'Stop Cop City' activists turn in petition signatures to force vote on Atlanta's public safety training center

The fight to stop the construction of Atlanta's controversial public safety training facility in DeKalb County takes its next step.

On Monday, organizers with the Stop Cop City Coalition turned in more than a dozen boxes which they contain the signatures of 116,000 people who want the future of the controversial center on the ballot in November. 

However, when they went to turn those signatures into the municipal clerk’s office, they were told they would not start the verification process because they went past the Aug. 21 deadline amid several legal challenges. 

The city agreed to take the boxes while awaiting further guidance from the courts.

They’re now sitting in a closet in the clerk’s office. 

"This morning, we received petitions from those seeking a referendum on the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center and have locked them away in a secure location until we receive further rulings from the 11th Circuit Court," said Foris Webb III, clerk emeritus for the city of Atlanta in a news release put out by the city council’s press office. "State law and the City’s code have a clear and strict 60-day deadline for petition circulation."

Kurt Kastorf, an attorney for the Vote to Stop Cop City Coalition, said that he believed this to be a coordinated effort to silence the voices of the constituents who signed it.

"When we showed up here we tried to hand them boxes, we got handed a memorandum," Kastorf said in a news conference. "[It was] clearly written in advance, saying they were going to receive the boxes, but they weren’t going to start the verification process."

Councilmember Liliana Bakhtiari, who herself has been critical of the $90 million project, said she was just as blindsided as the activists when they arrived Monday morning.

"I feel increasingly I feel helpless as an [elected official]," she said. "I do not believe that is enough to continually be using the state to scapegoat the process of we’ve asked the public to do in the first place."

With a city of about a half-million people, activists said they have just over a fifth of registered voters signed in to decide the project at the ballot box.

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens and others say the 85-acre, $90 million facility would replace inadequate training facilities and would help address difficulties in hiring and retaining police officers.

(Vote to Stop Cop City Coalition)

However, opponents fear the training center will lead to greater militarization of the police and that its construction will exacerbate environmental damage in a poor, majority-Black area.

Organizers of the petition have also questioned the city's process to verify the signatures on the petition. Atlanta officials have brought in a third-party team to review the validity of the document and see whether the petition crosses the threshold of 58,232 - or 15% of registered voters - needed to put it on the ballot.

City officials say that once the signatures are turned in, at least two reviewers will examine questionable signatures in a 50-day timeframe. People whose signatures can’t be verified will be mailed a notice and called so they can prove they signed, officials said.

Voting advocates have expressed their concerns about the city's decision to do a line-by-line review, arguing that tossing a petition based upon an inconsistent signature is a "widely discredited tool of voter suppression."

"That the city of Atlanta would use such a subjective and unreliable process is shameful and undermines the integrity of the city’s validation procedure," more than two dozen voting rights organizations, including Fair Fight, wrote to city officials.

Protests against the training center escalated after the fatal shooting in January of 26-year-old protester Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, known as Tortuguita. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation has said state troopers fired in self-defense after Paez Terán shot at them while they cleared protesters from a wooded area near the proposed facility site. But the troopers involved weren’t wearing body cameras, and activists have questioned the official narrative.

Since 2021, numerous instances of violence and vandalism have been linked to the movement. Days after the killing of Paez Terán, a police car was set alight at a January protest in downtown Atlanta. In March, more than 150 masked protesters chased off police at the construction site and torched construction equipment before fleeing and blending in with a crowd at a nearby music festival. Those two instances have led to dozens of people being charged with domestic terrorism, although prosecutors previously admitted they’ve had difficulty proving that many of those arrested were those who took part in the violence.

Last week, a Fulton County grand jury indicted 61 people on charges they violated the state's RICO law. In the sweeping indictment, Republican Attorney General Chris Carr alleged the defendants are "militant anarchists" who supported a violent movement that prosecutors trace to the widespread 2020 racial justice protests.

Even if the referendum is approved by the clerk’s office and survives an ongoing legal challenge, a lengthy review process will likely mean it won’t appear on a ballot until at least March.

"If we cannot find justice in the courts, and the system, all the things, then we’re going to take it to the streets," said Mary Hooks, a leader of the coalition. "So, the city has options." 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.