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Why the 'Cop City' police training center sparked national controversy

Scripps News goes beyond the surface, uncovering the crucial concerns raised nationwide by Atlanta's "Cop City" police training center.
Why the ‘Cop City’ police training center sparked national controversy
Posted at 7:20 PM, Jun 04, 2023

Across our nation, communities are working to rethink policing. Do we need more training for officers? Different training? Some cities have scaled back police budgets, but many are allocating more money in hopes of creating better officers.

One place this debate has taken center stage is Atlanta, where a proposed training center known as "Cop City" has made national headlines. But what is this so-called "Cop City," and why is it sparking such a reaction?

Scripps News is digging deeper past the headlines to explore the pressing concerns associated with this police training center, as the issues unfolding in Atlanta reflect a nationwide conversation.

"People nationally are looking at it a very, you know, ‘cops versus protesters.’ I think it's a lot more layered than that," said Dan Whisenhunt, the editor, founder, and publisher of Atlanta news website Decaturish. "Well, the big issue is: one, are police not getting decent training? Two, will they get decent training as a part of ‘Cop City’? And three, is that kind of training the kind of training that we want police to have?"

Scripps News spoke with activists, environmentalists, law enforcement experts, journalists, and more to gain a deeper understanding of the issues surrounding the environment, social justice, and government transparency this center raises.

SEE MORE: Dozens arrested after violent protests at Atlanta police training site

The Atlanta Public Safety Training Center was publicly announced in 2021. The City of Atlanta said the center was needed partially to improve old, dilapidated training facilities in Atlanta but also, largely, in the wake of calls for police reform after George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks died at the hands of police.

The city says the new, world-class facility will help train the next generation of law enforcement to be better prepared for emergencies.

"The advocates who are against this project feel that this is basically going to be like a playground to learn how to be more militarized than the police already are," said Whisenhunt. "The city's counter to that is well: ‘You want cops that have better training than the ones that don't, because the cops that have better training are the ones that tend to get into less trouble.’"

It’s a proposed 85-acre development in more than 300 acres of forest south of downtown Atlanta.

The area originally belonged to a Native American tribe, but it was part of the Atlanta Prison Farm from the 1920s until 1995.

Right now, it’s city land, and in press releases, the City of Atlanta said it plans to use a piece of the land already cleared of trees to build a complex including a mock city to practice emergency situations, a shooting range, burn buildings for fire training, and other public safety resources.

Dozens of acres are also set aside for trails and greenspace. The center is expected to cost at least $90 million, with taxpayers footing at least $31 million.  

The rest of the money will come from the Atlanta Police Foundation and other private entities.

This training center would be one of the largest and most advanced in the country, joining large-scale police training centers already open in New York, Texas, Illinois, and Washington State.

Through communications with the Atlanta Community Press Collective, the Atlanta Police Foundation revealed that 43% of trainees that would be coming to Atlanta are expected to come from departments outside the state.

"You want to provide as much reality as you can to that trainee so that when the police officer goes out, you know, and engages in a real-life situation, that training kicks in," said Dr. Alex del Carmen, a criminologist and Associate Dean at the School of Criminology at Tarleton State University in Fort Worth, Texas.

Alex del Carmen and Keith Taylor have dedicated their careers to studying law enforcement training. They’re not affiliated with the Atlanta training center, but they support more training for police and advocate for stronger relationships between law enforcement and the communities they police.

Del Carmen said public concern over a police training center is valid because of what these centers have been used for in the past, but he still feels this training is needed so officers can do their jobs safely.

"The training centers are typically designed to provide tactical training," said del Carmen. "They're not designed typically to engage in community reform assessments or community engagement groups. So, to that end, the community is right in feeling that this sort of further expands the military aspect, or the paramilitary aspect, of policing. Well, on the other hand, I would argue that it also helps them understand what police officers go through, and from the law enforcement side, it will help them do their job better."

SEE MORE: State of emergency declared over violent Atlanta protest

But, as both del Carmen and Keith Taylor contend, this center could be a place for a different kind of police training if the public is allowed input into what happens at the center.

"It's important that it's not given lip service and it's actually reflected in what is developed in future plans," said Taylor.

Del Carmen agreed that, in order for this center to lead the way in creating a better police force, the public must be included. "I think the absence of the facility is worse than the presence of the facility. But I would also have a message for the police department: before you build it, explain it, justify it, and reach out to the community. By the time it's built, it's too late."

Taylor said that because so many agencies would come from around the region to train there, this center could be a vital resource to improve training, especially for smaller law enforcement agencies.

"Especially the training, the classroom training. Things like bias, understanding bias, and cultural competencies. Those are really important," said Taylor.

But, even with the potential for positive training, the public is deeply divided. In a recent Emory University poll, 48.31% of Atlanta residents support the training center, 45.56% oppose it, and 6.12% aren’t sure.

