Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens delivers the State of the City Address on Tuesday, March 28, 2023. Photo by Itoro N. Umontuen/The Atlanta Voice

Tuesday morning Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens took the stage inside the Atrium Ballroom at the Marriott Marquis downtown. He was there to deliver a speech to hundreds of guests during the annual State of the City address. Among the myriad of topics the mayor touched on, the South River Forest and Public Safety Training Center Community Task Force, better and more infamously known as “Cop City,” was one of them.

Early in the speech, Dickens spoke of supporting the city’s public safety personnel by building a state-of-the-art training facility on the nearly 400-acre site in DeKalb County. “Our firefighters will finally have a vehicle course to learn to drive those trucks through our neighborhoods to deliver lifesaving care,” he said. “Our police will have a training course that will prepare them to address active shooters and domestic violence situations.” 

And now Atlanta has a task force to better deliver the community’s concerns about what to do with Cop City. 

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens delivers the State of the City Address on Tuesday, March 28, 2023. Photo by Itoro N. Umontuen/The Atlanta Voice

Task forces are defined as temporary organizations created to solve problems 

The South River Forest and Public Safety Training Center Community Task Force was named late last week. Dickens established a 40-member team in order to get their input on what to do with a large portion of the nearly 400 acres in DeKalb County. Only 85 acres will be dedicated to the training facility, according to documents City of Atlanta shared with The Atlanta Voice. The remaining acreage will be used to serve the citizens of DeKalb County, says Dickens.

The Atlanta Voice had an audience with Dickens at City Hall Friday, March 24 and spoke to the first-term mayor and Atlanta native about why this task force was created, why it is important that it represents Atlantans of all walks of life and what he hopes it gets accomplished. 

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens (second from left) stands in prayer along with Atlanta Public Schools students during  the benediction given by Rev. Dr. William Flippin, Sr. (not shown) at the State of the City address on Tuesday, March 28, 2023. Photo: Itoro N. Umontuen/The Atlanta Voice

40 members reflecting one city

What began as a solution to the need for more law enforcement training in the wake of the shooting death of Rayshard Brooks by Atlanta Police Department officers has quickly become a lightning rod for protests. A large number of those protesters were found to not live in Atlanta.

Dickens now has a task force made up of members of the community; clergy, local business owners, activist, environmentalist, college and university professors, gay and straight, Black and white, young, old and interesting. 

The membership of the task force was strategically selected, according to the mayor. “This is intentional that we asked a lot of folks and they mainly said yes, because community members wanted to show up,” said Dickens.

The task force membership list reads like an encyclopedia of Atlanta diversity. Interested and invested members of the community like Blake Fortune, Cicely Garrett and retired Georgia State Patrol trooper John Prevost will meet alongside Morehouse College Professor Dr. Bryant Marks,  Georgia State University professor Dr. Volkan Topalli and Douglas Blackmon, author of the New York Times bestselling book Slavery by Another Name. Not to mention members of the Atlanta religious community, such as Reverend Gary Burke of Lakewood Church of Hope, Bishop Kevin Strickland of the Southeastern Synod and Rabbi Peter Berg, senior rabbi of The Temple. 

The diversity of the taskforce is a reflection of the city, says Dickens.

“I don’t want elected officials on the task force,” he said. “You’re going to find that a lot of these folks are community members. We want people that live in the community to be able to have direct input into what’s going to happen at the public safety training center and the park.”

The four crucial areas of focus for the task force as listed in a release by the City of Atlanta will be repurposing the former site of the Atlanta Prison Farm, located on Key Road in Southeast Atlanta, whether or not it will be possible to create a green space or parks on the site, sustainability of those projects and the curriculum for the police, fire and emergency 911 training facility. The latter being the ire of many protests the past year.

“The whole reason for fire, EMS and police is to protect you,” Dickens said. 

What to do with all that land

During his State of the City address Dickens said, “Public safety is not just about the numbers, or the building or the vehicles. It’s about the people.”

One of the decisions the people who make up the task force will do is form committees to address specific issues. A committee from within the taskforce will give feedback on the planned greenspace. The park project portion of the South River Forest and Public Safety Training Center will be much larger than the training facility itself. Nearly a third of the 400 acres will be used for a park, according to Dickens.

“The remaining 300 acres or so can be functional for trails and parks, open access for the public to enjoy,” he said. “So one of the committees in the taskforce will be strictly looking at the park and the greenspace, and how people will enjoy it.”

Upon completion there are plans for the park to be connected to other parks in DeKalb County, such as Michelle Obama Park, and ultimately the Atlanta BeltLine.

“If you reimagine this as a place for people to walk through and connect to the rest of the park network in the city, this is an amazing opportunity and a benefit to the city,” Dickens said.  

Is 90 days enough?

Dickens told The Atlanta Voice that he expects an initial set of recommendations from the task force by July 1. Just over 90 days from the creation and public announcement of the task force feels quick to have come up with even early solutions to a major citywide issue, but Dickens doesn’t think so.

“We are trying to get feedback and a short time frame makes people take it seriously,” Dickens said. 

Where the twice-monthly meetings will take place is still being worked out, according to Dickens. 

Information vs. Misinformation about Cop City

What the South River Forest and Public Safety Training Center Community Task Force is supposed to be for is oftentimes very different from how it is being described by protestors. 

“The amount of misinformation is actually surprising to me,” admitted Dickens. “I did not know how fast and how people accept misinformation.”

Dickens has heard so many rumors about what the training facility is going to be for, he’s not sure how anyone would believe it. “People are talking about us having Blackhawk helicopters out there,” he joked. 

He understands that not everyone believes what they are reading online. “I want to remind folks that the polling we have taken plus the conversations I have had with Atlantans, people are saying ‘We need police and we need our police trained’,” Dickens said. He believes citizens want to be safe in their community while also wanting police officers trained to de-escalate issues. 

“We are well enough to do both,” Dickens said.

Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Donnell began his career covering sports and news in Atlanta nearly two decades ago. Since then he has written for Atlanta Business Chronicle, The Southern Cross...