Attorney General joins Atlanta in battle over public safety training center petition

Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr has joined the City of Atlanta in its battle over the ongoing petition drive attempting to stop construction of the planned Atlanta Public Safety Training Center.

For more than a month, activists with the "Stop Cop City" movement have been trying to gather the signatures of more than 70,000 registered Atlanta voters by Aug. 15 to force a referendum. It would allow voters to decide the fate of the project that has seen significant pushback and become a flashpoint in the national debate over policing.

Under the proposed referendum, voters would choose whether they want to repeal the ordinance that authorized the lease of the city-owned land upon which the project is set to be built.

A group of DeKalb County residents has sued the city, claiming that residents of the county should be allowed to collection petition signatures because they live within 4 miles of the site of the police and firefighter training center.

The city responded to the lawsuit by calling it "futile" and "invalid." Lawyers for the city argued that the massive canvassing effort has come far too late. The authorization the city obtained in 2021 to sign the lease agreement "has already been used" and cannot be retroactively revoked, they said.

Opponents decried the argument as a "shocking and violent assault on the democratic process," noting that the filing came less than two weeks after Mayor Andre Dickens, one of the chief proponents of the training facility, pledged that his administration would not try to halt the petition drive.

The mayor’s office responded by casting blame on the activists in DeKalb County for bringing the issue before the court in the first place.

"The City had no intention of engaging the Court, preferring to let the petition process play out as required by the State referendum process," a Dickens spokesperson said. "However, a small group of non-Atlanta residents in DeKalb County brought the City into Court, and the City was compelled to respond."

In a motion filed earlier in July, Carr's office agreed with the city and argued that the petition restrictions did not violate anyone's First Amendment rights.

Carr said ballot referendum petitions are only for proposed amendments to the city charter - not to resolutions affecting the charter itself.

Lawyers for the state also argued that the ballot referendum is based on state law and if Atlanta's Municipal Code is found to be unconstitutional "the appropriate remedy is the entire ballot referendum petition must be eliminated because the requirements and procedures set by statute were part of the General Assembly's express delegation of legislative authority." 

Advocates for the training center say the $90 million facility would replace inadequate training facilities and would help address difficulties in hiring and retaining police officers that worsened after nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice three years ago.

But opponents, who have been joined by activists from around the country, say they fear it will lead to greater militarization of the police and that its construction will exacerbate environmental damage in a poor, majority-Black area. The "Stop Cop City" effort has gone on for more than two years and at times has veered into vandalism and violence.

Organizers have modeled the referendum campaign after a successful effort in coastal Georgia, where Camden County residents voted overwhelmingly last year to block county officials from building a launchpad for blasting commercial rockets into space.

The Georgia Supreme Court in February unanimously upheld the legality of the Camden County referendum, though it remains an open question whether citizens can veto decisions of city governments.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.