The human and financial cost of Atlanta’s ‘Cop City’

The family of a protestor fatally shot by a Georgia State Patrol Trooper in January near the construction site of a new Atlanta Public Safety Training Center is suing the city for not directly responding to elements of an open records request submitted by their attorneys.

“I want answers to my child’s homicide. I’m asking for answers to my child’s homicide,” said Belkis Terán, mother of slain environmental activist Manuel Paez Terán, at a press conference Monday announcing the lawsuit. “I deserve answers.”

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The suit comes after Paez Terán, 26, was shot 14 times by patrol troopers on Jan. 18. Officials originally claimed that the activist shot and wounded a patrol officer during a raid of the South River Forest, where a new Atlanta Public Safety Training Center is set to be built.

Officers from the Georgia Bureau of Investigations, Dekalb County police, city officers, Georgia State patrol units and the FBI were all involved in the operation.

Activists had been camping in the forest near the construction site in opposition to the project, which is likely to raze 85 acres of the wooded area. Seven people were arrested on domestic terrorism and criminal trespass charges on the day of the shooting.

Based on reporting from The Intercept, about 61 protestors have been arrested on domestic terror charges since the demonstrations began. The detentions were carried out on “equally weak grounds” stating that activists had “mud on their shoes.”

The facility comes with a hefty $90 million price tag. Meanwhile, the project’s expenses grow as the city contends with a potential lawsuit and apparently continues to spend thousands of dollars daily to secure the area surrounding the construction site.

The lives of Paez Terán’s family have also been disrupted as they cope with their loss. The activist, who preferred to go by “Tortuguita,” identified as non-binary and used they/them pronouns.

Their mother needed to apply for an emergency visa — which can cost roughly $200 — to travel to Atlanta from Panama, and their parents and siblings have been attending vigils with the goal of changing the narrative about their loved one as being someone that could shoot an officer.

“My child is an upstanding individual,” their father, Joel Paez, said at a news conference Monday. “My child is a hero.”

A GoFundMe page set up for the family has so far reached $92,000 out of a $100,000 fundraising goal. The funds will go toward funeral expenses to support the family with “travel, food and in general during this time of immense grief,” a message describing the fund stated.

Wingo Smith, one of the family’s attorneys said he believed that some of the funds from the account were going toward paying for a private autopsy, which can cost up to $5,000. The family has still not obtained the first autopsy conducted by the DeKalb County Medical Examiner.

None of the funds from the GoFundMe account are expected to go toward legal fees at this point, the attorney said, adding that the family has continued working as legal proceedings are carried out.

“My understanding is that life kind of has to move on to a certain degree. They can’t put everything on hold during this period,” Smith said.

On Monday, attorneys for Paez Terán’s family released the results of the private autopsy, which found that the activist was most likely sitting crisscrossed with their hands in the air at the time of their death, similar to a meditation position their mother did with them.

Officers stumbled upon Terán while combing through the wooded area in an effort to remove activists from the site, according to a press release.

Police located Terán inside a tent in the woods, police claimed, and issued verbal commands that they alleged were not followed by the activist. The Georgia Bureau of Investigations alleged that Terán then shot the trooper.

Yet, footage taken on an Atlanta Police Department officer’s body-worn camera released to Terán’s family could point to the injured officer being shot by friendly fire.

“You fucked your own officer up,” the policeman is heard saying in the footage. Several minutes later when discussing the gunfire with other officers, he asks, “Did they shoot their own man?”

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation refuted that characterization of events in a press release the day after the footage was released.

“In those videos, at least one statement exists where an officer speculates that the Trooper was shot by another officer in crossfire. Speculation is not evidence. Our investigation does not support that statement,” the statement reads.

Meanwhile, the city is reportedly spending upwards of $41,000 daily to police the facility’s construction site, according to court documents obtained by the Saporta Report.

Approximately $33,600 a day goes toward Atlanta Police Department officers. An additional $7,900 a day is spent on office security, based on an estimate provided by a project manager.

As the costs of the new training center rack up for the city, Smith wonders about the financial hit Atlanta will take as a result.

“I think what they’re probably more worried about right now is what it’s costing their reputation rather than dollars and cents,” he said.

“When you have things like this going on… people actively suppressing protests, protestors who are killed, raids, charges that seem well out of proportion to what was happening, people languishing in jail without being able to get bond…” he said. “Those aren’t good looks.”

Democrats are pressing President Joe Biden and the Democratic National Committee into hosting its next convention in Atlanta during the upcoming election cycle, he pointed out. The city has also been chosen to host parts of the 2026 FIFA World Cup.

Georgia Democrats that spoke on the issue publicly came short of taking a side between the activists and police. Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock didn’t outright condemn the facility’s construction in conversations with Axios.

Rep. Nikema Williams, however, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she “will always stand on the side of the protestors,” while maintaining that, “I don’t buy the whole notion that you have to choose one of the other, between standing up for law enforcement and standing with protestors.”

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