By Lee Fang, RealClearInvestigations, leefang.com
August 3, 2023
Throughout the United States, it takes three times as many hours of training to become a nail technician, a barber, or a plumber as it does to become a police officer.
Finland, Australia, Denmark, and Germany – countries with far less crime and a fraction of American gun violence – spend dramatically more to prepare officers before sending them off into the streets. Finland, for instance, provides police cadets with 5,500 hours of training, nearly 14 times the minimum 408 training hours required by the state police board in Georgia.
Highly trained law enforcement officers, studies consistently show, are better at handling mental health emergencies and defusing violent confrontations, are less likely to engage in racial bias, and are more equipped to build community bonds necessary for good police work.
Poorly trained officers, in contrast, are more likely to use force and rely on their firearms, a tendency that has led to lost lives and scandals. Georgia’s police officers are among the least trained in the country.
The evidence suggests a focus on police training can also mend deep wounds from years of officer misconduct. Newark, N.J., under a court order because of rampant police abuses, has decided to adopt yearly seminars for police officers, including training that emphasizes mental health programs for traumatized police officers. Although the reforms cost over $7.5 million, they began paying dividends almost immediately. In 2020, Newark had zero police shootings. Crime rates that year went down.
Municipalities have recently turned to the Integrating Communications, Assessment and Tactics standard of police training. The ICAT approach, focused on communication tools to calm volatile situations, is credited with lowering use-of-force incidents by nearly one-third, reducing injuries to officers and civilians. As part of a reform agenda, city leaders in Atlanta announced a police academy focused on adopting the most modern de-escalation tactics, including the ICAT method.
Despite the clear need for more and better police training, opposition to the planned Atlanta Public Safety Training Center – derisively dubbed “Cop City” – is now among the most popular protest causes of self-styled radicals. Viral social media posts have claimed that the academy is focused on advancing “white supremacy” and that it is designed for “militarization” tactics. Some claim, ominously, that Israeli special forces will be brought to the training center to teach the Atlanta Police Department to terrorize minority groups.
The conspiratorial allegations have frustrated local officials, who say that planning meetings, which have been open to the public, made it clear that the academy is doing nothing of the sort. Instead, it will feature modern facilities to train police, firefighters, and other emergency responders in professional best practices.
Protest organizers carefully ignore any of the publicly debated training curriculum and have instead made the center into a target for an abstract smorgasbord of left-wing causes. In one recent podcast from a local organizer and several national left-wing influencers, activists called the “Cop City” protest an attempt to “link intensive policing, undemocratic land use processes with the issue of climate change,” and “a global struggle against fascism” to “disrupt the machinery of capitalism.”
Such rhetoric has made meaningful discussion nearly impossible. In June, as the Atlanta city council debated the future of the training center, demonstrators from as far as Los Angeles mobbed the hearing. Outside the government chamber, protesters chanted, “If you build it, we will burn it.”
The slogans were far from an idle threat. Demonstrators have thrown fireworks and incendiary devices at law enforcement and set fires at the proposed police academy site in the forest.
"Atlanta has an opportunity to create the prototype of what real training should look like, a model for the rest of the country," said Rev. Timothy McDonald III, senior pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta. But he added that the role of anarchists has prevented substantive debate about the proposed center.
"Antifa, they don't want any kind of training, they don’t want any police. No policing is no answer. We got to have police and you got to have trained police," said McDonald.
McDonald runs a community center designed to reduce gun violence and serves as a board member of People for the American Way. He’s one of many local progressives frustrated by the escalating violence and opposition to the training center.
"Training is everything. You don't go to the doctor unless the doctor is trained," said McDonald, who has advised police reform efforts around the country.
But such arguments are lost on radicals singularly dedicated to destroying anything with “police” in the name.