There are advocates like Kamau Franklin, who founded the non-profit Community Movement Builders and lives in Atlanta. He said this training center shouldn’t be built, period.  

"We are opposed to it no matter where it is," said Franklin. He said he is worried there is no path forward to better policing using a training center like what is proposed in Atlanta.

"I think it's a false argument and a false narrative that they're building. The cop here in Atlanta that killed Rayshard Brooks by shooting him in the back had over 2000 hours of training. He had cultural sensitivity training. He had de-escalation training. And so, the issue is not the training. The issue is the institution itself."

But he does think there are solutions that could improve officers, and many start with involving the public more heavily in holding officers accountable. Franklin said simple changes could be made in his neighborhood and across the country to improve relations.

"People in the community need to have the power to hire, fire, and discipline police officers," said Franklin. 

SEE MORE: Independent autopsy for activist killed in Cop City shows 14 gunshots

On top of the policing and social justice concerns are the environmental concerns. Groups like Jackie Echols’ South River Watershed Alliance. She said environmental reports have found this center would dump sediment into the river, obstructing river life, and destroy precious greenspace in a community of mostly families of color, who historically have less access to places with contiguous forests.

"The whole purpose of government is to look out for the least of its citizens," said Echols. "This should not be happening here. The only reason it's happening here is because of the color of the community, and that's what's called environmental racism."

Among the environmental groups is a group of anti-government demonstrators that occupied the forest. Among them was 26-year-old Manuel Paez Teran, who was killed in January when police officers tried to remove the demonstrators from the training center site.

Officials said police officers did not have their body cameras turned on the day Paez Teran was shot and killed. Officers said a bullet matching the ballistics of a gun in Paez Teran’s possession ended up wounding an officer. The police said that is why they fired back.

Paez Teran’s family did an independent autopsy and said that was not the case. Belkis Teran, Manuel Paez Teran’s mother, said Paez Teran was shot more than 50 times and had bullet holes entering the back of his hands, indicating he was shot with his hands up in front of his face.

"There's so many questions that are unanswered," said Daniel Paez, the brother of Manuel Paez Teran. "Manny, he's always had this huge drive to make the world a better place and actually do things rather than just talking about it."

There were multiple clashes between police and this group, and that’s what’s mostly made headlines. Now, many of those protestors are facing domestic terrorism charges.

 "These domestic terrorism charges labeling protesters as domestic terrorists without a single act of violence against the person that preceded any of this is really terrifying," said Jeff Fillipovits, the attorney for the Paez Teran family. "Everyone across the country should be paying attention to what's happening here."

The investigation into Manuel Paez Teran’s death is sealed as the investigation continues, but their family says there needs to be more police accountability so the public can know what really happened.

Police accountability and transparency are another big concern for journalists and activists alike, with the center being both publicly and privately funded.

"For the first time in the history of the country, a private organization is going to be in charge of training a municipal police force. We don't think that's a good idea," said Franklin.

"And no element of this should be private. Like if we're talking about a police agency with guns who can shoot people, like I want accountability for that," said George Chidi, an independent journalist for multiple local and national outlets, including Decaturish, The Intercept, and FOX5 Atlanta. "The thing that matters is transparency. Nothing about this is transparent. And there are no safeguards around ensuring that the training is going to be effective and monitored and that there's open books on everything. You give that to me, I would stand on the street corner and advocate for this thing."

These concerns—racial profiling, police militarization, environmental pollution and racism, and government transparency—are swirling around Atlanta, but those who Scripps News spoke with agree: what’s happening here is a snapshot of a national experience.

"If it can happen here in Atlanta, in this space, in 2023, it can happen anywhere," said Echols.

"It's incredibly important to have this big, philosophical argument about what policing should look like and how you bake it into like training. Because it's not just Atlanta training. It's everybody," said Chidi.

"I think because policing is a problem in every community in America, we're really having to rethink," said Whisenhunt. "The police are a reflection of our values as a society, right? They do the things that we task them to do, and a lot of times, we put a lot of the problems of society at the feet of police, who are ill-equipped to deal with those problems. So, I think it resonates across the country."

The training center is in its pre-construction phase as funding is being worked out. The Atlanta City Council is expected to take public comment and a vote on funding on Monday, June 5, 2023.

Many are working to make sure the site never opens, but if it does, there is hope that because the community won’t stand silent here, the future of policing here could look different than the past.

"We believe that we, as the people, we really have the power," said Franklin.

"I’m still hopeful about this," echoed Echols.

"I think everybody alive wants to live in a safe community; I know I sure do," said Whisenhunt. "That being said, I do think that there's a lot of nuance to how we accomplish that."

Scripps News reached out to the City of Atlanta, the Atlanta Police Department, and the Atlanta Police Foundation for an interview discussing the center, funding, and transparency multiple times. None of the agencies agreed to an interview.

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