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Cop City explained: A look at the ongoing controversy surrounding police training center

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Cop City explained: A look at the ongoing controversy surrounding police training center

Activists opposing the construction of “Cop City” at the Old Atlanta Prison Farm have occupied the site and neighboring Intrenchment Creek Park, the subject of a controversial 2021 40-acre land swap between DeKalb County and Blackhall Studios. Photo by Dean Hesse.
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By Kendall Glynn, contributor 

DeKalb County, GA — An extensive training facility has been the subject of conflict and coverage in Metro Atlanta for the past year. Everyone from small local publications, the AJC, the Guardian and even The New Yorker has weighed in on the topic that touches on questions of civic responsibility, response to crime, and ecological preservation. 

The sprawling can be confusing and difficult to navigate. To that end, Decaturish has created this short explainer to give you the basics and serve as a springboard for deeper dives into the issue of “Cop City.”

Activists opposing the construction of “Cop City” at the Old Atlanta Prison Farm have occupied the site and neighboring Intrenchment Creek Park, the subject of a controversial 2021 40-acre land swap between DeKalb County and Blackhall Studios. Photo by Dean Hesse.

What is Copy City? 

“Cop City” is an 85-acre police/fire training facility located in DeKalb County’s South River Forest. The location has historically been the Old Atlanta Prison Farm site and a police shooting range. 

Former Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced the plan to turn the location into a state-of-the-art training facility in April 2021. Bottoms and other supporters claim that the facility will give APD the resources they need to combat rising crime figures in the Metro Atlanta area. 

Activists opposing the construction of “Cop City” at the Old Atlanta Prison Farm have occupied the site and neighboring Intrenchment Creek Park, the subject of a controversial 2021 40-acre land swap between DeKalb County and Blackhall Studios. Photo by Dean Hesse.

How much will it cost?

The project will cost approximately 90 million dollars. The area will feature a burn tower; space for high-speed chases, a helicopter pad, a shooting range and a mock village. 

Activists opposing the construction of “Cop City” at the Old Atlanta Prison Farm have occupied the site and neighboring Intrenchment Creek Park, pictured here, the subject of a controversial 2021 40-acre land swap between DeKalb County and Blackhall Studios. Photo by Dean Hesse.

How will it be funded? 

One-third of the bill will come directly from taxpayers, and the other two-thirds will come through the Atlanta Police Foundation, a collection of private non-profits who financially support APD in various ways. 

The land will be leased to the Atlanta Police Foundation for $10 per year. 

The fundraising effort is led by Alex Taylor, CEO of Cox Enterprises. The media arm of Cox Enterprises owns Axios, The Atlanta-Journal Constitution, Dayton Daily News and some other Ohio newspapers. 

Activists opposing the construction of “Cop City” at the Old Atlanta Prison Farm have occupied the site and neighboring Intrenchment Creek Park, pictured here, the subject of a controversial 2021 40-acre land swap between DeKalb County and Blackhall Studios. Photo by Dean Hesse.

What’s the history of the land? 

The land belonged to the Muscogee people, who referred to it as the Welaunee Forest, for generations. Beginning in the early 1820s, the Muscogee were forcibly displaced from the area through a series of treaties. The removal continued into the 30s. The land then became a plantation for the remainder of the 19th century and into the early 20th century. 

In 1911, the city of Atlanta purchased the land. Ten years later, it became the Atlanta City Prison and Dairy Farm. From 1922 to the late 80s the area ran as a prison farm. In 1990, the City began auctioning off farm animals and equipment, and soon after public notice is issued to discuss future plans for the site.

In 2017, the South River Forest was designated one of the four “city lungs” in a report put together by Atlanta’s City Planning department. The department envisioned the South River Forest encompassing an enormous Urban park. 

Later, the plan was scrapped in favor of moving forward with “Cop City.”

Activists opposing the construction of “Cop City” at the Old Atlanta Prison Farm have occupied the site and neighboring Intrenchment Creek Park, pictured here, the subject of a controversial 2021 40-acre land swap between DeKalb County and Blackhall Studios. Photo by Dean Hesse.

What has the community response been like? 

Following the announcement last April and more formal council discussions in August, Atlanta City Council solicited public response in early September 2021. The council received calls from more than 1,100 Atlanta residents voicing opinions on the project. Approximately 70% of those responses expressed opposition to the development.

Furthermore, the actual proposed site of the facility sits on unincorporated Dekalb land. The residents in the area who are directly affected by the development have no clear representation on the Atlanta City Council, making it even more difficult for them to voice their opinions on the plan.

The Atlanta Police Foundation also held two virtual “public input sessions”. These sessions included a slideshow explaining the purpose of the project, and responses to pre-submitted questions. There was no period for open comments and questions from residents, and officials disabled the chat function of the virtual window. 

Dekalb County Commissioner Ted Terry has kept a close watch on the proceedings of “Cop City”. Early in the process, Commissioner Terry moved for the creation of a stakeholder committee comprised of representatives of both Dekalb County and the City of Atlanta. 

“It’s a pretty major development and we need an in-depth analysis,” said Terry. In the interest of moving the analysis process forward, Terry pushed for an in-depth environmental analysis of the repercussions of the development. 

Environmental experts in the area have called for a full assessment, whereas the Atlanta Police Foundation will only provide a limited analysis of the environmental impact.

Commissioner Terry believes that all necessary environmental caution must be taken along with the proper steps to unearth the full history of the land.

Terry said that he plans to introduce a resolution that calls for a full environmental assessment and offers for a coalition of environmental stakeholders to help fund the assessment if the Atlanta Police Foundation claims that funding is an issue. 

Activists opposing the construction of “Cop City” at the Old Atlanta Prison Farm have occupied the site and neighboring Intrenchment Creek Park, pictured here, the subject of a controversial 2021 40-acre land swap between DeKalb County and Blackhall Studios. Photo by Dean Hesse.

Who is still opposing the facility? 

Outside of general community outcry, community organizations and other activists have formed a coalition to oppose “cop city”. Sixteen environmental action organizations have signed an open letter urging the Atlanta City Council to protect the South River Forest. 

These organizations have gone a step further than simply trying to stop the development of “cop city”. They’ve posed an idea for how the area should be used to serve the ecological health of the area. 

Activists are also directly opposing the project. Dozens of individuals created encampments in the forest to halt construction workers’ development efforts. There have been some scrapes with APD at various points in the past year, including some trespassing arrests. 

Activists opposing the construction of “Cop City” at the Old Atlanta Prison Farm have occupied the site and neighboring Intrenchment Creek Park, pictured here, the subject of a controversial 2021 40-acre land swap between DeKalb County and Blackhall Studios, Photo by Dean Hesse.

What’s Next? 

Currently, construction is continuing on site despite continued protests and obstacles. Opposition parties are still pushing for Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens and the city council to change course or move the training facility elsewhere. 

Mayor Dickens has said that there’s no other location possible. The city of Atlanta doesn’t own any other property large enough to house “Cop City”, according to Dickens.

The Old Atlanta Prison Farm located in Dekalb County’s South River Forest is the proposed site of “Cop City,” an 85-acre state-of-the-art training facility for the city of Atlanta’s police and fire departments. Activists opposing the construction have occupied the site and neighboring Intrenchment Creek Park, the subject of a controversial 2021 40-acre land swap between DeKalb County and Blackhall Studios, Photo by Dean Hesse.

Correction: An earlier version of this story contained incorrect information about the history of the property. This story has been updated with the correct information. 

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