Leftists from around the world have come to Atlanta to protest the training center. During violent confrontations with law enforcement earlier this year, only two of the 23 arrested at the site were from Georgia. The rest were from as far as Canada and France. Last year, at another protest over the proposed Atlanta police academy, every single arrested demonstrator was from outside the state. Construction crews have been attacked and local legislators followed to their homes in a bid to intimidate them.
In January, the dangerous protest tactics led to deadly violence. During an attempt to clear an encampment of protesters at the proposed training center site, an armed protester and Georgia state troopers exchanged gunfire. The activist, 26-year-old Manuel Esteban Paez Teran, graduated in 2021 from Florida State University with a degree in environmental science. Known as “Tortuguita” (Little Turtle), he had moved from Tallahassee to join the protesters. Georgia investigators say that on Jan. 18, Teran refused to clear the area and fired a shot that injured a state trooper. In response, law enforcement returned fire and killed him.
The death of Teran at the “Cop City” site, one local Atlanta columnist worried, would likely only fuel even more of an “activist Lollapalooza” environment, attracting a festival-like atmosphere of roving leftists seeking the latest, most fashionable outrage, further polarizing the issue. Online leftists have incorporated the slogan, “Trees give life, police take it. Viva, viva, Tortuguita!”
And indeed, the protest has gone global. “Stop Cop City” signs can be spotted in Paris, Brooklyn and San Francisco, while the movement has spread. The official activist coalition includes three groups from Santa Cruz, Calif. Anarchists are now targeting a new program proposed this year by liberal New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy that trains police to work alongside mental health professionals. That program, one local anarchist group claims, shows that the “white power establishment wants to build cop city everywhere.”
The anti-police training movement is well-funded and receives glowing, uncritical coverage in many prestige media outlets. James “Fergie” Chambers, the anarchist heir to a billionaire media fortune, recently promised $600,000 for the anti-training center campaign. Another liberal foundation called Solidaire, funded by Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg among other wealthy California donors, is offering tips to activists on how to derail the police training center.
Why is better police training now the focus of progressive left ire? Not long ago, President Barack Obama convened a commission on police reform, addressing the inadequate training of officers as the top priority.
The episode highlights the divergent views around policing that formed in the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter movement. Many saw the moment as an opportunity for substantive reform, such as requirements for body cameras, enhanced training, and legal accountability. Others, especially upper-class activists, have used the movement as fuel for theatric protest violence with no tangible goals and no serious concern for public safety.
The “Stop Cop City” momentum has shifted the norms of the criminal justice movement. In 2015, the NAACP, for instance, strongly backed Obama’s calls for greater investments in police training and de-escalation tactics, calling such reforms “absolutely critical” in testimony before Congress. Those days appear to be long gone. In June, Gary Spencer of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund described the proposed Atlanta training center as a project for "perpetuating militarized policing that will endanger the lives of our residents, our visitors, and put the Black people and Brown people in Atlanta at a heightened risk of police violence."
Atlanta in particular began the process of creating this academy as part of a series of reforms to reduce police brutality while addressing crime. In the aftermath of 2020, following violent protests after the police killing of Rayshard Brooks – a young man who grabbed an officer’s taser, leading to a violent confrontation and the police officer killing him – then-Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms faced a crisis.
Bottoms promised better training of officers and greater police oversight, but she also faced a crime wave and low morale among officers. Homicide in her city was up by 58% while over 200 police officers had either resigned or retired in the wake of the Brooks riots. Bottoms needed to navigate calls for criminal justice reform from the protest movement the year prior while responding to rising crime.
In April 2021, the mayor announced the creation of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, a new complex to be built on an 85-acre plot of land owned by the city. The idea married the problems into one solution. Bottoms said the facility would help overhaul the force to recruit new officers and train them with modern policing techniques, focused on tactics to avoid officer-involved shootings.
The new academy would train officers, emergency medical staff, and firefighters with input from community leaders and civil rights experts. Both Atlanta firefighters and police currently train at decrepit old buildings, and the unions representing both workforces have long called for new facilities.
