South DeKalb
What does South DeKalb think about ‘Cop City’? As an area native, I don’t know.

Leveraging his hometown roots, Dominique Harris set out to discover what South DeKalb residents think of ‘Cop City.’ That task proved more difficult than expected.

Story by Dominique Harris, South DeKalb Fellow
July 27, 2023
Photos by Dean Hesse
How we reported this story:

In our community listening conversations with South DeKalb neighborhoods last fall, we were surprised by how the proposed Atlanta Public Training Safety Center—termed “Cop City” by critics—didn’t come up unless we asked.

The proposed 85-acre training facility, located near Constitution Road and Gresham Park in South DeKalb, has been the center of intense controversy since it was unveiled in 2021. Protesters had been occupying the site for more than a year when police killed an activist, and charged dozens of others with serious crimes, including domestic terrorism.

When we talked to our South DeKalb Community Editorial Board about this issue, one member wondered whether South DeKalb residents understood what’s at stake for them. And with the amount of national attention on the local protest movement, our board members wanted to know: What does South DeKalb think about this development?

Atlanta City Council approved funding for the training center at a June meeting at which more than 350 people signed up to speak against “Cop City.” In a press release, Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens said: “Over the past several months, we have heard from citizens who have concerns about the center as well as from many who support it.” The city additionally has been sharing interviews with residents who support the development, most part of the Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee (CSAC).

Since the vote, activists have been mobilizing to force a referendum on whether the training center expansion should move forward. The initial requirement was to collect signatures from more than 70,000 Atlanta voters over 60 days, by mid-August. But on July 27, a federal court judge ruled that requiring both petition signers and canvassers to be sworn Atlanta voters “imposes a severe burden on the core political speech and does little to protect the city’s interest in self-government.” As a result, the judge ordered that the 60-day deadline for activists to collect signatures be reset.

Yet the question our board members asked months ago—what fellow area residents thought of the development—remains unanswered. We tasked community member and South DeKalb Fellow Dominique Harris to find out. We thought his longtime connections in the area would enable him to find out. But the reality proved more complicated.

Support our community-powered work today.
Portrait of Dominique Harris. Photo by Melissa Alexander.

I don’t know any other city but Atlanta. I grew up in South DeKalb after time in Thomasville Heights, Herndon Homes, and Kirkwood. I lived near Bouldercrest and Gresham Roads and went to McNair High School. I applied for a CA Community Journalism Fellowship so that I could use my lived experience and neighborhood connections to better the conditions of the South DeKalb community.

For CA’s South DeKalb Issue, I was tasked with reporting on the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center. The City of Atlanta and the Atlanta Police Foundation have repeatedly stated that they want to be transparent and that they want residents to be part of what they have going on.

Since the center was announced in 2021, city officials have said they intend to engage surrounding communities: At the time, then-Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said in a press release, “We will continue to work with the impacted communities on how to best thoughtfully develop and preserve the surrounding property.”

But after months of reporting, it’s been difficult to find evidence of that engagement beyond the city-sanctioned committees. Instead, I’ve found that my fellow community members—people who I went to school with, who live and work near the development, and who I know would be affected by the center—are unwilling to say anything on the record about “Cop City,” or are unsure about what’s even happening there.

The City of Atlanta and the Atlanta Police Foundation have been engaging with the community about this issue through committees and task forces, like the Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee. (Earlier this year, the City of Atlanta created another committee called the South River Forest and Public Safety Training Center Community Task Force. It’s unclear what the difference between the two committees is.)

I reported for Atlanta Documenters on the CSAC to see what the city’s community engagement looked like firsthand. Documenters had found it difficult to figure out exactly who was on this committee, though it does include DeKalb County residents such as chair Alison Clark from the Boulder Walk community and Nicole Morando from the Starlight Heights neighborhood.

The CSAC has given feedback about multiple issues, including proposed multiuse trails and security, and received construction updates. But in documenting their meetings, the committee seemed more focused on the protestors and how to help police.

