'Bogus charges': Demonstrators protest arrests after deadly shooting near planned APD training center

Demonstrators rallied outside the DeKalb County jail Thursday night, protesting a deadly confrontation at the future site of a planned training center for Atlanta police. 

Law enforcement on Wednesday went into Intrenchment Creek Park to clear the woods of activists camped out there, protesting the site critics call "Cop City." The GBI says a protester opened fire, wounding a state trooper. He is recovering at the hospital. Officials said he was in stable condition. 

Agency says officers shot back, killing Manuel Esteban Paez Teran, who friends call Tortuguita. 

"Police murdered a peaceful protester," said Misty Novitch, a demonstrator who rallied outside the jail on Thursday. "This person would not do something like that. We are peaceful protesters. We are not the people who are not going to have that kind of a gun we don’t do that kind of thing." 

An anonymous protester called the GBI’s account "hearsay. We have no idea what happened until a full investigation has come." 


Image 1 of 4

A joint task for conducts a "clearing operation" controversial "Cop City" Atlanta Police Department training facility on Jan. 18, 2023. (FOX 5)

A task force made up the GBI, Atlanta police, FBI and more law enforcement agencies arrested and charged seven other protesters at the park with domestic terrorism after the shooting Wednesday. 

"They were arrested on bogus charges of domestic terrorism just for being in the woods," the anonymous protester said. Teran was "the only Black or brown person in the forest. The cops killed the only Black or brown person in the forest. They arrested the people who were not Black of brown. This is racism in action here." 

Image 1 of 7

Geoffrey Parsons, 20, of Maryland, was arrested and charged with domestic terrorism and criminal trespass after a raid on the so-called "Cop City" Atlanta Police Department training facility on Jan. 18, 2023. (DeKalb County Sheriffs Office)

Wednesday’s conflict comes after more than a year of tension between police and protesters over the $90-million center. Many protesters have camped out for months in the woods they call Weelaunee. They say they peacefully oppose expansion of a police state into the forest. 

"We should not be expanding the police. And this is why we have to defund police and re-fund the communities," Novitch said. 

But the GBI accuses at least some protesters of attacking police firefighters and neighbors of nearby communities. During Wendesday's raid, the GBI says more than 25 campsites were found and removed. In those sites, investigators say mortar style fireworks, multiple edged weapons, pellet rifles, gas masks, and a blow torch were taken into evidence.

Protesters accuse police of trying to intimidate them. "Just to make us scared of defending the trees, defending the environment defending the climate." 

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. 

Why is the ‘Cop City,’ Atlanta Public Safety Training Center site controversial? 

Environmental concerns of ‘Cop City’

A big portion of the controversy stems from a non-binding resolution passed by the Atlanta City Council in 2017. With the "City Design Plan," the city was hoping the area would be preserved as greenspace and become part of a greater effort to renew the South River Forest Basin.

The Atlanta Police Foundation argues that only 22% of the site will be used and the remaining land can be opened as a public park. A map on the foundation’s website shows the areas around Intrenchment Creek, a tributary and nearby lakes surrounded by greenspace. The design even includes natural trails amid the training facility campus and would like to the link to Michelle Obama Park on the east side.

The current plans show the training campus to the west of high-tension power lines that cut through the property. The remaining property to the east would remain untouched, including the remains of the old prison farm facilities along Key Road.

After five years of the plan being shown to various local civic organizations and undergoing several dozen changes to the plan, it was finally presented to the city council in early 2021. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms would create a site committee to study the plans.

Those plans include leasing the land to the Atlanta Police Foundation for 30 operational years on top of the time needed for development and construction of the site. The foundation would need to raise $60 million to pay for two-thirds of the construction cost. The city would then pitch in about $1 million a year for 30 years for maintenance and operational costs.

During the planning stage, a Community Stakeholders Advisory Committee was created comprised of leaders from the 13 surrounding neighborhoods. The committee stipulated that all environmental laws be followed and the final construction needed to be LEED-certified. In addition, the foundation pledged to plant 100 new trees.

The foundation also counters environmentalists’ claims that the site would impact "old growth forest." With the site having been clear-cut several times in the last century, a foundation study found fewer than 20 specimen trees.

‘Police state’ concerns linger about ‘Cop City’

A year before the Atlanta City Council would see the initial plans for the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, a series of officer-involved shooting deaths in 2020 would give many pause to the use of force by police officers. Names like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks would be spoken across the country, would spark a rebirth in the Black Lives Matter movement, and for many, would start a wildfire of debate over current policing policies.

Some of the anger was directed towards the new proposed training facility in Atlanta. Some claim such a real-world facility would only serve to increase the aggression, militarization, and overreach of law enforcement officers.

The Atlanta Police Foundation counters those claims writing on their site:

"Just the opposite: Atlanta will finally have training facilities worthy and appropriate to training a 21st Century police force. Our conception is for a training center that is publicly accessible and designed to encourage police/citizen interaction to engender trust within our community."

The foundation says during a series of meetings between the Atlanta police chief and the various NPUs in the city conducted in August 2022, Black communities were just as vocal about a more visible and well-training police force to combat crime.

"Contrary to the complaints of a small group of people who want to ‘defund the police,’ citizens see police presence as a protection against crime, and as sentinels for public safety," the foundation wrote on its website.

Some argue the training facility is more than twice the size of the NYPD facility in Queens or the training center for Chicago police, both which are less than 35 acres. The foundation counters that Charlotte, Milwaukee and Las Vegas all have larger facilities than Atlanta proposed one. They add that each of those facilities are 1.5 to 6 times more expensive.

The training facility plan was approved by the Atlanta City Council in October 2021 in an 11-4 vote.

The Associated Press contributed to this report