“People say we need to abolish police or defund the police, well I don't know how you do that, unless somebody is going to abolish crime,” said Bottoms at a press conference defending the center. “What I've said repeatedly over the last year is that holding the men and women who serve us in a public safety capacity accountable is not mutually exclusive from supporting them.”
The mayoral proposal for reform made clear that every Atlanta police officer will receive ICAT de-escalation training.
The notion that the training center is a stalking horse for white supremacy strains credulity. Bottoms and her successor, Andre Dickens, are black, as are the majority of city council members backing the project.
If anything, the “Stop Cop City” movement has rippled with identity-based rage. Atlanta City Councilman Michael Julian Bond, the son of the civil rights icon Julian Bond and an outspoken proponent of the training center, has said that his office has been deluged with death threats and racist messages from protesters. "There’s been gratuitous use of the ‘N-word’ against me," Bond told reporters earlier this summer. "They wish I was dead like my father.”
But the proposal instantly faced opposition from leftist groups who saw the investment in a new training center as a bitter rebuke of the “defund the police” movement.
Before the first city council hearing, demonstrators swarmed the home of Atlanta Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd, gathering on her lawn and porch to bang pans and chant. There was no interest in discussing the proposal. "No cop city," the protesters yelled.
Not long after, environmentalists joined the protests, claiming the forest for the proposed site is a habitat worthy of special protection. Encampments sprouted on the proposed site, and activists began funneling Molotov cocktails and weapons, preparing for clashes with law enforcement and construction workers.
The city has in turn promised plans to build one of the largest public city parks on the 300-acre site, and will plant 100 hardwood trees for every tree removed to build the 85-acre training center. The academy shooting range will be indoors, muffled from noise. Atlanta has passed special additions to the training center plan, forbidding the use of helicopters and explosives, and requiring special training for police on protecting speech rights.
But no attempted engagement has pacified the movement. The opposition has only intensified, with activists viewing the center as an existential threat.
"This project is based upon genocide," implored one activist at the most recent city council meeting. A man covered in tattoos claimed that he had dedicated his life to "fighting fascism," and was anguished that the U.S. had gone from "putting bullets in Nazi's heads” to now “reward[ing] them with pay raises and playgrounds," a reference to the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center. "If this facility is built, queer trans people, black people, indigenous people are going to be killed," claimed another activist at the hearing.
Despite such talk, ordinary Atlanta residents remain supportive of the project. A poll conducted earlier this year at the direction of Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens, found 61% of residents in favor of moving forward with the center. The council hearing in June on the project ended with a 10-4 vote in favor.
If activists cannot stop the training center with violence or extreme rhetoric, they’re also proposing a ballot measure to cancel the training center. Last week, a judge approved a petition extending the time for activists to collect signatures to move the process forward.
During the July Fourth weekend, protesters said they torched construction equipment again, and reportedly set fire to Atlanta Police Department motorcycles as a threat against city plans to continue moving forward with the safety training center.
The ongoing dispute has left many in Atlanta baffled by the conspiratorial rhetoric and violent activism, which now threatens the future of the academy.
"I know crowds can get excited when emotions are high, but there hasn't been the right kind of dialogue,” said Rev. Gerald Durley, an Atlanta activist and longtime community leader.
Durley, who has participated in the planning for the training center, noted that he’s been on the front lines challenging police tactics and fighting for more effective oversight.
“Police, certainly in America, need more training, not just on police investigations but on de-escalation and crowd control,” said Durley. “When you come down to the actual facts and figures, this training center would be something good.”
The demonstrators, he said, had lost sight of how to fix ongoing problems with policing.
“It's hard for me to condemn a pitbull,” added Durley, “if I haven't trained that pitbull on what to do.”
Lee Fang is an independent journalist based in San Francisco. He writes an investigative newsletter on Substack via www.leefang.com.