Atlanta City Council approves funding for controversial training center

Updated Tuesday at 10:46 a.m.

The Atlanta City Council has approved funding for the construction of a controversial public safety training center despite nearly 15 hours of fiery public comment from opponents.

The vote took place early Tuesday morning while opponents shouted, “The whole world is watching.” The council voted 11-4 in favor of the funding. Councilmembers Keisha Sean Waites, Liliana Bakhtiari, Jason S. Dozier and Antonio Lewis voted no.

(screenshot via YouTube)

More than 350 people signed up to speak during public comment — the vast majority in opposition to the project they decry as “Cop City.” Many said they see it as a waste of time and resources.

“Instead, make investments that are necessary to create true public safety,” said Gary Spencer, senior counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. “Invest in affordable housing. Invest in affordable healthcare, including mental healthcare. Invest in economic security and healthy environments and a quality education for the children who live here.”

Mayor Andre Dickens and other city officials have pushed the project, arguing that Atlanta’s police and fire departments are in desperate need of a new training center. 

Dickens released a statement after Tuesday morning’s vote, calling it “a major milestone for better preparing our fire, police and emergency responders to protect and serve our communities.” He added that the project will help the city boost its anti-bias training and de-escalation techniques.

“We know there have been passionate feelings and opinions about the training center,” Dickens said. “I know there is more work to be done and I am committed to building trust, and my administration looks forward to continuing the conversation in the weeks ahead.”

Opponents say there’s been a lack of transparency during the process to build the center in forested property owned by the City of Atlanta, but surrounded by unincorporated DeKalb County. They say the project threatens water quality and environmental health. 

Over months of protests, people have been arrested and charged with domestic terrorism. Earlier this year, state troopers shot and killed environmental activist Manuel Teran. The GBI is investigating the shooting.  

MORE: Timeline and backstory on the conflict in the South River Forest

At a rally before Monday’s council meeting, 26-year Atlanta resident Eva Cardenas said her church is two blocks from where the facility is being built in DeKalb County.

“It’s majority Black and brown immigrant communities, poor, working-class people, and so that has been a sanctuary for our people for a very long time,” she said. “Seeing that being clear cut and displacing our people is really concerning to me because it leaves us vulnerable.”

City Council President Doug Shipman told WABE’s “Morning Edition” on Monday morning before the vote that he’s been in favor of the training facility, but wanted more clarity during the process of selecting the site.

“Well this particular deal, we have only recently seen the financial details and an overall budget,” he said. “I have been all along trying to push for both less of an environmental impact of a new training facility as well as transparency.”

Hundreds of people gathered on Monday, June 5, 2023 to give public comment before Atlanta City Council votes on funding for a controversial public safety training center opponents have dubbed “Cop City.” (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

Council members voted to transfer $30 million to the Atlanta Police Foundation for construction of the facility and $1 million for a gym. The rest of the funding to build the facility will come from the APF, which is a private nonprofit.

Council also decided to allow Dickens to enter into a lease-back agreement with the APF for the center. That’s another $36 million over the next 30 years — though the city says it would be saving money by not having to rent a different facility.

While the meeting proceeded inside through the afternoon and late into the night, outside the building was a sea of signs and a symphony of chants.

“We’re out here demanding that Cop City not be built, that it not ever be built. Not in the Weelaunee Forest, not anywhere in Atlanta, in Georgia, not anywhere in this country,” said Vonne Martin with the advocacy group Center for Popular Democracy. 

People play chess in the atrium at Atlanta City Hall while they wait for their turn to speak ahead of City Council’s vote on whether to fund the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

58-year-old DeKalb County resident Jamie Loughner joined the group outside City Hall with a sign taped to her walker that said, “Atlanta practices fascism stop cop city.”

She said she fears that the facility could exacerbate police brutality.

“The increase of militarism with the police is a dangerous combination when it comes to public safety,” she said. “It’s not public safety, as a matter of fact.”

Opponents, preparing for the long night, handed out food, water and other resources.

Emotions ranged from anger to sadness as over 300 opponents of the proposed public safety training center spoke during public comment at Atlanta City Hall on Monday. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

“My hope is that they have heard that there is just too many questions and liabilities and that they will vote no or push it back to committee,” said Sasha Von Hanna as she left City Hall after speaking at the public hearing with her daughter by her side.

Inside City Hall, public comment occasionally got heated, especially when council members, after being called out by name, responded to opponents of the project. Councilman Michael Julian Bond spoke multiple times, frequently interrupted by shouts. 

“I have been completely transparent,” he said at one point. He continued, “I plan to support the training center.” 

Council chambers erupted in boos. 

Left to right, Councilmembers Antonio Lewis, Michael Julian Bond and Matt Westmoreland during public comment on Monday, June 5, 2023. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

A little before 10 p.m. – nearly nine hours into public comment – council took a 10-minute recess. Councilmember Liliana Bakhtiari, who is critical of the training center, spoke to the crowd during the break. Bakhtiari told them that some other council members, having received death threats, were uncomfortable and wanted to move the meeting to a smaller room and only allow in one commenter at a time. 

Bakhtiari pleaded with commenters to stop calling out council members by name since they had a right to respond whenever it happened. 

“I’m begging you to stop,” Bakhtiari said, “so that we can move forward.” 

Councilmember Liliana Bakhtiari speaks earlier in the day in the atrium of Atlanta City Hall. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

After the recess, the meeting continued, with dozens more commenters speaking against the project. Some pulled out blankets and pillows as the evening wore on. 

The air conditioner stopped working, and the meeting continued into its sweltering 12th and 13th hours early Tuesday morning.

Around 1:20 a.m., the people who had signed up to comment had all commented. City Council voted to allow another hour of comment. 

After that hour, there were still more people waiting to speak. Some started shouting. Council went into recess, then came back, and continued hearing from the remaining people. The AC started working again around 3 a.m., 14 hours into the meeting.

After 3:30 a.m. Tuesday, public comment ended. Council began moving through its agenda for its Monday meeting. There were a few items from the communications committee. At 3:45 council members, after 14.5 hours of public comment, voted on a handful of zoning items. There was a question about street resurfacing just before 4 a.m.

At 5:30 a.m. the vote approving funding for the public safety training center came down as opponents booed throughout city council chambers.

This is a developing story and will be updated. 

WABE’s Chamian Cruz, Julien Virgin, Marlon Hyde, Rahul Bali, Molly Samuel, Lisa Rayam and Lily Oppenheimer contributed to this story.