English Park resident Donna Stephens is one of 40 people who accepted Mayor Andre Dickens’ invitation to sit on the South River Forest and Public Safety Training Facility task force. Stephens accepted the invitation in large part because she is concerned about the environmental implications tied to the training center known as “Cop City.”

Stephens is the co-founder of the Chattahoochee Brick Company Descendants Coalition, an organization dedicated to restoring and preserving the site of the Chattahoochee Brick Company, which had a long history of using convict leasing to fill out its workforce.

“I’m walking through this with a neutral fence point,” Stephens said. “I don’t know all the details.”

Dickens announced the South River Forest and Public Safety Training Center Community Task Force late last month amid outcry over the lack of community input on the facility’s plans. The task force will meet for the first time next Wednesday to discuss recommendations to be delivered to the mayor’s office in July. The mayor’s office has asked for recommendations in four areas: parks and green space; visioning, memorializing and repurposing the former Atlanta Prison Farm site; sustainability and resilience; and police, fire, and emergency dispatcher training curriculum.

Task force members represent a number of Atlanta-based organizations, including the Georgia NAACP, the Atlanta NAACP, the ACLU of Georgia, clergy members, the Atlanta Regional Commission, and professors from Morehouse College, Spelman College, and Georgia State University.

The $90 million, 85-acre police, fire, and EMT training center has been a contentious issue in Atlanta since the City Council voted to lease land in the South River Forest for its construction. Task force members who spoke with Capital B Atlanta said they hope to be a voice for community concerns surrounding the project.     

The task force’s first meeting is happening after the DeKalb County Zoning Board of Appeals will have a public hearing this week to consider an appeal on the permits issued by the county to the city of Atlanta for the construction of the facility. 

Stephens said she’s on the task force to ensure issues tied to traffic management, noise levels, and health concerns are addressed.

“I am concerned about the quality of life, the air, the soil, and the water in that area. Also, it’s a green space, and there aren’t that many in the Atlanta area,” she said.

Stephens said that while she has been aware of the project since 2021, when the City Council voted for the lease, she hasn’t followed recent news reports closely. 

Like Stephens, Richard Rose, president of the Atlanta NAACP, said he was aware of the council’s vote in 2021 but wasn’t closely following recent developments. Rose has a clear plan of things he wants to address while on the task force, like the police training curriculum. 

“I was probably not as attentive as I should have been, but I am now,” he said. “I serve the community, and that’s not the mayor, not the council members. I try to work with politicians toward that service and that approach to the community because much of the community doesn’t have a voice. I want to be that voice.”

Rose said he’d heard then-Atlanta Police Chief Rodney Bryant emphasize the need for a new training facility. He wasn’t tuned into the details or the site’s connections with the Atlanta Police Foundation, the organization leasing the land.

“I don’t want the Atlanta Police Foundation setting any kind of agenda with regard to law enforcement in Atlanta,” Rose said. “They haven’t seen fit to speak to any of the abusive practices and occurrences from Atlanta police or police in general. And they don’t represent or speak to the issues of the community.”

He also wants the department to begin recruiting higher quality candidates to join the police force.

“A man or woman with a high school diploma who goes to the Army for a couple years as [military police] doesn’t make them qualified to even be recruited, let alone being put on the street with a badge and gun. We have to get away from the slave-catching mentality,” he said.

He also wants to see the city and the Atlanta Police Department implement former President Barack Obama’s 21st Century Policing plan, which among other things suggested departments examine their hiring practices and engage communities in recruitment efforts.

By recruiting high quality candidates and updating the training curriculum, Rose hopes to shift attitudes around policing and the role of law enforcement in our society. 

Samuel Bacote, who is listed as a community member on the task force, said he accepted the mayor’s invitation because he is hoping to improve transparency surrounding the project. Bacote has been a regular when it comes to voicing community concerns. Two years ago, he unsuccessfully ran for the District 5 City Council seat. 

“Whether it’s best to take a different course of action or not, I certainly hope collectively we will help navigate the crossroads facing the Public Safety Training Center,” Bacote said in a written statement to Capital B Atlanta.

Rose said he hopes that by addressing some of these major issues, the task force can push law enforcement in the right direction.

“Oppression is multifaceted and there’s a psychological aspect of oppression that should be taken under consideration on [police] calls, on the treatment of victims and treatment of perpetrators and the way that law enforcement looks at their job to protect and serve,” Rose said.

To see the full list of members on the South River Forest and Public Safety Training Center Community Task Force, click here.

Madeline Thigpen is Capital B Atlanta's criminal justice reporter.