A dump truck enters the Atlanta Public Safety Training Facility site from Key Road. Photo by Dean Hesse.

At a December 2022 CSAC meeting, Atlanta Police Department Assistant Chief Carven Tyus asked the committee for help. Police had just arrested five protestors in the area and leveled them with severe domestic terrorism charges. The problem, Tyus said, was a narrative about the facility that centered “people from Wisconsin, California, South Carolina, and New England—who are opposing it.” (Police and the City of Atlanta noted that many arrested protesters are not from the area, nor, in some cases, from Georgia. Of the 151 people arrested by the Atlanta Police Department, 84 were from out of state. )

“These are professional protesters, nothing more,” Tyus said at the meeting. “They don’t have a vested interest in what we’re doing out here. So if we can just drive that narrative home to your neighbors, to your friends, to news media, anyone that asks you, just make sure we’re driving that narrative home.”

Multiple CSAC members agreed. “I was beginning to feel that we were just being soft with these people,” said member Shirley Nichols, who represents the South River Gardens Community Association.

And they were happy to comply with Tyus’ request for help changing the narrative away from the facility and toward what protesters were doing to harm officers and community. It made sense in some ways: The protestors were not necessarily residents of the neighboring communities. But I noticed that police weren’t explaining why the protesters were there in the first place. I also noted that no dissenting voice spoke up at the meeting, leading me to question how much the committee members represented the voice of the community—and how they were being held accountable. (The CSAC has had multiple transparency issues reported by John Ruch at Saporta Report, including voting off a vocal critic of the training center.)

So I wanted to find out: What did residents living near the development in South DeKalb—people who weren’t protesting or part of the city’s committees—know and think about it?

Atlanta Public Safety Training Facility site. Photo by Dean Hesse.

With Canopy Atlanta’s help, I started a plan to find out.

I reached out to a protester through a friend in order to understand their perspective. But as soon as this person understood that I was asking as a journalist, they stopped responding.

I reached out to multiple people in South DeKalb whom another local journalist recommended. When I told one of those residents, a local pastor, that I was reporting on the Public Safety Training Center, he became resistant: “What do you mean, ‘you have questions?’” He didn’t want to talk about it. I asked local parents and others whom we connected with earlier but didn’t receive a response.

No one knew exactly what was going on, though they told me they see police in the area of the site all the time. The next day, January 18, 2023, police officers shot and killed activist Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán at the site of the development.

I knew I had to find someone who wanted to talk. I went to McNair, I thought. Someone will talk to me. They know me. I saw a Facebook thread that had some of my high school classmates talking about police who were doing drills at the training center site (which has been an active firing range for the past 40 years).

“[Police] linking up at Gresham Park football/softball field this early morning…They ain playing wit dem protesters,” one person said.

Another replied, “They all on key rd hiding in the woods outchea. They are protesting cuz they don’t want police to build a training facility or some like dat. It’s on the news.”

But when I reached out to all of the people on the thread, citing CA, I didn’t get a single response.

Then I reached out to people I knew personally from the area, like from McNair High School. At this point, I learned to ease into the conversation. Instead of being forthright and asking about the “Cop City,” I asked, “Would you mind answering certain questions about developments in South DeKalb?” But even after catching up or talking about other issues for a while, when I brought up the training center, they shut down: “I just don’t want to talk about it.” They wouldn’t tell me why—they just stopped responding.

By this point, in January, my hope that I would find out what residents thought was fading. I wonder why nobody wants to talk about this, I thought. I expected people to care about the training center even if they felt they couldn’t do anything about it. My reporting humbled me and made me consider how much distrust existed between my community and media organizations. I thought that since people knew me, they would think, “Oh, this is different. Maybe he is trying to help me project my voice because he come from where I come from.” But still, they were afraid and didn’t want to be involved. I wonder if they simply felt like they didn’t have the time in the headache of life to do anything about “Cop City.”

