keisha Waites and Antonio Lewis.

Out of the more than 350 public commenters who had signed up to speak – and even more who the council allowed to speak in two additional sessions – only four spoke in favor of the project.

“Just thinking about the funding part of this makes it an easy no vote for me,” Lewis said. “The money that they spent on this, I know we can help some young folks who need some help in the city of Atlanta.”

The funding package includes a more than $30 million increase to the city's contribution to the development of the nation's largest police training facility.

Dubbed "Cop City" by its opponents for its inclusion of a mock city for first responders to train in, in addition to a firing range, the planned facility has been the center of a years-long controversy that has drawn criticism from people across the nation and even in foreign countries.

The scheduled vote over whether to approve the final funding plan drew hundreds of people to Atlanta’s City Hall Monday. 

The City Council, the city’s Democratic Mayor Andre Dickens and the Atlanta Police Foundation, which is spearheading the project, had originally said the facility would cost the city $30 million.

But last month, city officials publicly acknowledged for the first time that the actual cost to taxpayers is expected to be more than double that amount at $67 million.

The nonprofit Atlanta Police Foundation, which claims to have “united the business and philanthropic community with the Atlanta Police Department," has promised to cover the rest of the funding for the facility's estimated $90 million total price tag.

According to a review of public documents by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, some decision makers were aware of the millions in additional costs as early as August 2021, which come from a "lease back" provision in the city's lease with the Atlanta Police Foundation to repay the nonprofit organization $37 million over the next 30 years for the facility's construction.

The project is also receiving funding from an array of corporate donors, including Delta, Home Depot, Cox Enterprises, Coca-Cola, and UPS.

City officials argue that the additional annual payment is less than the average $1.4 million the city currently pays to lease inadequate facilities to train police and firefighters. But the lack of public disclosure that taxpayers would have to continue making annual lease payments even after the facility is built, only further fueled criticism and frustration from those opposing its construction.

Protesters flooded the City Hall building on Monday, as over 400 people signed up to speak before the council during public comments. Tensions were high inside the chamber, with a majority of the speakers decrying the project, and only a few expressing support and speaking in defense of Mayor Dickens, who has received backlash for voting in favor of the initial proposal for the lease agreement while serving on the City Council in 2021.

Several DeKalb county residents, where the facility is to be built, said that they did not support it, largely in fear that it will exacerbate the over-policing of Black communities. NAACP Legal Defense Fund Senior Counsel Gary Spencer, said the facility will perpetuate the militarization of police, which will "have no effect on safety, but dire consequences on Black citizens."


A local Emergency Medical Services worker said that they don't need more training, but need more compensation because they are short-staffed and overworked. Another man, who said he is seeking a Republican candidacy in Georgia's 4th Congressional District, said the money is being "wasted" on the facility, and should instead be used on other resources police actually need and mental health intervention.

"Read the room, the people don't want this," said one speaker. "If you vote for this facility, you don't have our best interests at heart."

Last week, Atlanta police raided the homes of three organizers of the nonprofit Network for Strong Communities, which distributes free food across the city and runs the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, which raises money to to pay bail and find attorneys for arrested protesters.

A spokesperson for the office of state Attorney General Chris Carr, who is leading the prosecution, said the raid and arrests were “a multi-agency effort and part of an ongoing investigation into violent activity at the site of the future Atlanta Public Safety Training Center and other locations.”

Adele MacLean, 42, Marlon Scott Kautz, 39, and Savannah Patterson, 30, were arrested Wednesday on charges of charities fraud and money laundering. The arrest warrants say that they committed charities fraud by misleading contributors by using collected funds to fund the actions of "Defend the Atlanta Forest".

While proponents of "Defend the Atlanta Forest" say it is used as a slogan by people among many different organizations, the arrest warrants claim it is “a group classified by the United States Department of Homeland Security as Domestic Violent Extremists” and that its members have engaged in vandalism, attacked police officers and committed arson.

Magistrate Court Judge James Altman granted $15,000 bond to each of the activists Friday, after expressing concerns about their First Amendment rights and saying he did not find the prosecution’s case at the time “real impressive.”

Several speakers at City Hall Monday attacked the charges.

"They tell people on their website it will cost the city $30 million so that they can raise donations," said Devin Franklin from the Southern Center for Human Rights about the Atlanta Police Foundation during Monday's public comments.

"I find it ironic that the Atlanta Solidarity Fund was the one charged with charity fraud," he said.

Several dozen people accused of involvement in protests against the facility's construction have been arrested since May 2022, including more than 40 who have been charged with domestic terrorism, a felony charge that carries a penalty of five to 35 years in prison.

According to arrest warrants, many of the alleged acts of domestic terrorism consist solely of misdemeanor trespassing in the South River Forest area where the 85-acre facility is set to be built. The 380-acre site has been referred to as the city's "lungs," as it's one of the areas largest remaining green spaces. It is also known as the Weelaunee Forest, as the land was called by its original inhabitants from the Muscogee Nation before being used as a plantation site during the Civil War and later as a prison farm until 1990.

Protests there gained national attention in January after one of the demonstrators, 26-year-old Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, was fatally shot by an officer while police attempted to remove protesters from the site. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation claims Terán fired at the trooper first with a legally purchased firearm after refusing to leave his tent, but his family has questioned that narrative, as there is no body camera footage of the incident because the officers were not required to wear them.

A private autopsy commissioned by the family of the Venezuelan environmental activist showed that he had been shot at least 14 times from at least three different guns in multiple areas of the body, including his hands and head.

An autopsy later released by the DeKalb County Medical Examiner’s Office in April revealed that his body had at least 57 combined entrance and exit gunshot wounds. It also said that gunshot residue "was not seen" on Terán's hands, despite a report from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation that said they found “particles characteristic of gunshot primer residue."

As chants from protesters rang out across the first floor atrium of City Hall Monday, "viva, viva, Tortuguita," the nickname Terán was often called, was a constant refrain.

Site clearing for the facility has already started and construction is expected to be complete by the end of 2024, according to Atlanta Police Chief Darin Schierbaum.

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