Mayor Andre Dickens at the center of training center debate
Mayor Andre Dickens heard two different sides of Atlanta's opinions on the proposed Public Safety Training Center during his public appearances on Feb. 7.
The facility was approved by Atlanta City Council in September 2021 after hours of public comments opposing it. Following that decision, some protesters began to live in the forest to stop the development. On Jan. 18, 2023, an operation to remove protesters from the forest resulted in the death of activist Manuel Terán and the injury of a Georgia state trooper.
Neighbors said the police training center isn't the kind of development they want to see in the area.
On Jan. 31, Dickens was joined by Dekalb CEO Michael Thurmond to announce that the project had secured the final permit necessary to begin construction. Protesters gathered at City Hall in opposition to the decision.
Meanwhile, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation is analyzing evidence in their ongoing investigation of the death of Terán, whose family is now asking the GBI for more transparency so they can understand the full story of what happened in the forest.
Investigations will continue, but Tuesday showed the subject of the proposed training facility is still being widely discussed in Atlanta and opinions are varied.
A luncheon at the Buckhead Club
Dickens participated in a well-received moderated discussion during an Atlanta Press Club luncheon in Buckhead on Tuesday, where the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Patricia Murphy and Sophia Qureshi of 285 South asked him about the police training facility.
In a room packed with media professionals and business leaders (and at least two members of law enforcement who attended as guests), the mayor said 69% of Atlantans support a training center for police and firefighters.
“People want a trained police [force]and a trained fire staff,“ Dickens said. “Also, in conjunction with 2020 requests after [the killing of] George Floyd and these other things, people say we need to have more standards, more training, more opportunities for police to engage, and then tactics that help nurture the community relationship. Well, we have to do that in a facility. And so this is a response to that cry.”
Dickens also explained the role of the community in the decision-making process for the training facility’s planning:
“So, the Community Stakeholder Committee is comprised of six neighborhood community members from DeKalb County and six from the city of Atlanta,” Dickens said. “I didn't choose them, and I don't go to the meetings, and I don't meddle in their business because they speak for themselves. They represent community members — just as a council member will represent the district that they're in, just as the president of the Press Club will represent the members of the Press Club.”
An evening at Morehouse College
That same evening, Dickens spoke at the Presidential Forum at Morehouse College.
The event was open to Atlanta University Center students and employees to learn about the proposed training facility and have their questions answered directly by city officials.
Students at Atlanta universities have been protesting the facility and Morehouse’s ties to the Atlanta Police Foundation. On Feb. 2, Morehouse College faculty shared an open letter calling on city leaders to cancel the police training facility known as "Cop City."
During the forum, which was streamed live via the South River Forest Coalition on Instagram, one student asked Dickens how he will address the negative impact this project would have on the mental health of Black people near it.
Dickens said the city’s goal in police training is community-based to handle a variety of problems.
“Where the requirement across the state is 10 weeks to become a police officer, the city of Atlanta provides 35 weeks," the mayor said. "Many of those weeks are all about the social interactions between police and community members.”
But the crowd's response at Morehouse was different than that of the audience at the Buckhead luncheon.
Protests happened outside the venue and students raised environmental concerns about the project and questioned if there was evidence that bias training decreased police brutality. After several hours of questions, Dickens said in closing that his job is to move Atlanta forward and manage competing interests.
“You want safety, and you don’t want police brutality," he said. "How do we manage that? How do we move forward and navigate those things that are competing for time and space in our culture?”
What happens next?
The GBI will continue to release its findings in the Jan. 18 incident, with the full investigation taking between 60 and 90 days.
The Community Stakeholder Advisory Council will also continue to meet and discuss the training facility. (One member is currently challenging the Land Disturbance Permit.)
As the police training facility planning progresses, Dickens appears open to hearing all sides of the debate.