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Criminal Justice

Who Is ‘Cop City’ For? Residents Living Near the Site Aren’t So Sure.

The training facility put a national spotlight on the area, but neighboring communities feel overlooked.

A makeshift memorial has been erected for environmental activist Manuel Paez Terán, who was killed Jan. 18 during an encounter with law enforcement at the site of the planned police training center called "Cop City" in South River Forest. (Cheney Orr/AFP via Getty Images)

Jacqueline Crew is a longtime resident of south DeKalb County who says she had not heard of “Cop City” until the deadly standoff that killed environmental activist Manuel “Tortuguita” Paez Terán, and left a Georgia state trooper wounded. 

“I knew nothing about it. I have not heard nothing from the commissioners. I haven’t heard any city or any county official — nobody is talking about it,” she said.

On Wednesday evening, the Atlanta Police Department released four body camera videos captured by APD officers in the South River Forest on Jan. 18 when Paez Terán was fatally shot.

The footage shows officers assisting in a sweep of protester encampments in the South River Forest. The footage does not explicitly show the deadly exchange between Paez Terán and law enforcement, but it has renewed calls by activists and locals for an independent investigation into the shooting. 

After the shooting, Crew told Capital B Atlanta that she called her son-in-law, who explained to her why people were against the new public safety training facility. After learning about the proposed facility and the killed environmentalist, Crew said she doesn’t want it to be built.

“You shot 13 times?” the 70-year-old said, alluding to the results of an independent autopsy requested by Terán’s family. “They don’t take 13 bullets to kill nobody. To me, that was overzealous, and that’s the primary reason why we don’t need the training facility. The very thing that they killed that boy on is the very reason why we shouldn’t have it there in the first place.”

Much has been made about the support or opposition to Cop City by the communities surrounding the forest where the city of Atlanta wants to build the $90 million public safety training facility. Local officials  — including Mayor Andre Dickens and Gov. Brian Kemp — have repeatedly characterized the “Stop Cop City” protesters as being outsiders coming to cause trouble in Atlanta. Despite Dickens touting his Public Safety Training Center Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee, as the voice of nearby residents, the feelings among communities near the site are mixed.

Not all residents in the area feel the same way as Crew. Reginald McKenzie said he doesn’t have anything against the city trying to build the training facility nearby.

“I really don’t have any problems with it because the way the plans look, the majority of the stuff is going to be over there on Key Road anyway; the stuff back this way is going to be mostly the parks stuff,” he said.

McKenzie said from where he lives, less than a mile from the site off of Bouldercrest Road, he can hear the APD firing range that has been on the site for years, and the McNair High School marching band. Neither bother him, so he doesn’t mind the noise as long as law enforcement aren’t setting off explosives.

Like Crew, McKenzie said he hasn’t heard anything from his elected officials about the new training facility, but doesn’t understand why people are coming in from out of town to fight for this forest.

Opponents of the new facility cite the City Council meeting in September 2021 where over a thousand people spoke during public comment, mostly against the facility.

Last week, Dickens and DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond announced compromises that would be made to the facility based on requests from the committee and that DeKalb had issued a permit to begin clearing the land in preparation for construction.

However, Saporta Report first reported that on Monday, a week after Dickens and Thurmond’s announcement, a member of the Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee filed an appeal with the DeKalb County Zoning Board of Appeals.

Activists have continued to criticize the committee for simply approving the city’s plans without scrutiny. That sentiment came to a head in June last year when a member of the committee was removed after being an outspoken critic of the facility. Another member resigned the day Paez Terán was killed.

Earlier this week, at a closed meeting for Atlanta University Center students and employees, Dickens told the audience that community-based policing is part of the city’s goal with the new facility.

Dickens was criticized by students and faculty for his support of the project. Protesters gathered outside the Presidential Forum at Morehouse College, where the meeting was held.

Treyona Veal lives and works near the site. The 20-year-old said she has noticed that almost all the protesters coming in and out of the forest seem to be white.

Veal has been watching all the police activity that’s been happening in the area, especially since Paez Terán’s death, and said she doesn’t want to see the facility built because it will bring an increased police presence to the community.

“If they build that, everybody is gonna be scared just to be free,” she said, adding that police harass and beat up Black people minding their business and are worried it would get worse with the new facility bringing so many more officers to the area.

In contrast, McKenzie thinks the increased police presence could bring up their property value, albeit raising taxes as well. It’s a change he’s willing to embrace.

Xavier Hall, who lives in the area and works at a barber shop on Bouldercrest, said he opposes the new facility. 

“I don’t think it’s fair to the people who live in this area,” he said, adding that having an APD firing range is already bad enough.

Hall said he doesn’t think the new facility and more training will make police less violent toward citizens. He doesn’t believe officers can be trained out of using excessive force if that’s what they want to do.

“To me, it’s the individual person, I’ve got police friends, they’re not bad people, they’re good people,” he said. While experts say more training doesn’t decrease police violence, local officials continue to promote the new training facility as an answer to the demands for police reform following the protests tied to the deaths of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks in 2020.

However, residents remain skeptical that training officers in community policing strategies will reduce use of force incidents by officers.

“So, where is all this reform? It’s taxpayers dollars,” Crew said. “There’s a lot of other things that we could be building on that site besides that.”