ATLANTA (CN) — The Atlanta City Council on Tuesday delayed a scheduled vote on a proposal to build a $90 million police and fire training center — nicknamed “Cop City” by activists — after 17 hours of public comments poured in following a weekend of protests against the plan.
The 1,166 comments continued until 10 p.m. Tuesday, with residents passionately arguing for and against the plan to convert 85 acres of land in one of the city’s last remaining large green spaces, the Old Atlanta Prison Farm, into a state-of-the-art training facility. The city had previously earmarked the land as a park space.
Renderings of the facility released in April show that it would house a mock city for police, firefighters, and rescue teams to train inside. It would be funded by a mix of public and private money.
The proposed facility would be nearly three times the size of the 32-acre training facility used by the New York Police Department, the largest police force in the country, and include classrooms, a shooting range, a horse barn, a kennel, public access greenspace, and areas for vehicle storage.
Supporters say the training center is necessary to respond to crime and recruit officers. The Atlanta Police Foundation has argued that creating a centralized, city-owned facility would be cheaper and easier for the city to maintain than the current rented, temporary facilities.
During a public overview session of the project Thursday, Deputy Chief Darin Schierbaum of the Atlanta Police Department said “training is the lifeblood of what we do." Schierbaum said the department is “excited to see a significant investment in the first responder capabilities of Atlanta and the region.”
“The skill set our officers exhibit when they arrive to your 911 call does not come with the uniform, nor does it come with the vehicle they arrived in. It is created by training, it is sustained by training,” he added.
But not everyone feels so enthusiastic about the proposal. Public opposition to the project began almost as soon as it was announced, with activists expressing concerns for the potential environmental and public health impacts of the training center.
A survey conducted by local firm Social Insights Research of 371 residents near the proposed site found that 98% of the respondents did not support the project.
Organizers have questioned the decision to invest more money into the city’s police force. In the wake of last summer’s historic protests against racism and police violence, the city has shied away from calls for police reform and increased the 2022 police budget to $230 million — a $23 million increase from 2020.
At a rally in front of the capitol Friday, a coalition of activists demanded that corporate donors like Coca-Cola, Delta, and UPS pull funding from the project.
“Don’t be fooled that this is some kind of game to fight crime because there’s a crime wave,” organizer Kamau Franklin said. “It’s got nothing to do with crime. It’s got to do with people taking resources and taking them out of the city’s hands and trying to put them in the cops’ hands because they want to change the narrative. They saw the demonstrations last year ... They saw people out in the streets literally by the millions … They waited and now they’ve come out with their top narrative. Their narrative is that the cops were treated badly.”
Reverend James Woodall, a public policy associate with Southern Center for Human Rights and former state president of the Georgia NAACP, criticized the project in a recent interview with Atlanta’s CBS affiliate.
“We’re talking about spending millions of taxpayer dollars to fund another failed proposal that will only line the pockets of wealthy people and not actually address the issues of our day,” Woodall said.
Environmental advocacy groups have also protested the plans.
A letter sent by the South River Forest Coalition to the city council on Monday says that although the group “strongly supports Atlanta first responders getting world class training,” it also supports the use of the property as a passive greenspace for urban forest and ecological habitat restoration.
The coalition is made up of city residents and local civic, business, and environmental organizations.
The letter says the city has failed to show how the facility will address the city’s crime wave “beyond providing political cover for shortcomings in leadership.”
If the lease is approved anyway, the group has asked that the council regularly convene a community stakeholder advisory committee to work with the Atlanta Police Foundation for a site plan review of all the developmental impacts on the land.
The council plans to resume listening to public comments at 9 a.m. Wednesday morning. A vote will not be held until after the comments conclude Wednesday evening.
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