What is Atlanta's 'Cop City' and why are people protesting it?

Protests escalated after a demonstrator was fatally shot by police.

March 6, 2023, 12:03 PM

Dozens of people have been arrested in Atlanta after rocks, fireworks and Molotov cocktails were thrown at officers near the site of a public safety training center set to be constructed in the city. The center has garnered national attention after prompting protests throughout the city as well as in states like Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania.

The debate over the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center has been ongoing. The center is going to be used for specialized training for both law enforcement and fire department service workers.

City officials assert that the center could improve policing, while critics claim the effort is militarizing police and endangering communities.

Here is what you need to know about the debate around the center:

What is 'Cop City'?

"Cop City" is the nickname critics have given the planned training center.

The center is expected to cost $90 million and take up over 85 acres, with the "remaining portion of the 265-acres property as greenspace," according to the center's website, potentially impacting a forest in Atlanta.

The center will include an "auditorium for police/fire and public use," a "mock city for burn building training and urban police training," an "Emergency Vehicle Operator Course for emergency vehicle driver training," a K-9 unit kennel and training, according to the center's website. The first phase of the training center is scheduled to open in late 2023.

"This training facility will not only help boost morale, retention and recruitment of our public safety personnel, but will give us physical space to ensure that our officers and firefighters are receiving 21st century training, rooted in respect and regard for the communities they serve," said then-Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms when the center's lease agreement was approved.

The effort is backed by the Atlanta Police Foundation.

The first phase of the Public Safety Training Center in Atlanta is scheduled to open in 2023.
Atlanta Police Foundation

Why are people protesting?

One of the groups behind the protests, called "Stop Cop City," has demonstrated against the training facility for months. They say the center is further militarizing the police and will threaten the lives of marginalized people.

Authorities have argued that the center will help officers "set a national standard for community engagement, neighborhood sensitivity and devotion to the civil rights of all citizens by law enforcement," the center's website reads.

Protests escalated when a protester, Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, was shot and killed by police as they raided the campground occupied by demonstrators in January. Officials say the protester fired the first shot at a state trooper, and the officer responded with the fatal shot.

There is no body camera footage of the incident, police said. Officials say investigations into the incident are ongoing.

"The police have raided the forest for over 7 months, destroying material by trashing camps and water supplies, threatened the lives of forest defenders and now have murdered one," the group said in a statement to ABC affiliate WSB.

The statement further read: "Protesters are only leveling the playing field & preventing future violence by disabling the economic machine of the Atlanta Police Foundation that seeks to sterilize all life within the Weelaunee Forest."

Protestors hold signs and march during demonstrations related to the death of Manuel Teran who was killed during a police raid inside Weelaunee People's Park, the planned site of a controversial "Cop City" project, in Atlanta, Jan. 21, 2023.
Cheney Orr/Reuters

Other groups, like Defend The Atlanta Forest, have argued that the center will impact forests which are a vital part of the community, they said. Atlanta has one of the highest percentages of tree canopy in any major U.S. city, according to environmental advocacy group Trees Atlanta, and is home to wetlands and important migration sites for birds.

"The Atlanta Police Department seeks to turn 300 acres of forest into a tactical training compound featuring a mock city," the group said in a statement on their website.

"We refuse to let our forest be bulldozed in favor of the police and sold out to Hollywood," the group also stated.

Neither the city of Atlanta, nor the police department have immediately responded to ABC News' request for comment on the accusations.

The ongoing conflict

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp declared a state of emergency on Jan. 26 in response to ongoing protests in downtown Atlanta relating to Cop City.

Kemp ordered the state's defense department to mobilize up to 1,000 state National Guard troops to be called up to active duty "as necessary."

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp delivers the State of the State address on the House floor of the state Capitol on Jan. 25, 2023, in Atlanta.
Alex Slitz/AP, FILE

Authorities arrested six people on Jan. 21 when demonstrations over the proposed training ground for the Atlanta Police Department, which started peacefully, escalated to involve shooting fireworks, smashing windows and igniting a police cruiser once protesters reached downtown.

Kemp's state of emergency declaration came as Atlanta braced for more protests against the facility, as well as potential unrest following the release of body camera footage of the alleged beating of Tyre Nichols by five Memphis, Tennessee, police officers who have since been fired and charged with murder in his death.

On March 5, more than 30 people were arrested after authorities say a group of “agitators” launched an attack on officers using commercial-grade fireworks, large rocks and Molotov cocktails.

Atlanta Police Department officials say that after attending an event near the site of the soon-to-be policing center, a group of people changed into black clothing and entered the construction area at around 5:30 p.m. ET.

No officers were injured during the incident, though police noted that "the illegal actions" of so-called "agitators could have resulted in bodily harm."

Some of those arrested sustained minor injuries, police said. Several pieces of construction equipment at the site were destroyed by fire and vandalism during the attack, according to police.

ABC News' Will McDuffie, Victoria Arancio, and Morgan Korn contributed to this report.

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