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Vol. 1  No. 15                                                       Monday, August 16

This issue of the Peach takes a look at the current proposal to build a police training facility on the Atlanta prison farm property in DeKalb County. It’s an issue that has many important facets and long-reaching implications. As always if you are not regularly receiving the Peach every other Monday in your inbox, click here to sign up. It’s free! 

Police Training Center: Will Atlanta Give Away the Farm?

This afternoon, Atlanta’s City Council will consider a proposal to give a green light to building a new police training facility on the site of a former prison farm in DeKalb County. While most of the City Council members seem to support this idea, it has generated loud opposition from the community and other stakeholders. It is not known how the Council will vote this afternoon, but a number of aspects of this proposal are troubling.

Apparently the push for this new facility came as a partial answer to Atlanta’s perceived crime problem. But are we really a high crime city? Like other major cities, Atlanta’s overall crime rate has dropped dramatically over the last decade. What has increased in 2020 and into 2021 is the number of homicides in Atlanta. In June the AJC reported a 58 percent increase in Atlanta homicides over 2020 when APD investigated 157 homicides, the most investigations per year in over a decade. While the community is rightfully concerned about these murders, it is not clear how long this trend will continue. Experts are speculating that the rise in homicides is partly a result of COVID-19 pandemic and the economic and personal hardships it has brought to many families, and the availability of guns. While a case might be made for a new training facility, it certainly cannot be advocated as a way to improve public safety in the short run. A new facility would likely be built out in phases, with the earliest components not ready for two or three years.  

This proposal was announced by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms in April as a public private partnership. The Atlanta Police Foundation will lease the property for $10 per year from the City of Atlanta and raise perhaps $60 million in private money to pair with $30 million in city money. (The actual budget has not been spelled out). From the draft lease agreement before Council today, it seems that the Foundation will be in charge of gathering stakeholder and community feedback, as well as designing and developing the training facility. It is vague on what input the city will have, when the facility will be transferred to the city, and how or if the lease could be terminated before the specified 50 years. Perhaps these issues will be cleared up in amendments or in a substitute draft before a final vote. 

The biggest booster for the prison farm takeover publicly so far has been David Wilkinson, listed on the Atlanta Police Foundation web site as its president, CEO and board member. The most recent filing with the IRS lists his 2019 salary and other income as $314,477. He has served in this position since the creation of the Foundation in 2003. The Foundation augments the funding of the Atlanta Police Department with private funds, much like an athletic association supplements the budget of a public university for its sports programs. While Wilkinson has said that the Foundation did an “exhaustive search for other sites” neither the list of sites nor the selection criteria has been released. He maintains the prison farm is the “perfect site.”  However, as reported in a recent Saporta Report article, apparently the effort to raise private money is not dependent on the facility being built at the prison farm.

A number of organizations and residents felt blindsided by this proposal. The Nature Conservancy, the South River Forest Coalition, the South River Watershed Alliance, the Sierra Club, Georgia Conservation Voters and other groups have been working for a number of years to have the prison farm land (which totals around 350 acres) preserved as greenspace and park land. Until this training center proposal cropped up, they had good reason to feel they would be successful. Not quite four years ago, the City of Atlanta adopted into the city charter a blueprint for the future called Atlanta City Design: Aspiring to the Beloved Community  This document singles out this property stating, “South River Park: We are going to invest in a 1,200+ acre southeastern reserve organized around the tributaries of the South River....core tracts of land include the city-owned 300+ acre former Atlanta Prison Farm …(the South River Park) will help reframe the south end of town as an enormous new eco-connected environment.” Despite this clear commitment, the prison farm property will be gobbled up by the present police training proposal. This article, written before most people were aware of the police training facility proposal, describes the land and the opportunity that had been slated for this preserve. 

The history that could be lost: The prison farm, also known as the Honor Farm has a sordid, but  important history. Established during the Civil War, it was later acquired in 1917 to serve as a World War I prisoner of war camp; the following year it was purchased by the U.S. Federal Penitentiary (located about 8 miles west), to operate as a prison farm. It became known as the Honor Farm, because trusted prisoners were sent there to farm the land and produce food used by the penitentiary. The land was acquired by the City of Atlanta during the 1950’s and apparently operated by the city as a prison camp into the 1980’s.

