By Brad Brooks
(Reuters) – Atlanta’s city council on Tuesday approved funding for a new law enforcement training center that protesters have fought for years due to concerns about heavy-handed policing and the environment, at times engaging in deadly clashes with police.
The city council approved building the $90 million Atlanta Public Safety Training Center in an 11-4 vote early Tuesday. The vote followed 14 hours of public comment, mostly from those opposed to construction of what they derisively call “Cop City.”
Social justice activists and environmentalists who fiercely opposed the project said it will increase the militarization of police and destroy parts of a forested area defenders call the “lungs of Atlanta.”
Atlanta has said it needs the facility, which would include a mock city and emergency vehicle course, to replace a patchwork of substandard training sites and prepare recruits for urban law enforcement.
The decision “marks a major milestone for better preparing our fire, police and emergency responders to protect and serve our communities,” Mayor Andre Dickens said in a written statement. He said the training center will enable the city to better recruit and retain officers.
Protests have frequently broken out at the site of the future center within the larger South River Forest, also known as the Weelaunee Forest. Environmental activist Manuel Esteban Paez Teran, 26, was shot and killed by police in January during a raid to clear the safety center’s construction site of demonstrators.
Opposition to the training center emerged from the racial justice protests of 2020 that centered on police brutality following the murder of George Floyd, a Black man killed by Minneapolis police. The Atlanta city council gave initial approval to the center in September 2021.
The facility is to be built on 85 acres (34.4 hectares) owned by the city in unincorporated DeKalb County. The city council approved $31 million in immediate public funding.
Additionally, the council approved a lease-back arrangement under which the city will pay the Atlanta Police Foundation, a private non-profit organization that supports the department, $1.2 million a year for 30 years for a total of $36 million, according to the Atlanta mayor’s office. The remaining $23 million would come from private donations to the police foundation.
Reverend James Woodall, a former president of the Georgia NAACP who has helped lead protests against the police center, called the vote to approve it “immoral and undemocratic.”
Speaking before the city council prior to its vote, Woodall reminded members that the 2020 protests demanded “justice and accountability, and in this piece of legislation neither are included.”
“A vote today for this paper is a public endorsement of war, of human rights abuse, of militarized streets in our city,” Woodall added.
(Reporting by Brad Brooks in Lubbock, Texas; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)
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