Deadline to force referendum on Atlanta's controversial police training center nears
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
In Atlanta, a grassroots effort is underway to try to stop the construction of a controversial police training facility. Opponents call the center Cop City. The effort comes after the Atlanta City Council voted in June to fund its share despite more than 14 hours of public comment overwhelmingly against it. As Chamian Cruz from member station WABE in Atlanta reports, organizers say they're hopeful they can now collect enough signatures to force a referendum.
SADEE HEAD: Hello, king. How you doing today?
CHAMIAN CRUZ, BYLINE: Sadee Head is with CASA, one of the many organizations working to collect more than 70,000 signatures in 60 days. He's about 15 minutes into a five-hour shift on a hot, humid day when he stops a shopper in the parking lot of a Kroger supermarket in southwest Atlanta.
HEAD: We're getting a petition signed to get the Cop City issue put on the ballot in November so that the citizens of Atlanta can vote and decide whether or not $60 million of our taxpayer dollars should be used to build a new police training facility.
CRUZ: The actual amount is closer to 67 million, but it includes money the city is currently spending to lease training facilities. Most people Head approaches say they've already signed the petition, but Collins White stops for a moment. He says he's lived in the city for 50 years.
COLLINS WHITE: I decided to sign the petition because I see what's going on with all the money they're trying to use, going towards the cop things. And they can take the money and use it and spend it in other places like welfare reform, I mean, anything that'll help the city instead of putting more cops in training and all that.
CRUZ: Others brush the canvassers off and just keep walking, like this woman.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Now, who y'all going to call when y'all get robbed?
CRUZ: Attorneys for the city of Atlanta have argued that the referendum effort is futile and invalid. Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens said in April the center is much needed to replace inadequate training facilities.
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ANDRE DICKENS: Atlantans deserve highly trained police and fire personnel because when something does happen, we want to make sure that they are ready and able to address it.
CRUZ: The training center would claim 85 acres outside of the city limits, some of it forest land. And it would be surrounded by low-income, majority-Black neighborhoods. Plans include building classrooms, a shooting range and a mock city where police can practice conducting raids. However, those who live closest to the site cannot sign the petition or vote in the possible referendum because they are not Atlanta residents. And nonresidents couldn't help collect signatures either until Lisa Baker and others sued the city and the state of Georgia. A federal judge ruled last month in their favor. And Baker says they've been busy ever since collecting signatures.
LISA BAKER: City council shouldn't get to just do what they want to do. The people should get to decide. That's really what the petition is saying.
CRUZ: While an appeal is pending, it's estimated there are more than 600 volunteers and 90 paid canvassers involved in the effort. Before all this extra manpower, canvasser Ian Connel says he didn't think they stood a chance.
IAN CONNEL: I thought it was absolutely absurd of an expectation that we're going to get 70,000 signatures in the course of a couple months. It's damn near impossible.
CRUZ: Now he says they're close. For NPR News, I'm Chamian Cruz in Atlanta.
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