Adamsville resident Crystal Brown is concerned about crime in her west Atlanta neighborhood and believes building the public safety training center, commonly referred to as “Cop City,” will help solve the problem.

“We need the cops,” Brown told Capital B Atlanta in June after the Atlanta City Council approved funding for the 85-acre facility in southern DeKalb County. “All the cops ain’t bad.”

The mother of three is also worried about the state of voting rights in Georgia. She said she supports letting Atlanta voters decide whether to continue building the training center via the ballot referendum backed by Stop Cop City activists and Cop City Vote organizers.

“We should all have a right to our opinion and our vote,” said Brown, 42. “Even with me wanting Cop City, if I’m outvoted, I’m fine with that.”

Black Atlanta residents are divided on the training center: Supporters say it’s needed to give police and firefighters better facilities to practice their work. Opponents argue the facilities will further militarize police, who will go on to brutalize Georgians, particularly those who are Black.

An Emory University survey released in March found about 47% of Black respondents opposed building the facility and nearly 44% supported it. About 9% were undecided.

But the city’s Black population has shown more unity on allowing people to vote on whether to continue building the training center.

A growing number of voting rights advocates and Democratic Party leaders have raised concerns about city of Atlanta officials throwing bureaucratic hurdles in the way of activists working to put the training center up for a citywide vote in November. Those officials say they’re simply following the law.

Training center opponents were originally given an Aug. 21 deadline to submit the roughly 58,000 petition signatures legally required to put their referendum on the ballot in November.

In July, a U.S. district judge extended the deadline until late September at the petitioners’ request so they could ensure they had enough valid signatures to meet the legally required amount even if the city disqualified some. An appellate court paused the district judge’s order on Sept. 1, but the activists submitted about 116,000 petition signatures to the office of interim municipal clerk Vanessa Waldon on Sept. 11.

Waldon determined it was illegal for her office to accept the signatures, since they were turned in after the original deadline. A federal appellate court will determine whether she’s right, but on Sept. 18, Atlanta lawmakers decided not to wait.

The city has said it will use a controversial signature verification process to determine the signatures’ authenticity and whether they correspond with a “qualified Atlanta voter.”

Voting rights advocates have condemned the move as a form of voter suppression similar to techniques Republican election operatives have used at the state level.

The Georgia NAACP previously declined to launch an organization-wide effort to help gather signatures for the training center referendum, despite taking a public stand against the facility’s construction earlier this year.

But the civil rights group’s president, Gerald Griggs, spoke out forcefully during a Sept. 14 City Hall press conference in support of Cop City Vote activists’ right to put their referendum on the ballot.

“We are advocating for the people to have a voice in this, for all of the voters of Atlanta to make a decision, and we be bound by that decision,” Griggs said.

He was joined there by Black Voters Matter national field director Wanda Mosley and a representative from the King Center, which is led by Bernice King, daughter of Atlanta civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr.

Griggs and others at the event also cautioned that obstacles to the voter referendum damage the morale of voter engagement activists with groups like Fair Fight, the New Georgia Project and Black Voters Matter, whose work to mobilize Black voters in recent years has helped Democrats secure landmark victories during the 2018, 2020, and 2022 election cycles.

“Georgia didn’t turn blue; it turned Black,” Griggs said. “We want to keep it that way. And Black people don’t want to see more militarized police.”

Democratic leaders split

Vine City resident and community activist Alma Lott signed the Cop City Vote referendum petition this summer, in part because she thinks the tax money being used to build the facility should instead be used to fight homelessness and provide low-income housing.

“If [police] want to get it done, they could do it for theirselves,” Lott said of the training center, suggesting that donations to the police union should cover the full cost instead. Currently, taxpayer funds are covering the bulk of the cost of the $90 million facility.

She believes Black city officials are working to prevent Atlanta residents from voting on the training center, and is “heartbroken” that it’s happening in the birthplace of Martin Luther King. She said their tactics won’t stop her from voting in next year’s presidential election, but also acknowledged they may discourage others.

“If [Atlanta officials] didn’t hear my voice on this, why would they hear my voice in a presidential [election]?” she said. “I signed this thing. These people got 116,000 signatures, and our signatures didn’t count. It’s just like you’re not a qualified voter.”

Mayor Andre Dickens has advocated for the training center and against the City Council approving its own ballot referendum on the matter. On Sept. 15, he told the “Politically Georgia” podcast that the clerk’s office works for the council and is out of his control.

But on Sept. 18, he supported the City Council’s passage of a resolution giving Waldon a Sept. 28 deadline to finish processing the referendum petition signatures and publish them online for public review.

“I support allowing the process to run its course in an open and transparent manner,” the mayor said in an emailed statement. “Like many, I want to know exactly what is in those boxes and this moves us one step closer.”

Federal lawmakers from Georgia have been weighing in on the issues. State party chair and U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams issued a statement in late August calling for a “transparent process” regarding the referendum signature verification, according to PBS. 

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock sent a letter to Dickens on Sept. 15 expressing concerns about the training center ballot referendum.

“I urge the city to err on the side of giving people the ability to express their views,” Warnock wrote in his letter.

Stacey Abrams joined the chorus two days later, telling the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that voter referendums were designed for issues like the training center.

“Regardless of one’s position on the subject matter, the leadership of the city should make every effort to allow direct citizen engagement by vote,” Abrams said.

Chauncey Alcorn is Capital B Atlanta's state and local politics reporter.