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George on Georgia – Why Atlanta is rushing to build ‘Cop City’ in DeKalb County

Crime and public safety DeKalb County Editor's Pick George on Georgia Trending

George on Georgia – Why Atlanta is rushing to build ‘Cop City’ in DeKalb County

George Chidi. Photo by Dean Hesse

Editor’s note: George Chidi now publishes a Substack newsletter called “The Atlanta Objective.” If you want to support him directly, sign up for a paying subscription to his newsletter by clicking here.

If a planning hearing had as many people showing up in red shirts to scream at commissioners about a public project – Karen’s kvetching about public housing on their street, or a garbage dump, virtually anything else – Cop City would be as dead as Dillinger.

The trick being played on the public by the Atlanta city government, and by the Atlanta Police Foundation, is that they’re building this thing in the one and only way they could that circumvents that open process. The city wants it, and they’re willing to pay a fairly substantial penalty in public opinion to get it.

Why they want it this bad, right now, is important to understand.

The city’s public argument is fairly straightforward: the training facilities used by APD and Atlanta’s fire department stink. Better training means better cops and firefighters. And I don’t disagree with this assertion, though others among the police abolitionists staking out trees at Intrenchment Creek would differ.

But why here? Why like this? I think one obvious answer is money. Cash flow, specifically.

The project is being financed by the leading lights of Atlanta’s corporate firmament: UPS, Delta, Home Depot, Cox Communications, Chik-fil-A, and others, who collectively fund the nonprofit Atlanta Police Foundation for more than $10 million in donations a year. APF is the second-largest policing nonprofit in the country, behind New York City. And it is increasingly looking like a foundation that ate the department.

The legislation enabling Cop City’s construction leases the facility to the Atlanta Police Foundation for 50 years, with no real way to cancel it once it starts. That’s intentional: it allows APF to borrow against it. The foundation said its corporate backers would cover $60 million of the expected $90 million cost. But the foundation will undoubtedly take out bonds to cover some of those costs.

But if they have to borrow … say, $20 million … on generous terms at going rates of 5 percent interest, on a 30-year term, the facility will require $1.2 million in revenue to cover the debt. It would take another $1.2 million to operate. And the foundation expects to generate at least $500,000 in free cash flow from operating it, according to statements made to the Atlanta City Council during the contentious arguments in 2021. That’s a $3 million annual revenue program, with a 16 percent profit margin, with which APF can do as it sees fit.

But the longer this takes, the more the economics – and the politics – start to fall apart. Corporate America is walking into a recession right now. Every day that passes with layoffs and missed earnings makes a $60 million pledge to build Cop City more likely to fall apart as companies re-evaluate their “charitable” contributions. Construction costs expand. Revenue from renting it out to police departments around the country becomes harder to predict. Interest rates increase. And the financial case for the bonds gets tougher.

Of course, I have no idea how much money APF plans to borrow to fund this thing because APF is under no obligation to discuss it, and never mind that it’s being built with $30 million of public money on publicly-owned property with a howling mob screaming “stop.”

Things one would expect a city police department to handle itself have actually been outsourced to the foundation. Atlanta’s crime analysis, for example, is run through the foundation’s Crime Research Center. If that entity were run through the city, I could take a close look at its operations to explore its effectiveness – and potentially its biases. But the program is secreted behind the private walls of a private foundation, immune to open records act requests.

The Atlanta Police Training Center is part and parcel of this approach. As long as Cop City is run by a private organization, we don’t get to ask these questions, any more than we get to stand up in front of a zoning board and demand the city give us something better aligned with our values.

– George Chidi is a political columnist, public policy advocate and a veteran. He also writes for The Intercept.

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