ATLANTA (AP) — Nearly three dozen people have been detained after flaming bottles and rocks were thrown at officers during a protest at “Cop City,” a new police training center that’s been the site of prior demonstrations and the death of a protester, Atlanta police said Monday.
Atlanta Police Chief Darin Schierbaum said at a midnight news conference that several pieces of construction equipment were set on fire Sunday in what he called “a coordinated attack” at the site for the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center in DeKalb County.
It was the latest flare-up in a cause that has drawn to Georgia both anti-police demonstrators and environmentalists who call themselves defenders of the forest.
Surveillance video released by police show a piece of heavy equipment in flames at the facility under construction that opponents call “Cop City.” It was among multiple pieces of construction equipment destroyed, police said.
Protesters dressed in all black threw large rocks, bricks, Molotov cocktails, and fireworks at police officers Sunday at the construction site, police said.
Police from nearby communities stepped in to assist city officers, and no officers were injured, Schierbaum said, adding that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has joined police in the case. Officers used nonlethal enforcement methods to disperse the crowd and detain those involved, he said. Asked about injuries to any of the demonstrators, the chief said that “some minor discomforts” were reported and were being attended to by medical personnel.
“This was a very violent attack, very violent attack,” Schierbaum said. “This wasn’t about a public safety training center. This was about anarchy … and we are addressing that quickly.”
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp said the people involved “chose destruction and vandalism over legitimate protest, yet again demonstrating the radical intent behind their actions.”
“As I’ve said before, domestic terrorism will NOT be tolerated in this state,” Kemp said in a statement Monday.
“We will not rest until those who use violence and intimidation for an extremist end are brought to full justice,” he said.
The names of those in custody and the criminal charges against them were not immediately available early Monday, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. But Schierbaum said many were not from the Atlanta area.
“I can tell you just looking at the initial reports, we continue to see a number of individuals not from Atlanta, Georgia that are present tonight undertaking criminal activities to destabilize the construction of the fire and police training center,” Schierbaum said.
In January, a 26-year-old environmental activist was shot to death by law officers in the forest where the training center is being built.
Demonstrations spread to downtown Atlanta on Jan. 21, when a police cruiser was set ablaze, rocks were thrown and fireworks were launched at a skyscraper that houses the Atlanta Police Foundation. Windows were shattered in that building and others.
The Atlanta City Council approved the $90 million Atlanta Public Safety Training Center in 2021, saying a state-of-the-art campus would replace substandard offerings and boost police morale, which is beset by hiring and retention struggles in the wake of violent protests against racial injustice that roiled the country after George Floyd’s death in 2020.
In addition to classrooms and administrative buildings, the training center would include a shooting range, a driving course to practice chases and a “burn building” for firefighters to work on putting out fires. A “mock village” featuring a fake home, convenience store and nightclub would also be built for authorities to rehearse raids.
Opponents have said the site will be used to practice “urban warfare.” Self-described “forest defenders” say that building the 85-acre (34-hectare) training center would involve cutting down so many trees that it would be environmentally damaging.
The protests are leading to proposals for tougher criminal penalties.
As part of a broader tough-on-crime push, state lawmakers have proposed making rioting a felony in Georgia instead of a misdemeanor, and are considering creating a separate crime for burning a police vehicle.
Many of those accused of violence in connection with the training site protests are being charged with domestic terrorism, a felony that carries a penalty of up to 35 years in prison. Those charges have prompted criticism from some that the state is being heavy-handed.
However, lawmakers are considering strengthening the penalty by classifying domestic terrorism as a serious violent felony. That means anyone convicted of the crime must serve the entire sentence ordered by a judge, can’t be sentenced to probation as a first offender and can’t be paroled unless an offender has served at least 30 years in prison.
Meanwhile, more protests are planned in coming days, police said Monday.
“With protests planned for the coming days, the Atlanta Police Department, in collaboration with law enforcement partners, have a multi-layered strategy that includes reaction and arrest,” police said in a statement.
Martin reported from Woodstock, Georgia.