Agreement reached to move forward with APD training facility with environmental, community protections

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens and DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond announced an agreement to ensure the planned Atlanta Public Safety Training Center would protect and enhance the surrounding environment, spur local business and job development and serve as a community resource.

"We will protect the neighborhoods, the families and most importantly, we will protect the South River Forest Basin," Thurmond told a crowd during Tuesday's press conference.

Mayor Dickens said the city met with a community stakeholder advisory committee over the past year before coming to this conclusion of what the future of the facility would look like. He said that committee consists of representatives from the most immediately adjacent neighborhoods in DeKalb County as well as Atlanta. With their help, Dickens said the city has agreed to the following:

  • The land owned by the city of Atlanta stretches over 380-acres. Just 85 of those acres would be used to house the facility. The other nearly 300 acres would continue to be protected green space, including trails, a ballparks and picnic areas. Dickens said the city is committed to not develop further on that space.
  • The development partner promised to replace any single hardwood tree that has to be taken down with 100 hardwood trees in another area.
  • The development partner promised to replace invasive species found in the area with hardwood trees.
  • Double-erosion control to ensure viability of Entrenchment Creek.

Opponents of the training center have been protesting for over a year by building platforms in surrounding trees and camping out at the site. They say that the $90 million project, which would be built by the Atlanta Police Foundation, involves cutting down so many trees that it would be environmentally damaging. 

"This facility will not be built over a forest," Dickens said. "The training center will sit on land that has long been cleared of hardwood trees through previous uses of this site decades ago."

Protestors and critics also oppose investing so much money in what they call "Cop City," which they say will be used to practice "urban warfare."

Atlanta Fire Chief Roderick Smith was present at the press conference to remind citizens that the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center is not just for police officers.

"Atlanta Fire Rescue is the largest fire department in the state of Georgia, and we employ over 1,200 members," Smith said. "We are in desperate need of a modern training for the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department. In fact, we have been operating in a fractured state for the past 30 years."

Smith said his crews have been training in an unoccupied elementary school for years before it was condemned.

"Matter of fact, I was trained in this school," he admitted. Smith said since then, members started being bused to Douglasville for live fire training. He said it has not been enough space to also use and store the heavy emergency vehicles needed to train drivers.

Confrontations between demonstrators and law enforcement came to a head when Manuel Esteban Paez Teran, 26, also known as Tortuguita, was shot and killed by officers after shooting and seriously wounding a state trooper in the abdomen, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. The bureau says the bullet came from a handgun that Tortuguita purchased legally in 2020.

Teran's death sparked protest, which ultimately turned into violent riots in downtown Atlanta, in which six people were arrested on charges including domestic terrorism and said unspecified "explosives" were recovered.

What is the 'Cop City'? Future Atlanta Public Safety Training Center

The Atlanta Police Foundation, the major force behind the project, officially calls it the future Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, but for those who oppose it, it is called "Cop City."

According to the foundation, the city of Atlanta has owned an 380-acre tract of land since 1918 when it purchased it from DeKalb County for the purpose of building a prison farm for non-violent offenders. Prison buildings would be built, farm land would be plowed, and pasture land cleared. It remained in use until 1995.

Starting around the mid-1990s, the city began using the land for portions of their training, even housing temporary facilities until the current Public Safety Training Center was completed. The foundation says various portions of the land, to this day, continue to be used by police and firefighters training in weapons, fire fighting, and explosives detection.

A section of the land was also used as a burial site for animals from the Atlanta Zoo at one point, the foundation says. The current Metro Regional Youth Detention Center sits adjacent to the land on the south side off Constitution Road.

While there have been rumors possible human remains or artifacts on the land, the foundation points to an archeological and historic preservation study which found no trace.

The old prison farm land was not at the top of the list when the Atlanta Police Foundations was asked by the Atlanta Police Department and then-Mayor Shirley Franklin to begin outlining what a future training facility should look like. It was only when foundation members began to identify the various training needs, did the site emerge as being a viable location.

One of the biggest challenges was a versatile and dynamic location able to change and grow with the departments needs for the next half-century. Initially, designers were looking at developing 150 acres, but the Atlanta City Council asked them to scale it back to 85 acres. That has become the current plan.

The training center would include a shooting range, classrooms, a mock village, an emergency vehicle driving course, stables for police horses, and a "burn building" for firefighters to practice putting out fires. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.