When Ram moved to the Boulder Walk neighborhood just southeast of Atlanta five years ago, it felt like finding a hidden gem: It was a diverse, affordable and family-friendly community just steps away from the local high school, bordering a forest but still a short drive from the big city; perfect for her family of five.
But she hasn’t been able to get used to hearing the daily sprays of gunfire.
“When I first moved here, it increased my anxiety,” Ram, who did not want her full name used due to privacy concerns, said. “It messed up my nerves.”
The sound comes from a nearby Atlanta police firing range. It’s unnerving, residents from several nearby neighborhoods told CNN. Worse, they worry it’s just a glimpse into what could come when local officials begin building a massive police and fire training center in their backyards. “I absolutely want the police to be well-trained,” said Joe Santifer, who lives in another neighborhood, roughly a mile away from where the facility is slated to be built. “But if they’re not being good neighbors now, what will give us the confidence that they’ll be good neighbors in the future?”
The expected $90 million, 85-acre center, announced and approved by the city of Atlanta last year, will include a shooting range, mock city and burn building, among other facilities. The Atlanta Police Foundation says the center is needed to help boost morale and recruitment efforts, and previous facilities law enforcement has used are substandard, while fire officials now train in “borrowed facilities.” The police foundation, a nonprofit established in 2003, helps fund local policing initiatives through public - private partnerships. Among those sitting on its board of trustees are leaders of UPS, Wells Fargo, The Home Depot, Equifax and Delta Air Lines.
But the plan has been met with fierce resistance from a community still reeling from monthslong demonstrations protesting police brutality and racial injustice. Some locals say the city’s announcement blindsided neighbors and the development process since has largely been a secretive one with limited input from the most affected communities.
For others, the facility poses environmental concerns at a time when the deadly impacts of climate change have become hard to ignore: The training center would carve out a chunk of forested land Atlanta leaders previously seemed to agree to preserve, though the city says officials are committed to replacing trees destroyed in construction.
Activists determined to stop the project have camped out in the forest’s trees and, despite a permit which could soon signal the start of construction, say they have no plans to leave.
A promise unkept
Atlanta and then-Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms were in the national spotlight in 2020 as protests erupted across the country over police killings of Black people, including Rayshard Brooks, a Black man fatally shot in the back by Atlanta police.
The city’s police chief resigned and Bottoms denounced the “chaos” she said was unfolding on the city’s streets, adding she was trying to strike a “tough balance” between criticizing police officers and supporting the ones who protected the city.
In the spring of 2021, following mounting pressure over a demoralized police force, Bottoms announced plans to build a new police training academy in an unincorporated part of neighboring DeKalb County on a controversial parcel of land owned and used as a prison farm by the city for much of the 1900s, sprawling across more than 300 acres. Prisoners there were subject to harsh punishments and bleak conditions, including poor sanitation and nutrition and overcrowding, according to the Atlanta Community Press Collective, a local group of researchers and writers.
“We knew that (the training facility) was a direct response to the uprisings that took place in 2020,” said Kwame Olufemi, of Community Movement Builders, a Black member-based grassroots organization opposing the project.
The site of the proposed project, the Old Atlanta Prison Farm – where graffitied ruins now sit entwined with weeds and vines surrounded by forested land – is a “cultural landscape of memory,” say local advocates, who have long called for it to be turned into a park and memorial.
It’s also less than half a mile away from a tributary of the South River, which is one of America’s most endangered, according to nonprofit conservation group American Rivers. That’s a result of decades of neglect and pollution the area, which is overwhelmingly Black, has endured, local advocates say.
In 2017, a report authored by Atlanta’s city planning department which envisioned the prison farm as a key part of a larger effort to protect green spaces around the river was adopted into the city charter. It felt like a “unanimous promise” from city leaders to protect the land, said Joe Peery, with local volunteer group Save The Old Atlanta Prison Farm.
But in September 2021, after hearing roughly 17 hours of public comment – the majority of which was against the training center – the Atlanta City Council approved a ground lease agreement with the Atlanta Police Foundation, allowing for 85 acres of the prison farm site to be turned into the training facility while the other 265 is slated to be preserved as greenspace. (For comparison, the NYPD’s training academy is a roughly 32-acre campus; the LAPD training campus is about 20 acres.) Andre Dickens, Atlanta’s current mayor, was among the council members who voted for the lease.
“Everybody was floored,” said Jacqueline Echols, board president for the South River Watershed Alliance, an organization working to protect the river. “Just in 2017 they’d said this would be a park and a community investment.”
Though the land is in unincorporated DeKalb County, it’s long been owned by the city, and residents in the surrounding area don’t have a say in city elections or vote for the leaders who made this decision. “It was kind of foisted upon us,” Santifer, who lives in Glen Emerald Park, said. “That’s part of the issue: the lack of transparency, the lack of engagement with this community because frankly, they know the community doesn’t want it.”
The police foundation has said the city went through an “exhaustive review of its properties” before selecting the site, adding it is the only one owned by Atlanta big enough to accommodate the two departments’ needs. And even if another privately-controlled site was identified, the foundation has said, preparing it for development would take “decades and present taxpayers with an unwarranted financial burden.”
City spokesperson Bryan Thomas told CNN the prison farm site was “a pragmatic choice, given its adjacency, its ownership by the City and its former and continued use” by Atlanta’s police and fire rescue departments.
Other sites were explored over several years, Thomas said, adding the city engaged with a group of designers, architects and engineers about what a “first-rate training center” would require. The group eventually focused on the prison farm site since it has previously hosted training facilities, like the firing range, Thomas added.
CNN also reached out to the police foundation for comment.
After the September 2021 vote, Bottoms said she was aware of widespread opposition to the facility, but the city did not have any other site options to choose from, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The center was a move to support the city’s fire and police officers “while also focusing on sensible reform,” Bottoms, who did not run for reelection, said in a September 2021 news release.
The White House had no comment from Bottoms, who serves as senior adviser to the President for public engagement.
Activists living in trees to stop ‘Cop City’
Perhaps the loudest voices of opposition come from activists and organizers who have dubbed the plan “Cop City” and called on Mayor Dickens to cancel the lease.
“Tree sitters” and other members of the “Defend the Atlanta Forest” movement built shelters in trees to prevent the facility’s construction and have also called attention to the forest’s history, saying a police center will continue a legacy of oppression on the land. Before it was a prison farm, White settlers established slave-based plantations in the area after forcing off the Muscogee Creek tribe, according to anthropologist Mark Auslander. Forest defenders refer to it today by its Muscogee name, Weelaunee Forest, as a nod to its original inhabitants.
Members of the movement have been accused by local officials and some neighbors of using viole