Hundreds of billboards and digital marketing campaigns are now part of a national effort to arrest and convict violent “anarchists” suspected of attacks against the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, according to Atlanta Police Chief Darin Schierbaum.

Schierbaum said at a Wednesday morning press conference that more than 450 billboards will go up this week in Atlanta and other major cities including Miami, Nashville, and New York. The billboards will advertise rewards of up to $200,000 announced last month for information in finding arson suspects protesting the training center, also known as “Cop City.”

The announcement came a day after activists set fire to construction equipment near the training center site and took credit for the action on a website, Schierbaum said.

“There is an effort underway by a very small group of individuals, anarchists, that want to impact the safety of Atlanta, Georgia,” Schierbaum said.

Attending the press conference with Schierbaum were Atlanta Deputy Fire Chief James McLemore, Georgia Insurance Commissioner John King and members of the FBI, ATF and the GBI.

The chief’s press conference was held before officials told members of the Atlanta City Council Finance Committee that the training center was more than 75% complete despite many acts of vandalism, including arson. City officials said the vandalism has increased the estimated $90 million cost to build the complex by nearly $20 million.

Geo-fencing to be also be used to advertise cash reward

In addition to billboards and digital marketing, geo-fencing campaigns will also be utilized in nine cities to advertise the cash reward for information leading to the arrest and convictions of those attacking the training center, according to a news release.

Geo-fencing was not discussed during the police chief’s press conference. Atlanta Police did not respond to a request for comment about what specifically would be involved in the geo-fencing campaigns.

Geo-fencing is used to create a virtual geographic boundary around an area using GPS, Wi-Fi or cellular data technology. Businesses use geo-fencing to target specific advertisements to someone’s cell phone, for example, when they walk into the virtual boundary.

Crime Stoppers in other states have used geo-fencing to get tips to solve crimes. But some critics worry data compiled by police could be used to target innocent people. Some legal experts also say geo-fencing could be harmful to protesters and social activists.

The billboards and cash reward are being funded by Crime Stoppers of Greater Atlanta and private donations, Schierbaum said. Crime Stoppers of Greater Atlanta is managed by the Atlanta Police Foundation.

The Atlanta Police Foundation is in charge of building and managing the 85-acre public safety training center being built on city-owned property in the South River Forest in unincorporated DeKalb County.

Schierbaum also said Seth Brock Spigner was arrested in South Carolina and charged with arson for setting fire to construction equipment in a case related to Atlanta’s public safety training center.

“There was a loose, inaccurate association of that company [in South Carolina]. Someone thought that it was connected to this construction site,” the chief said. “Based on that misinformation, an anarchist went there and set it on fire. Their motivation was they thought they were stopping our public safety training center.”

Construction of training center more than 75% complete, say city officials

Members of the city council’s finance committee were updated on construction of the training center at a Wednesday afternoon meeting.

City officials said the training center is more than 75% complete “despite multiple acts of violence” over the past two years and is expected to be completed in December.

Deputy Chief Operating Officer LaChandra Burks told the finance committee that the frequency and intensity of the attacks in opposition to the training center — including a recent defacing of Manuel’s Tavern — have contributed to an increase in the estimated cost for the training center from $90 million to $109.6 million, according to a news release.

The increase includes $6 million for additional security and $400,000 for insurance increases. Atlanta taxpayers will not bear the burden of the $19.6 million in incremental costs, Burks said.

“We are moving forward as planned and not allowing distractions to deter us from improving the safety of Atlantans by completing the public safety training center” Mayor Andre Dickens said in a news release.

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According to the city, more than 80 criminal acts have been made at the training center site and more than 173 arrests have been made. More than 20 acts of arson have resulted in the destruction of 81 pieces of equipment and buildings across 23 states, the city said in the news release.

This includes the destruction of APD motorcycles and a firebombing at the At-Promise Center, a local youth crime diversion program funded by the Atlanta Police Foundation.

In the news release, Dickens and city administrators also pushed back against the $67 million cost to taxpayers to build the training center.

“The City’s share of the training center construction cost, approved by the Atlanta City Council in June 2023, remains an allocation of $31 million,” according to the news release.

“The other Council-approved training center cost, which is a budget-neutral annual lease-back payment to the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF) of $1.2 million, is not an incremental, additional, or new expense for the city’s taxpayers.

“As outlined previously, the city currently pays $1.4 million annually for various leases for suboptimal training facilities around the city and metro area. Once the new training center is built, the City will cancel those various leases and start making the $1.2 million leaseback payments to APF. The leaseback payments are a $200,000 annual savings or a $6 million savings over 30 years,” the news release said. 

The city’s presentation was made one year after Manuel “Tortuguita” Teran was killed by Georgia State Patrol trooper in the South River Forest while protesting the construction of the training center complex. The killing of Teran, 26, catapulted opposition to “Cop City” into a national and international movement.

Police said Teran shot first. No criminal charges were brought against any officers.

The mayor and other city and state officials have argued a new public safety training center for police and firefighters is needed to replace rundown facilities. They also argue the new facility is needed to recruit and retain police officers. The Atlanta Police Department, like many departments across the country, saw an exodus of officers following national protests against police brutality in 2020 sparked by the murder of George Floyd.

Opponents of the training center say building the complex would only lead to more police militarization and violence against Black and brown people. They also accuse the city of environmental racism for building the training center in a majority Black neighborhood.

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Rough Draft Atlanta.