ATLANTA - Police and Atlanta officials have increased the reward in their search for a group of people behind what they call a series of arson attacks around the city as part of an alleged protest against the city's planned Public Safety Training Center.
Tuesday, Police Chief Darin Schierbaum say investigators believe a "very small group" of people were behind the events, which he said were designed to cause "fear and intimidation." In an effort to stop the group from acting again, officials increased the reward to $60,000 for any information that leads to the arrest and indictment of anyone involved.
"This has been a youth center, it's been two police precincts, it has been construction sites what is next," said Chief Schierbaum.
Homemade "incendiary devices" caused a fire early July 1 at Atlanta police’s current training center on Atlanta's south side that destroyed eight motorcycles.
"There was a police officer inside the precinct at the time this occurred. Had these vehicles been set on fire the entire precinct would have been ignited," said Chief Schierbaum.
"There were eight bikes that were destroyed," said APD deputy chief Timothy Peek, "but we had several others that we have to repair to get them back in service."
An hour earlier, vandals had smashed the windows of police vehicles at another location. Authorities believe those involved intended to set those vehicles on fire as well but were spotted by a bystander.
"The damage that you see that has occurred across the city had the potential of millions of dollars of damage in taxpayer money, and we simply don't want to stand by bat ease and let this continue to occur," said Atlanta Fire Chief Roderick Smith.
"The intent was destruction was beyond what occurred," Schierbaum said.
He said investigators believed that the group was also responsible for attacks on construction equipment near the site of the training center in DeKalb County and on a center for at-risk youth in the English Avenue,/Vine City community.
"Fire attacks being conducted by a very small group of individuals who are using violence intimidation and fear to stop the construction of a facility that will benefit every neighborhood of our city," Schierbaum said.
Schierbaum shared photos taken from nearby security cameras taken of the group around the time of the At Promise arson attack, asking the public to share any tips to help identify anyone involved.
Speaking after the vandalism, Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens called the Fourth of July weekend events "some of the most significant attacks on public safe in our city and in our nation over the last year."
Many top city and state leaders accused activists protesting against the planned training center of being behind the vandalism.
Calling those responsible "anarchists," Schierbaum said that members of the same group have tried to intimidate contractors connected to the training center project by flattening tires, vandalizing a home and spraying graffiti.
"Once we have events like this to occur, especially a chain of those events, it raises the level of urgency," said Chief Smith.
Schierbaum cited web postings taking responsibility for the vandalism as evidence they were connected and said investigators believe the same individuals carried out each act.
"These acts are of a small determined group that does not represent a wider population," he said.
Dickens and others say the planned $90 million training center would replace inadequate training facilities and help address difficulties in hiring and retaining police officers that worsened after nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice three years ago.
Opponents say they worry it will lead to greater militarization of the police and that its construction will exacerbate environmental damage in a poor, majority-Black area. They are hoping to force a referendum on building the project. The "Stop Cop City" effort, which has been joined by activists from around the country, has gone on for more than two years.
"For those that have legitimate concerns about the construction of a training center how tax dollars are used...we will continue as a department to protect those first amendment rights," Schierbaum said.
Dickens said he and police support peaceful protests against the center, but will not tolerate threats or violence.
More than 40 people have been charged with domestic terrorism in connection with protests at the site, where authorities fatally shot Manuel Esteban Paez Teran, who went by "Tortuguita" in January while clearing a campsite. City officials say officers fired in self-defense after the protester shot a trooper. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation is investigating the shooting.
"This is not about a protection of the first amendment this is intimidation this is fear this is destruction and this is targeting key assets that protect this city." Schierbaum said.
"While Atlanta elites focus on limited property damage, tens of thousands of Atlantans are focused on actual violence by the state and have demanded the right to reject this deeply unpopular waste of public funds," reads a statement from the Vote to Stop Cop Coty Coalition.
The current reward for any information that leads to the arrest and indictment of those connected to the arson is $60,000 - $50,000 from Crime Stoppers Greater Atlanta and $10,000 from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.