So on January 17, I went to the Gresham Park Recreation Center, two miles away from the training center site, on the day of a Neighbors of Gresham Park meeting about the development. I chatted with a couple of people there to get some perspectives from residents.

Key Road in DeKalb County. The Atlanta Public Safety Training Facility site is on right. Photo by Dean Hesse.

The receptionist there had no idea about the community meeting or “Cop City.” “I hope we find out some information,” she said.

“Yeah, I knew something was going on Key Road, but I didn’t know it was this serious,” one parent in the parking lot said.

No one knew exactly what was going on, though they told me they see police in the area of the site all the time.

The next day, January 18, 2023, police officers shot and killed activist Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán at the site of the development. A mentor of mine called me with some advice: “You should probably stop trying to report on this story.” He was afraid for me and for how my story might land.

Instead, I became even more anxious to report a story that reflected the impact “Cop City” would have on the community and how residents felt about it. Beyond that, the training center would impact issues I deal with in my personal life. I’m a gang interventionist and a violence disrupter. I want to understand whether the training center expansion is truly community-involved.

In March, I chatted with a high school wrestling coach, Terrence Wiggs, who is a McNair alum. His community roots extend to his nickname, “Mr. Gresham,” after the Gresham Park neighborhood.

“I really don’t be paying attention to that ‘Cop City’ stuff,” he texted me. “I just learned about it when I seen all those white people on Bouldercrest [Road] like two weeks ago…But do I feel like [police] presence [would] help, I highly doubt it.”

I spoke to one of my middle and high school classmates, D’Ordrick Boykin. He said he knew nothing of the training center. However, when asked if he felt the presence of the center would improve community relations with the police, he responded, “Yes…by stopping the protests…maybe a cease-fire movement could be effective.”

I started seeing a theme: People living in these communities are seeing a lot of police presence. But no one I spoke to—other than the protestors or the city-appointed committee members—knew what’s going on. For community members who aren’t keyed into the debate over the training facility, I wonder if the police presence can feel intimidating.

When asked about their presence in the neighborhoods around the training center, Atlanta Police referenced recurring and ongoing community outreach programs like Popsicles in the Park and the Police Athletic League. DeKalb’s police pointed CA toward Coffee with a Cop and Basketball After Park. And both agencies said officers regularly visit parks and recreation centers to engage with residents.

As I’ve been reporting, I’ve seen police on patrol in the area. But the people I’ve spoken with haven’t seen police at recreation centers or parks. I haven’t seen police at youth softball games or playing with kids. The only times I have seen residents engage with police or city officials are council meetings and when residents are invited to the task force or committee meetings about the center—not in the neighborhood.

Graffiti at Gresham Park in DeKalb County. Photo by Dean Hesse.

In CA’s community listening work in South DeKalb last fall, crime and gun violence came up as the most important topics, more than any other issue. “It’s very depressing,” said one resident. “You come home to sheets laying on dead bodies outside of your home.”

I wonder if residents are skeptical about interacting with police, especially as city and state officers have escalated the situation at the training center site. NPR reports that since January, police have arrested more than 40 people and charged them with domestic terrorism. In May, police arrested three organizers who lead an organization that provides bail money and attorney fees for arrested protestors, charging them with money laundering and charity fraud. As neighboring community members watch police crack down on the protesters, I wonder if they are thinking about how police will deal with chaotic situations in their own neighborhoods.

The only people I was able to hear from were those who are already set in their opinions. I know that there are voices that are not being heard. I saw a lot of indifference—“it is what it is.” Without enough time to understand what’s going on, I wonder if community members feel intimidated by the sheer complexity of the issue. I wonder if our city is effectively inviting community members into the conversation—especially the ones who don’t already have an opinion.

Editor: Sonam Vashi, Christina Lee

Fact-Checker: Adjoa D. Danso

Canopy Atlanta Reader: Kamille Whittaker

Contributing Reporter: King Williams

The Latest from Canopy Atlanta
See More Stories