Lawyers call efforts to stop Atlanta’s “Cop City” futile

Opponents of the proposed $90 million facility say they fear it will lead to greater militarization of the police and that its construction will exacerbate environmental damage in a poor, majority-Black area.

ATLANTA (AP) — An ongoing petition drive to halt the construction of a police and firefighter training center is “futile” and “invalid,” attorneys for the city of Atlanta argued in a court filing Monday, as they sought to prevent the proposed referendum from appearing on November’s ballot.

For the past month, activists with the “Stop Cop City” movement have been trying to gather the signatures of more than 70,000 registered Atlanta voters by Aug. 15 to force a referendum. It would allow voters to decide the fate of the project that has seen significant pushback and become a flashpoint in the national debate over policing.

Demonstrators gather outside of Atlanta’s City Hall on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023, as local officials announce they are moving forward with plans to build the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center. (AP Photo/R.J. Rico)

Under the proposed referendum, voters would choose whether they want to repeal the ordinance that authorized the lease of the city-owned land upon which the project is set to be built.

But lawyers for the city argued that the massive canvassing effort has come far too late. The authorization the city obtained in 2021 to sign the lease agreement “has already been used” and cannot be retroactively revoked, they said.

Activists decried that argument, calling it “a shocking and violent assault on the democratic process.”

“From delays to intimidation and now this, it’s clear that the City will go to any lengths to ensure that everyday Atlantans have no recourse when they disagree with city decisions,” Mary Hooks, a lead organizer with the Cop City Vote coalition, said in a statement.

Opponents also noted that the filing came less than two weeks after Mayor Andre Dickens, one of the chief proponents of the training facility, pledged that his administration would not try to halt the petition drive.

“We know (the referendum) is going to be unsuccessful, if it’s done honestly,” Dickens said during a July 5 news conference. “We are making sure we continue monitoring the process. But there is no one in law enforcement or my administration that would ever get in the way of them doing their constitutional right to have a petition.”

In a statement Monday, the mayor’s office cast blame on the activists for bringing the issue before the court in the first place — the city’s filing was in response to a recent lawsuit brought by a group of residents of DeKalb County, the county in which the training center would be located. The residents are suing because they are not allowed to sign the petition since they do not live within city limits.

“The City had no intention of engaging the Court, preferring to let the petition process play out as required by the State referendum process,” a Dickens spokesperson said. “However, a small group of non-Atlanta residents in DeKalb County brought the City into Court, and the City was compelled to respond.”

Dickens and others say the $90 million facility would replace inadequate training facilities and would help address difficulties in hiring and retaining police officers that worsened after nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice three years ago.

But opponents, who have been joined by activists from around the country, say they fear it will lead to greater militarization of the police and that its construction will exacerbate environmental damage in a poor, majority-Black area. The “Stop Cop City” effort has gone on for more than two years and at times has veered into vandalism and violence.

Organizers have modeled the referendum campaign after a successful effort in coastal Georgia, where Camden County residents voted overwhelmingly last year to block county officials from building a launchpad for blasting commercial rockets into space.

The Georgia Supreme Court in February unanimously upheld the legality of the Camden County referendum, though it remains an open question whether citizens can veto decisions of city governments.

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