In a last-ditch effort to please police leaders who’ve decried a decline in morale amongst officers, Atlanta officials may have approved a plan with a hurricane-sized hole.
Atlanta, known as “the city in a forest,” is set to lose more than 100 acres of its South River Forest, the region’s most important landscape in protecting its residents from climate change. In the aftermath of Atlanta’s worst-ever flooding event in 2009, scientists concluded that the forest’s sprawling tree cover and absorbent soil and roots were indispensable in protecting the area, which is expected to be one of the country’s most impacted by future climate disasters.
Despite this knowledge, the city has agreed to lease nearly 400 acres of the forest to the Atlanta Police Foundation for just $10 per year. In return, the foundation plans to replace the pristine land with a $90 million training facility for the Atlanta Police Department and firefighters, dubbed “Cop City” by activists. About $30 million of the project, which will be one of the country’s most expensive training facilities, will be funded by taxpayers’ money.
The decision was undeterred by overwhelming public outcry against the project: Of the more than 1,100 Atlanta residents who called the City Council to voice their opinion on the project, 70% expressed opposition to Cop City. Albrica Batts, an Atlanta resident who was one of more than 700 residents who called in opposition, says the public hearing process was an “extremely hurtful” experience.
“I lost faith in the city government,” she said. “It felt like the council did not care about their constituents. It’s all about money, greed, power, and corruption.”
Many of the locals living directly around the new facility have been placed in another tough predicament. Although the city owns the land where the facility will be built, it resides in unincorporated DeKalb County, where residents do not have representation in the City Council. The site is roughly 1 mile outside the city limits.
Policing and the idea of public safety have been a flashpoint in the city’s growing racial and economic divide. Atlanta is the 10th most segregated metro area in America and has the country’s second-largest gap between the rich and the poor. A rise in violence reflects that reality.
“Since the summer of 2020, I think people have made their voice loud and clear about their feelings towards police brutality and the police presence in general in Atlanta,” said Batts, who lives about 1 mile from the proposed site. “But this project feels like there are larger forces at play.”
The proposed facility, which will begin construction in the coming months, will be a “game-changer” for public safety, says police foundation President Dave Wilkinson. It will send a “message that tells everybody public safety is a big deal,” he said earlier this year.
But environmental advocates and many neighboring residents of the proposed site say the facility will only make it harder for them to feel safe in their homes. Not only is the center set to disturb one of the region’s most important ecosystems, residents fear it will increase noise pollution, lead to more negative interactions with the police, and disrupt their emotional and physical health.
“A police training center is no place for a park; a park is no place for a police training center,” said Joe Santifer, a resident of the Glen Emerald Park neighborhood surrounding the proposed site. Santifer, an advisory board member for the public input process around actions in the South River Forest, says the project is akin to putting “a park in the middle of a war zone.”
The facility will include a simulated city for officers to train in, a helicopter landing base, new outdoor shooting ranges, and burn tower sites. The police foundation also hopes to build separate museums on the site dedicated to police officers, firefighters, and the labor prison that was once located there.
Southeast Atlanta, Santifer says, has “historically [been] a dumping ground for unpopular public projects,” and this facility will “just continue that legacy.” According to the White House’s database, which measures climate and economic injustices, the three census tracts surrounding the facility, home to 13,000 people, are all disadvantaged. Residents living there — 75% of whom are Black — have some of the country’s highest rates of poverty, asthma, diabetes, and exposure to toxic waste.
One major fear, Batts says, is the psychological trauma that residents will face in response to a growing police presence and the constant drumming of shooting bullets at the gun range. There is already a smaller gun range near the proposed site that has caused major emotional issues, and she can’t imagine how much worse it can get.
“You’ll hear like 20, 30, 40, 50 rounds go off, and you’re wondering like, ‘What the hell is going on?’ ” she said of the current firing range. “It is very, very stressful. You want to feel safe in your neighborhood, but it’s hard to feel that way if you’re just hearing gunshots going off in the middle of the night.”
The importance of the forest, which helps mitigate flooding, filters air pollution, and reduces the city’s rising heat, cannot be undersold, says Jacqueline Echols, an environmental activist and president of the South River Watershed Alliance. Atlanta is the 19th fastest-warming city in the U.S., and over the last 70 years, it has experienced a 75% increase in heavy rainstorms and flooding events. Since 1950, nearly 30 tropical storms have passed through the region despite being 300 miles from the coast.
“Protecting our forests is about protecting our neighborhoods,” Echols said. “There cannot be an Atlanta, especially not an equitable Atlanta, in the face of climate destruction without our forests.”
In addition to the negative climate impacts from cutting down so many trees, experts believe the burn tower sites and shooting ranges will lead to a slew of toxic chemicals seeping into the South River, which runs through the forest. The South River is already one of America’s most contaminated.
“This is an act of disinvestment, especially with the environment,” Echols said. “Investment means investing in the community’s environment and bettering our livelihood. Disinvestment occurs when you take that away, and that is what is happening around the South River.”
Acknowledging the importance of maintaining green space in combating the city’s unique climate challenges, the Atlanta City Council voted in 2020 to preserve an inlet of forest land outside the South River Forest. “This is the first — but not the last — property that we’ll use tree trust money to protect,” then-city Planning Commissioner Tim Keane said at the time. But just one year later, the same council voted to lease the South River Forest.
At the same time that the City Council voted emphatically to lease the land, they rebuffed the opportunity to update Atlanta’s Tree Protection Ordinance, which puts guidelines into place to protect the city’s trees from developers and homebuilders. The city’s tree canopy has consistently shrunk in the last decade, while the area’s population has grown unchecked and threatened local greenery, a 2021 study found.
Despite the project pushing through, many residents continue to fight. A few dozen have even taken refuge in the forest in an attempt to block the facility’s construction. Two weeks ago, eight of the activists, who refer to themselves as “land defenders,” were arrested by Atlanta police for trespassing.
The continued fight, residents say, is about protecting their community and the city at large. “Atlanta is changing so fast,” Batts said. “I just think about the effects these projects are going to have on the formative years of our children.”
“They’re growing up in this type of environment where I don’t think it’s healthy to be seeing a constant police presence, for your neighborhood to be changing — not to mention the environmental impacts.”