'Stop Cop City' organizers brace for deadline, surpass 80K signatures

Kenyatta Richardson collects his first signature of the day during a five-hour shift in southwest Atlanta on Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

This story was updated on Aug. 14 at 9:23 a.m.

A grassroots effort is underway to potentially stop the construction of Atlanta’s controversial public safety training center, dubbed “Cop City” by opponents. 

Organizers say they’re ready to submit more than 70,000 signatures on Aug. 21 to force a referendum on the November ballot. That’s 15% of Atlanta’s registered voters as of the last election.

As of Aug. 14, they’ve already collected 80,000 signatures.

If successful, it would be the first such referendum in the city’s 186-year history.

The effort was launched after the Atlanta City Council voted in June to fund its share of the center, despite more than 14 hours of public comment overwhelmingly against it. 

Caleb “Ian” Connell asks bypassers if they’ve signed signed the referendum petition during a five hour shift in southwest Atlanta on Thursday, August 3, 2023. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

Sadee Head is with CASA – one of the organizations working to “Stop Cop City.”

During a recent evening, he was about 15 minutes into a five-hour canvassing shift on a hot, humid day when he managed to stop a shopper in the parking lot of a Kroger supermarket in southwest Atlanta.

“We’re getting a petition signed to get the Cop City issue put on the ballot in November, so the citizens of Atlanta can vote and decide whether or not $60 million of our taxpayer dollars should be used to build a new police training facility,” Head said. 

The actual amount is closer to $67 million, but it includes money the city is currently spending to lease training facilities.  

Most people Head approached said that they had already signed the petition, but Collins White stopped for a moment. He said he’s lived in the city for 50 years.

“I decided to sign the petition because I see what’s going on with all the money,” White said. “They’re trying to use it to go toward cop things when they can take the money and use it and spend it in other places like welfare reform. I mean, anything instead of getting more cops and training and all that.”

Others brushed the canvassers off and just kept walking. Like this woman, who did not share her name. 

“Now, who y’all gonna call when y’all get robbed?”

Kenyatta Richardson surveys the parking lot of the shopping center searching for a potential Atlanta resident to sign a referendum petition. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

Attorneys for the City of Atlanta have argued that the referendum effort is “futile and invalid.” Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens said at a press conference in April the center is much needed to replace the city’s inadequate and outdated training facilities. 

“Atlantans deserve highly trained police and fire personnel because when something does happen, we want to make sure that they are ready and able to address it,” Dickens said.

The training center would claim 85 acres outside of the city limits, some of it forestland. And it would be surrounded by low-income, majority-Black neighborhoods. 

Plans include building classrooms, a shooting range and a “mock city” where police can practice conducting raids. 

However, those who live closest to the site cannot sign the petition or vote in the possible referendum because they are not Atlanta residents. 

And non-residents couldn’t help collect signatures either until Lisa Baker and others sued the city and the State of Georgia. A federal judge ruled last month in their favor, and Baker said they’ve been busy ever since collecting signatures.

“City council shouldn’t get to just do what they want to do,” Baker said. “The people should get to decide. That’s what the petition is really saying.”

While an appeal is pending, it’s estimated there are more than 600 volunteers and 90 paid canvassers involved in the effort.

Before all the extra manpower, canvasser Ian Connell said he didn’t think they stood a chance.

“I thought it was absolutely absurd of an expectation that we would get 70,000 signatures in the course of a couple of months,” Connel said. “It’s damn near impossible.”

Now, he said they’re close.