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Atlanta federal appeals court hears arguments on controversial police training center

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Today in Atlanta, a federal appeals court hears arguments over a police training center. Opponents want to put this project's future on the ballot for voters to decide. They collected petitions to get the project on the ballot and gave 16 boxes full of them to the city. The city says this is not an action you can put to a vote this way and a court now has to decide on that, as well as on the process of collecting petitions. Georgia Public Broadcasting's Stephen Fowler is covering this complicated story. Stephen, good morning.

STEPHEN FOWLER, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: I say complicated, but there is one basic issue here, which is yes or no on this police training facility. Is that right?

FOWLER: Well, you know, it's been controversial for several years. The city of Atlanta is building this $90 million training space for police, fire, other first responders just outside city limits. Officials say the current training space is outdated and better training cuts down on bad policing. Now, protests have been going on for a couple of years. I mean, just last month, police used tear gas and flashbang grenades to stop a march to the site. More than 60 protesters have been charged under Georgia's anti-racketeering law for trying to stop construction, and one protester was fatally shot by state troopers earlier in the year during an attempt to clear the site of people who were camping there to try to stop construction progress.

Steve, opponents say the plan is increasing militarization of law enforcement. It's being built in this forested area, that'll be environmentally harmful. And it was all decided without public input or approval, so activists launched this effort to get enough Atlanta voters to sign a petition that, in turn, would ask residents to vote on canceling the city's lease with the private Atlanta Police Foundation to build and run this massive complex.

INSKEEP: How did all of that then end up in front of the courts?

FOWLER: Well, all this time, the city says the petition doesn't count and can't count because it would violate state law and illegally have them cancel a contract. Beyond that, there was a case earlier this year where a federal judge gave more time for people to collect petition signatures and also said the people collecting them don't need to be City of Atlanta residents. So today, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta will hear those arguments. There's a number of possible outcomes here, but one of them is that the petition drive itself could be ruled moot.

INSKEEP: Oh, interesting, both over questions about whether there should be a ballot measure at all, and over questions about whether signatures were legitimately gathered and whether they add up to the right number of signatures. Now, we don't actually know an official tally of signatures because although the city has put out images of the 16 boxes, it hasn't counted, it hasn't validated. But you've been able to look at them, is that right?

FOWLER: Yeah. So we counted the total number of signatures submitted. It's about 108,000 in total. To get on the ballot, organizers need about 58,000 valid Atlanta voters, almost 54%. Validating that would take a very, very long time. So I called up my friends at the Associated Press, me at GPB, WABE and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and we spent weeks looking at a random sample of a thousand entries. We looked at names and addresses people wrote down, checked them against the voter registration database and found just under half of our sample are eligible Atlanta voters. A small number might be eligible, but we need more info to be sure. Now, the share of our sample is just under that target sample. But since it is a sample, Steve, remember, possible that counting all 108,000 names could get them across the finish line with enough names, if they even get counted.

INSKEEP: OK, so your reporting has revealed some question about whether this petition drive would succeed even if it is allowed. Stephen, thanks for the insights. Really appreciate it.

FOWLER: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's Georgia Public Broadcasting's Stephen Fowler.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOR'S "VAULTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Stephen Fowler is the Producer/Back-Up Host for All Things Considered and a creative storyteller hailing from McDonough, Georgia. He graduated from Emory University with a degree in Interdisciplinary Studies. The program combined the best parts of journalism, marketing, digital media and music into a thesis on the rise of the internet rapper via the intersectionality of social media and hip-hop. He served as the first-ever Executive Digital Editor of The Emory Wheel, where he helped lead the paper into a modern digital era.
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