Members of stakeholder committee for police training facility speak out
LISTEN: Plans for an Atlanta police training facility in the city’s southeastern quadrant remain at the center of controversy. GPB's Peter Biello spoke with members of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center Community Stakeholders Advisory Committee about the process.
Plans for an Atlanta police training facility in the South River Forest area remain at the center of controversy in the city’s southeastern quadrant for a few years. Police and protestors clashed at the disputed site on Jan. 18, 2023, leaving a Georgia state trooper wounded and one 26-year-old activist, Manuel Teran, also known as Tortuguita, dead.
Since that time, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation launched an ongoing investigation which traced the gun used to shoot the officer back to Teran. The Atlanta Police department released body cam footage of the aftermath of the shooting, and Teran’s family hired attorneys to look for answers about his killing.
On the sidelines of the action — but integral to the story — is the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center Community Stakeholders Advisory Committee (CSAC), assembled by Atlanta City Council. Members of the committee are now speaking out about the process.
GPB’s Peter Biello spoke to two members of that committee to find out more. Below, are excerpts from those conversations.
A turning point
For committee member Nicole Morado, Jan. 18 was a turning point.
“I just really didn't feel comfortable being affiliated with a project that resulted in the loss of life,” she said.
She cut her affiliation with the CSAC shortly after Teran died.
Like other members of the CSAC, Morado lives near the planned location of the center. The CSAC was meant to be a clearinghouse for questions and concerns about plans for the area.
Known to its opponents as “Cop City,” the planned facility is a $90 million effort by the Atlanta Police Foundation to build a modern training ground for police and firefighters. Since the project’s approval, it has faced strong opposition from those who fear the site will enable and encourage police militarization.
The CSAC’s role
From the start, the CSAC has been empowered to ask questions about the APF’s plans and provide advice from the perspective of those who live near it. But the committee is not empowered to approve or reject the project itself, and neither the Atlanta Police Foundation nor its contractors have any obligation to follow the CSAC’s advice.
Morado and other members of the CSAC did ask about the concept of militarization and other issues, such as the location of the firing range, the availability of sidewalks, and the environmental impact.
The responses were mixed.
Morado said she asked about what kind of training the police would receive there. But she said the Atlanta Police Foundation “just kept saying it's a 21st century, you know, training facility. I don't know what that means. And just not really clarifying beyond generic terms like 'best practices.'”
Morado said the committee has in some regards accurately represented the views of those who live near the site. But she said she wished the committee could’ve gained more insight on the environmental impact of the project.
“That was kind of made to seem like it wasn't necessarily in our purview,” she said.
CSAC members draw opponents ire
The monthly public virtual meetings of the CSAC have become a focal point for those whose feelings about the training center have occasionally boiled over. According to committee members, some have been accused of stifling honest debate and failing to diligently investigate the Atlanta Police Foundation’s plans.
The chair of the committee, Alison Clark, said some things are beyond the scope of what the CSAC has been able to request. For example, how the police will be trained.
“Our role as a SAC is advising on the development of a training facility, but not necessarily the programming aspects of the actual curriculum,” Clark said. “The training is determined by an outside entity, and there are committees and councils through the city of Atlanta and beyond that allow the community to have input on what that picture looks like.”
Clark said it's true that the study of the environmental impact was not broadened as some members had hoped, but “our committee stops at the training center development, and so we didn't give pushback to further evaluate the property that was not part of our scope.”
Clark added that she personally wants to see a broader environmental assessment, but requesting one falls outside the scope of the CSAC.
As for the stifling of debate, Clark said there is no ban on members of the CSAC speaking to the press, and there are no plans for one. “The one thing that we do ask is that when committee members do speak to the media, that they do so in a way that's honest and truthful.”
Clark has received criticism from supporters of Lily Ponitz. The CSAC voted to remove Ponitz last year after Ponitz frequently criticized the CSAC in local media outlets, in violation of CSAC protocol.
“I think she had a perspective that, frankly, I would have liked to have seen stay on the committee,” Clark said. “I appreciate some of the information that she was able to deliver. I think the challenge came in disparaging the work of the committee.”
Clark says the Atlanta Police Foundation and developers have accepted every change the majority of the CSAC’s members have gotten behind.
It’s a point Mayor Andre Dickens shared publicly recently at an Atlanta Press Club event on Feb. 7.
“They wanted sidewalks down the road; that was not there … That’ll be done,” he said. “And without my notes, there were about seven of those.”
For Nicole Morado, it’s not easy to applaud the APF for accepting these changes.
“As far as the sidewalks, moving the location [of the firing range], getting rid of the explosives, I think all of that would have been done regardless,” she said. “And so to say that they're making all these changes and adjustments after the fact that they had sort of put this project without our awareness into our laps, it seems a little disingenuous.”
Overall, Clark said the committee does not agree on whether or not the training center should exist, but the committee's purpose was to make sure the voices of the community are heard.
“And I think sometimes that gets lost in the shuffle because the louder voices are those who simply would like to see the development go away,” she said. “And that's not our space. And we're often attacked as a committee or sort of scapegoated.”