The prison farm comes with a history of harsh slave-like conditions for the mostly black prisoners who worked the land; many worked to their death. Evidence of graves still exist on the site. Also, animals from the Atlanta Zoo are reportedly buried there. It is ironic that a police training academy, complete with a firing range, should be located on a site with such a brutal history. The all-volunteer organization, Save the Old Atlanta Prison Farm, has developed information about the site, complete with beautiful photographs, optimistically calling it “Atlanta’s next great park.”

Rushed process? To say that the process has been rushed through the city approval process is an understatement. Stakeholders including some DeKalb County officials, the South River Forest Coalition, and neighbors have registered  complaints about the lack of transparency or timely opportunity for public comment. The prison farm property is outside the city limits and does not fall under the comment process of the city’s NPUs. In a recent City Council Finance Committee, APF’s showed a list of stakeholders the APF had consulted with. But several of those listed are publicly opposing the use of the prison farm property. Wilkinson’s presentation also promises certain things not specified in the lease agreement. During the presentation, Wilkinson said that the city undertook an exhaustive search that met certain guiding principles and engaged in “robust community engagement.” Yet details of this search and engagement have not been made public.

The draft lease agreement that has been approved by both the Public Safety and Finance Committees leaves key issues unaddressed. For example it states that the “City will be able to have input or approval” on stages of construction and development of the property. Which is it: input, or approval? The draft lease also does not include language that the City can terminate this lease at any time, contrary to Wilkinson’s committee presentation. Observers have also questioned why a lease agreement is coming before the design phase has even started.  

“The problem is, this document and process is so nebulous,” says Jackie Echols of the South River Watershed Alliance. “This Council just doesn’t know what they’re doing. They have no idea what the ramifications of this will be. This land is really not the city’s to give away. In a sense, the city has already promised it to the community for greenspace. This is just a ridiculous notion. Why are we here?” 

The Atlanta Way: Our city likes to project an image as that of a progressive southern city that honors our history as the cradle of the civil right movement. Sometimes this is true. Yet, we have another model, sometimes dubbed “The Atlanta Way” where the business community decides on something that needs to be done in our city, then offers to raise private money for said project, and elected officials happily agree. Often, these public/private partnerships are fine ideas and benefit the city. But sometimes business initiated and funded ideas do not turn out so well. We need a city where our elected officials make decisions, initiating projects and implementing them. Sadly, in the case of the police training facility, the private sector, and in particular the Atlanta Police Foundation, seems to be driving the train. 

One more thing: We all want a safe, low-crime city. And maybe we need a new training facility. But if we want a safer city, and had $90 million to spend, would a training facility be the first place we would spend all that money? No one doubts that police need to be trained and need appropriate facilities. But what is the evidence that this will be state of the art training for 21st century policing? Certainly police need to know how to handle firearms, but could that be done in an indoor range? Is there an existing state facility that could provide space for training? But most importantly, what is the plan for de-escalation training, or training to handle a mental illness crisis or domestic violence. These are just a few of the questions that need serious consideration. If this city really wants to make this city safer, perhaps we should invest at least some of this $90 million in underserved, low income neighborhoods with projects like job training and placement assistance, after school programs, environmental cleanup, mental health services and other ideas that we know work to reduce crime and make our neighborhoods more livable. This type of investment would go a long way towards these goals. 

Reading: A good, comprehensive article by Jane Mayer in the August 9  issue of New Yorker “The Big Money Behind the Big Lie.” She dives deep into the Arizona and Georgia roles in the Trump claim of a stolen election. 

Listening: A wonderful podcast, Our Body Politic. This episode, A Deep Dive into Voting Rights, features Sherrilyn Ifill of the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense Fund on voting rights and an interview with Georgia’s Representative Bee Nguyen, who is running for secretary of state.   

About the Author

Krista Brewer is a native Atlantan who has a professional background in writing, reporting and editing. For several decades she has closely followed Georgia politics, focusing on topics such as healthcare, voting and immigrant rights, and budget and environmental issues. She is active on Twitter and invites readers to follow her @KristaRBrewer
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