Law enforcement drive past the planned site of a police training facility that activists have nicknamed "Cop City", following the first raid since the death of environmental activist Manuel "Tortuguita" Terán near Atlanta, Georgia, on February 6, 2023. - Terán was shot by police on Jan. 18, 2023, during a confrontation as officers cleared activists from a forest, the planned site of a police-training facility. (Photo by CHENEY ORR/AFP via Getty Images)

In the dawn hours of June 6, the Atlanta City Council voted 11-4 to approve funding for the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, an 85-acre police and fire training facility that plans to include a shooting range, a gym, and an urban environment simulation featuring an apartment building, a house, a nightclub, and a gas station. The city council vote is just the latest in a string of actions on the road to building the center that those opposed to the project are calling “Cop City.”

The center, which general contractors Brasfield & Gorrie have been hired to build on land stolen from the Muscogee Creek people and owned by the City of Atlanta, has growing community opposition. Stop Cop City organizers and protesters have pointed to environmental concerns, such as the destruction of Weelaunee Forest, which the City Planning Committee has called one of the “lungs of Atlanta.” Activists have also pointed to how a massive police militarization center will be used to further terrorize, suppress, and harm the most surveilled city in the U.S. and the predominantly Black community surrounding the planned site.

Many are also concerned about the center’s cost. In 2021, the city leased the land to the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF) for $10 a year. Since then, the city has approved a total of $67 million to supplement the one-third contribution the APF promised, bringing the current project total to $90 million. The city will fund the construction of the center, estimated to be $31 million and lease the land back from the APF at a cost of $1.2 million a year to use the facilities for police, fire, and EMS personnel.

The APF is one of the country’s highest-revenue police foundations and supports projects that supplement the Atlanta Police Department’s nearly $250 million budget. However, watchdog organizations like the Private Equity Stakeholder Project (PESP) are investigating ties between private equity and the APF, arguing that private equity influence is actually at the heart of this planned forest conversion.

“Atlanta is unique in the sense that it’s thought of as ground zero for the private equity industry as a whole,” said K. Agbebiyi, PESP’s senior housing campaign coordinator. “It’s the place to watch.”

Agbebiyi, along with Azani Creeks and Amanda Mendoza, PESP’s labor and climate campaign research coordinators respectively, recently co-authored a 35-page report that details private equity ties to Cop City through the APF and a separate land swap deal with Blackhall Studios, a local film studio that threatens another 40-acre parcel of city-owned forest.

The report maps out corporate donations to the APF and corporate representatives on the foundation’s board of directors, including fast food chain owner Inspire Brands’ CEO Paul Brown and board member Marshall Freeman, who once served as APF’s COO.

According to the co-authors, the private equity-owned companies that provide DeKalb County Jail, Fulton County Jail, and Atlanta City Detention Center with commissary, communications, and medical services also profit from the detention of protesters, while other corporations profit from increased police surveillance. As written in the report, since 2016, the city of Atlanta has paid the APF $3.6 million to acquire SWAT equipment, license plate readers, and thousands of surveillance cameras for its biggest program, Operation Shield.

“More money for police departments and foundations ultimately leads to more money for private equity firms and other corporate actors,” the co-authors say in the report arguing that increased police training leads to increased targeting and surveillance of communities of color, which leads to more incarceration, more police violence, and less community trust.

They also note that the state of Georgia itself, which has recently come under fire for its authoritarian crackdown on protesters, has encouraged donations to police foundations through the Law Enforcement Strategic Support Act (LESS Crime Act), which gives individuals and corporations tax write-offs for donating to police foundations—up to $5,000 per person for individuals or up to 75% state income tax for corporations. 

Creeks and Agbebiyi argue that corporate ties to the planned development of Cop City might explain continued progress on the project despite public dissent.

“One of the arguments that the city has made in regards to the police training facility is that they want Atlanta to be a competitor with other major cities,” Agbeyiyi said. “[The APF also wants to help with police recruitment and police retention,] so it’s a project to make Atlanta more enticing to private equity.”

The report also notes that one of the APF’s recent projects—building and selling subsidized homes to police officers—has spurred gentrification and displacement on Atlanta’s west side, enriching private equity companies that are heavily invested in housing. The APF has built almost 30 homes since the project began, notably in the same year that the Mercedes-Benz NFL Stadium moved to the historically-Black Vine City area. 

For Agbebiyi and Creeks, the report not only brings attention to these ties but also helps inform those who are concerned with private equity’s influence on government and the implications that it has for a government’s responsiveness to constituent needs.

“In general,” the report states, “private equity firms are known for their focus on short-term profits, often at the expense of long-term sustainability … The focus on quick profits and lack of commitment to sustainability has contributed to the destruction of natural habitats, displacement of communities, and the release of greenhouse gasses.” 

For many activists, especially those at the June 5 city council comment session, the city’s support of corporate-backed organizations like the APF are evidence of how unresponsive to the concerns of everyday voters the city’s elected officials have become.

“In a city where there is the worst income inequality in the country, we have a housing crisis. We’re facing the climate crisis. There are just so many things that these funds would be better used for,” said Hannah Riley, one of the hundreds of protesters who showed up at city hall for the vote.

Rev. James Woodall, a community leader and public policy associate at the Southern Center for Human Rights, said he supports public safety and better police training, but that the planned center does not support the needs of the people.

“When I think about private equity firms and about the money that is involved here, the concern is that this is not about public safety at all,” he said.

Woodall worries that the center will also become a revenue generator for the APF, which will gain rental income from it.

“The bigger picture is this is literally a cash cow for private foundations and corporations and communities that do not reflect or live in our community,” he said.

In addition to the $1.2 million a year in lease payments the APF will receive from the city, the Dickens administration stated in a June 2 press release that “any extra rental income generated from public use of the facility will exclusively be used to cover the center’s operational and maintenance expenses, as well as the principal and interest of APF’s $20 million loan.”

“To see politicians, elected officials, and so-called leaders—whether they’re leaders, clergy, business leaders—either remain silent or publicly endorse this catastrophe is appalling,” Woodall said. 

But he and other activists are not giving up the fight, even after the pivotal funding vote.

“No longer can we afford to allow corporations to dictate public policy [and] define and decide what works well for us in terms of what happens in our community,” Woodall said.

Activists announced a public referendum campaign on June 7 that would bring the question of whether to cancel the APF’s lease directly to Atlanta voters. Once the petition language is approved by the city clerk, activists will have 60 days to collect 70,000 to 75,000 signatures from registered Atlanta voters. If they succeed, the referendum will be on the November ballot.

“It’s amazing, but it’s also kind of sad,” Agbebiyi said. “People have been working on this for years, and now it’s getting a lot of traction.”

Agbebiyi and Creeks hope this traction will make private equity and its influence more visible. 

“Private equity is fully part of and fully profiting from the prison industrial complex,” Creeks said. 

She says making people aware that private equity firms—which are funded in large part by public pension funds—might be using their retirement dollars in ways they don’t support, is yet another way to bring people into the fight.

Katherine Demby is a writer based in Queens. She covers law, race, politics, and culture. You can find her on Twitter at @kaye_demz.