A large portion of a public park near Atlanta on the proposed site of a police and fire training facility – dubbed “Cop City” by critics – has been temporarily closed by an executive order, after county officials said they located “life threatening” hidden traps scattered in the park.
“They confiscated booby traps, boards with nails that were hidden by leaves and underbrush. You could kill a small child or a pet with those,” DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond told CNN by phone.
Thurmond said the park is a very popular area where people walk and enjoy nature.
“It’s just not safe right now,” he added.
The planned facility has received fierce pushback since its conception, by residents who feel there was little public input, conservationists who worry it will carve out a chunk of much-needed forest land and activists who say it will militarize police forces and contribute to further instances of police brutality.
Thurmond said he “understands the pushback against Cop City, but this is too far.”
Under the executive order, unauthorized persons entering the properties will be subject to prosecution for criminal trespass, and unauthorized parked vehicles will be towed and impounded, according to a news release about the executive order.
DeKalb County has been unable to send its parks employees into the site of the proposed $90 million, 85-acre training facility because “they have been attacked with rocks” and other objects, Thurmond said.
Tensions between law enforcement and protesters have continued to rise since the January shooting death of a protester, who law enforcement says fired on officers first and seriously wounded a state trooper.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation on Friday released an incident report in which a trooper with the state’s Department of Public Safety SWAT team described law enforcement officers calling for the protester, Manuel Paez Terán, to come out of his tent during a clearing operation.
Paez Terán refused to leave, the report says, and as the protester was zipping up the front door of the tent, the trooper fired pepper bails into the opening. Paez Terán then started shooting “steadily,” the report says. The trooper says he ditched the pepper ball launcher and fired his pistol at the shooter.
“While shooting I observed a small explosion at the front of the tent and a large plume of white powder going into the air,” the officer writes in the report.
The officer says he fired until it became clear Paez Terán was no longer shooting or had set off additional explosive devices. A use of force report indicates in addition to the trooper firing at the protester, five other troopers shot their weapons.
A spokesperson for Paez Terán’s family sent CNN a statement calling on the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to release witness statements and evidence. It also criticized the bureau for investigating the shooting, which came during an operation the bureau planned.
“The GBI is investigating its own tragic operation. The family calls upon the GBI to explain what steps it has taken to preserve the integrity of its investigation of its own operation,” said Enchanta Jackson.
Jackson noted the incident report was filed February 13.
“The officer narratives released today by the Department of Public Safety were drafted weeks or, in some cases, months after the incident,” Jackson said. “When officers drafted these statements, each had the opportunity to review the publicly available video and the press releases issued by the GBI.”
Kamau Franklin, the leader of the Community Movement Builders organization which opposes the facility, calls the latest move by DeKalb County an excuse to close the park and criminalize the climate activists working to preserve the green space.
“I think part of the reason is to stop and quell protests and then, to continue putting out a narrative that suggests that people who are protesting against Cop City are criminals or criminal-minded,” he told CNN. “They want to put fear into people who use the park by suggesting it’s sabotaged and booby-trapped, but without presenting any real evidence that links anything that they allegedly found to any organizers or activists.”
He says the claim that organizers sought to hurt anyone trying to enter the park flies in the face of why they’re protesting in the first place.
“The very reason we use the area, the very reason that these protests are happening is to stop the Cop City training center from going on so that the community around here can have continued access, as was promised, to that environment and to that park.”
The South River Forest Public Safety Training Center is set to be built on a piece of land which used to be a prison farm. Though it is just outside Atlanta city limits, the plot of land is owned by the city, meaning residents who live around the site do not have voting power for the leaders who approved it.
The training center would be built in a predominantly Black and Brown neighborhood.
Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens has established a community task force to address the opposition and controversy surrounding the training center.
More than 40 “experts and community stakeholders” will join the South River Forest Public Safety Training Center Community Task Force, according to the mayor’s office. The task force adds members to the existing advisory committee.
“The new Community Task Force will add more voices and broaden the scope of community input to include the surrounding green space and the nearby site of the former Atlanta Prison Farm, as well as public safety training curriculum,” the mayor’s office said in a news release.
Included in the task force are representatives from the Georgia NAACP, ACLU, and Georgia State University, as well as other community and clergy members.
“The ACLU of Georgia is committed to helping ensure the safe and unencumbered right to protest, and as such, joins the City’s task force with demonstrators’ First Amendment rights at the forefront,” officials from the organization said in a statement.
The organization said “dozens of people” at the site have been charged with domestic terrorism in recent months. They call the charges “an over-criminalization of demonstrators under a constitutionally dubious statute.”
“The ACLU of Georgia is committed to helping ensure the safe and unencumbered right to protest, and as such, joins the City’s task force with demonstrators’ First Amendment rights at the forefront,” the ACLU of Georgia, which is part of the new task force, said in a statement.
Like many of those who are part of the new task force, the ACLU of Georgia opposes the training center’s construction.
Noticeably absent from the task force is anyone from the Muscogee Nation, or “Creek” Native American tribe. When asked by CNN why there was no Native American representation on the task force, the mayor’s office did not reply.
The “Creek” have maintained the land in the Weelaunee Forest, which is expected to house the training center, is sacred Native American land. Their fight has been joined by a robust coalition of decentralized activists, including climate activists who believe paving the 85 acres would – among other things – lead to an increase in flooding in an already flood-prone area.
Anti-policing activists, some of whom have traveled from as far as France and Canada, have also joined the movement.