Atlanta City Council passes ground lease for training facility, public dissent continues

After widespread public opposition and nearly 17 hours of public comment from Atlanta residents, city council members in a 10-4 vote moved amended version of ordinance authorizing a ground lease between the City and Atlanta Police Foundation for a new $90 million training facility known among locals as Cop City

The final vote on Ordinance 21-O-0367, an ordinance originally introduced by Council Member Joyce Sheperd on June 7 to authorize the Mayor\’s Office to issue a ground lease with the Atlanta Police Department for 381 acres of land in unincorporated DeKalb County to build a new police and fire training facility.

ATLANTA — After to listening to 17 hours worth of public comment calls from local residents, Atlanta City Council reconvened on Wed., Sept. 8, to deliberate legislation that seeks to authorize the mayor\’s office to issue a ground lease with the Atlanta Police Department to build a $90 million police and fire training facility which organizers and community members have nicknamed Cop City.

The Atlanta Police Foundation released its original renderings in April, showing plans to build a mock city for police to train in, burn towers, explosives testing, new shooting ranges, and more. Around 9:30 p.m., city council passed the an amended version of the legislation in a 10-4 vote in support of moving the lease agreement forward. According to the paper, this ordinance is to take effect immediately upon approval.

Last week, Social Insights Research released its community survey on the development of the facility in Atlanta, showing an overwhelming number of residents who replied opposed the construction of a new facility. Of 371 residents surveyed, 98% said they do not support police/fire facilities being built in South Atlanta/Atlanta Prison Farm area. Moreover, 90% of participants said they do not support police/fire facilities being built in the city entirely. Final tallies of the public comment line ahead of council\’s deliberation documented by local organizers show a majority of callers opposed the city\’s plans to build a new police training facility.

Gov. Brian Kemp issued a letter urging council members to move the legislation through just a couple hours before deliberation began, saying the time to act is now. Meanwhile, state Democrats have been notably silent throughout the process and growing controversy in Atlanta.

Council members Carla Smith, Antonio Brown, Natalyn Archibong, and Jennifer Ide were the sole members who voted against the legislation. Council member and mayoral candidate Andre Dickens was silent throughout the deliberation while Amir Farokhi was absent from the vote.

[ Related: Local #StopCopCity protesters arrested as Atlanta City Council deliberates police foundation lease agreement legislation ]

Several motions were filed to introduce new amendments to the legislation, including an initial motion to table the legislation a second time, Ide\’s proposal to amend Section 1 to include language that would delay execution of the lease until Jan. 4, 2022, and a motion that would update the advisory council amendment to require the advisory council to be updated once every 60 days. Each motion failed to pass.

Before leading into the final vote, Council Member Brown voiced concerns saying, This entire process has been flawed from the beginning and completely rushed. A process like this deserves the time for us to get it right.

Brown previously stated in last month\’s council meeting, during which the legislation was tabled to garner more accurate public input, that he had met with 12 local organizations he described as vital to communities and that none had been consulted by elected officials or APF regarding the plans for the new facility. This week, official documents obtained and reviewed by The Mainline showed the existing advisory council that ultimately developed recommendations and plans for this facility didn\’t comprise of any community members. Instead the council consisted of government, police, and fire officials, including Chief Operating Officer Jon Keen and APF CEO and President Dave Wilkinson.

Archibong spoke of her exchange with Wilkinson in the earlier stages of the planning years prior, saying her advice to him at the time was to engage residents in districts one and five. She says her advice was ignored, explaining, We now see the manifestations of what happens when the government … moves ahead of the population that\’s trusting them to keep them engaged. Archibong said she would not support a lease that\’s not grounded in community support and formed from a top down approach.

[ Related: Our interview with Zuri Tau, researcher and founder of Social Insights Research, on their recent Community Survey on Development of Police/Fire Training Facility in Atlanta ]

In an interview with local journalist King Williams following the council session, Archibong expanded on her thoughts surrounding the vote and noted that the process in months preceding was stoked with rhetoric and false narratives from the police foundation. She also explained the legislation includes a provision that would allow the city to terminate the agreement with the requirement of giving APF 180 days notice.

To connect safety with building a new facility was a false narrative, she told Williams. To say anyone who voted against this was against police and fire rescue was a false narrative.

In her statement, Ide said she learned of APF\’s potential plans in the spring of 2018 and didn\’t hear of them again until the legislation came up in full council this year. Further, she noted a general culture of distrust in the city, adding the entire process was a decision made by a small group of people that this was the only way this facility could be done.

Despite statements from APF spokespeople and some council members that the Old Prison Farm location is the only possible solution and location for the facility, Mainline researcher Sylvia Johnson discovered in public records that the City of Atlanta already owns and controls about 98 acres of land that is largely undeveloped.

Prior to the vote, Sierra Club Georgia Chapter Chairman Daniel Blackman issued a statement saying, As an organization informed by local Black and Latinx community leadership and the history of environmental injustices and pollution that these communities have experienced in this city, the Sierra Club Georgia Chapter vehemently opposes the fragmentation and destruction of a portion of the South River Forest. Pending the vote on Tuesday, the Sierra Club Georgia Chapter stands ready to take any and all actions available to us to uphold environmental justice.”

Additionally, the Nature Conservancy of Georgia\’s executive director, Deron Davis, has publicly stated numerous times their organization explicitly opposes the facility being built in the South River Forest.

The South River Forest Coalition, which is comprised of Atlanta and DeKalb County residents, also released its statement sent to city council members ahead of the vote earlier this week. On Monday, the SRFC shared with The Mainline and other local press its official letter which outlined a demand to council members to table the vote. The letter states, The SRFC rejects the Atlanta Police Foundation\’s plan to locate and develop its public safety training facility at the Prison Farm … [and] demands that Council table the decision about leasing the Prison Farm to the Atlanta Police Foundation until the new elected and appointed leadership are installed.

SRFC also added that in the event council passed the legislation, it demands that Council regularly convene a Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee comprised of members appointed by Council and the DeKalb County Commission to ensure that promises are made specific, legally binding, and enforceable by the community before any lease agreement is entered into by the City of Atlanta.

Other neighborhood associations who issued their resolutions in opposition of the facility include Grant Park, Edgewood, East Lake, and South Atlantans for Neighborhood Development (SAND)—which includes Ormewood Park, Benteen Park, Boulevard Heights, Woodland Hills, Glenwood Park, and Custer McDonough-Guice areas of the city. The East Atlanta Business Association and Kirkwood Neighbors Association also released statements and resolutions in opposition of the facility prior to the council\’s decision.

Following the council\’s vote, local organizing groups, such as Defend the Atlanta Forest, DARC, and Atlanta DSA, have issued statements in dissent of the decision, vowing that the opposition against the facility will continue. Local Black-led organization Community Movement Builders tweeted, #StopCopCity All day every day.

Color of Change issued its official statement, saying, Today\’s city council vote approving the heinous \’Cop City\’ project has effectively surrendered the keys [of] the city to the Atlanta Police Department. Clearcutting these wetlands will have devastating effects on Atlanta\’s environment, including worsened air quality and flooding in the predominantly Black neighborhoods in Southeast Atlanta. There is no doubt this facility, which is being peddled by the Atlanta Police Foundation, will allow the Atlanta P.D. to test militarized tools and heavy-handed enforcement tactics that exacerbate police violence — particularly in Black communites. This isn\’t just bad police; it\’s a threat to Black lives.

We will continue to report on this story as it develops.

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