Video Raises Questions About Tortuguita’s Death at “Cop City” Amid Permit Appeal

The release of body camera footage and permit challenge come as one Atlanta Police Foundation board member steps down.

Body-worn camera video released by the Atlanta Police Department (APD) showing the immediate aftermath of a Georgia State Patrol trooper’s fatal shooting of Manuel Esteban Paez Terán at the forested site of a planned police training facility raises questions about the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s (GBI) initial story of Terán’s killing. The video release comes at a time when the facility’s land disturbance permit is being legally challenged.

A screen capture of the body-worn camera footage released by the Atlanta Police Department on February 8, 2023. Courtesy of Truthout.

APD released four videos from a unit of officers who were not directly involved in the shooting. The footage confirms Terán’s killing was carried out by a Georgia State Patrol SWAT team, which is not required to wear body cameras.

Terán, whose chosen name was Tortuguita, was shot and killed by police on January 18 during a violent raid on a protest encampment in the South River Forest that has blockaded construction of what Atlanta-area activists have dubbed “Cop City,” an 85-acre, $90 million police militarization and training complex spearheaded by the Atlanta Police Foundation that, if built, would be one of the largest police training facilities in the country. The site would contain several shooting ranges, a helicopter landing base, an area for explosives training, police-horse stables and an entire mock city for officers to engage in role-playing activities. The GBI initially said Tortuguita was shot and killed after allegedly firing a gun and injuring a Georgia state trooper during the raid, but APD’s newly released body camera video appears to show officers suggesting that the trooper was shot by friendly fire in the initial moments after the shooting. In one video, after gunshots ring out through the forest, an officer can be heard saying, “That sounded like suppressed gunfire,” implying the initial shots were consistent with the use of a law enforcement weapon, not the Smith & Wesson M&P Shield nine-millimeter the GBI alleges Tortuguita purchased and fired upon the trooper with, which did not have a suppressor.

Later, another officer can be heard muttering to himself, “You fucked your own officer up.” The officer walks up to two other officers and asks, “Did they shoot their own in there?” to which another officer replies, “We don’t know what he got shot by,” followed by inaudible dialogue. An officer responds and says, “The first one, they said, was suppressed.” At another point in the footage, a drone can be overheard, indicating that GBI may have more direct footage of Torguita’s shooting.

In a statement to the media on January 18, anonymous protesters and community activists dubbed “Forest Defenders” reported hearing “dozens” of gunshots around 9 am on January 18, indicating it wasn’t clear who fired the first shot, and alleging they had “reason to believe” Tortuguita was killed after a friendly fire incident. Police continued the raid after Tortuguita’s shooting, using tear gas and rubber bullets to remove protesters from tree houses and bulldozing forest around the camp.

Tortuguita’s death sparked an uprising in Atlanta in the following days, during which the city’s residents broke windows and burned a police car. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp declared a state of emergency in response to protests that allows up to 1,000 National Guard troops to police the streets of Atlanta. Today is the last day the order remains in effect.

Over the course of December and January, 19 opponents of the police training center have been charged with felonies under Georgia’s rarely used 2017 domestic terrorism law, including participants of the recent uprising. A Grist review of 20 arrest warrants shows that none of those hit with terrorism charges are accused of seriously injuring anyone, and that many of the alleged acts of “domestic terrorism” consist solely of trespassing in the woods, camping or occupying a tree house.

The GBI released a statement in response to the release of APD’s body camera videos on Thursday, saying that the footage shows that “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.” They went on to note that their investigation of the shooting remains ongoing, and that, “When the investigation is complete, all videos will be provided.” It’s unclear if that would include video from the drone heard on the APD footage.

Tortuguita’s family released a statement Thursday responding to the release of the body camera footage, saying the videos raise “more questions than they answer, but confirm the family’s worst fears that Manuel was massacred in a hail of gunfire. The videos also show the clearing of the forest was a paramilitary operation that set the stage for excessive use of force.”

In a press conference on Monday, Tortuguita’s family and lawyers discussed the results of a private autopsy that showed Tortuguita was shot at least 13 times by several different firearms. The family has joined community activists in calling for investigation of the shooting completely independent of the GBI, DeKalb County police and the APD, and for the agencies to share the evidence it has gathered with the family in a face-to-face meeting.

Kamau Franklin, an organizer with the Black-led collective Community Movement Builders, was among the community activists who spoke at the press conference Monday. Franklin called for an independent investigation from a private entity in response to the release of the footage, telling Truthout that, “It’s not sort of damning evidence that it actually was friendly fire, but, [police’s] estimation is that somebody assumed such. Those things lead us to believe that there’s no way whatsoever we can trust the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to do a thorough investigation.”

The release of the videos comes as the Atlanta public safety training center’s land disturbance permit is being challenged by a member of the project’s own review committee, and after another member, Nicole Morado, resigned in outrage over the police-perpetrated killing of Tortuguita the day they were shot on January 18. Morado told the Guardian that, “It doesn’t sit well with me, to be affiliated with a project that has resulted in somebody’s life being taken.” Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens, alongside DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond announced the county’s approval of the permit during a press conference last week. During the conference, Dickens and Thurmond referred several times to the Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee, a body intended to act as a representative for the communities immediately surrounding forested area of the planned training facility — mostly Black and working-class residents of unincorporated DeKalb County.

But Advisory Committee member Amy Taylor, who lives within 250 feet of the site, filed an appeal to the project’s permit Monday with the DeKalb County Zoning Board of Appeals. The appeal claims the county improperly issued the permit because the project’s construction would violate a state limit on sediment runoff and because the amount of green space its lease sets aside is inaccurately large.

The Advisory Committee has been at the center of many transparency issues since its creation in 2021 in response to criticisms about lack of transparency in the training center’s public process. Environmental engineer Lily Ponitz was removed from the committee last year after speaking to the press (including this reporter) about the project’s problematic environmental reviews. She previously told Truthout the committee’s public meetings are largely dominated by Atlanta Police Foundation officials and their development team, with little opportunity for open discussion. Taylor joined the committee after both Ponitz and Morado’s departure.

Taylor’s attorney, Jon Schwartz, tells Truthout the county processed her appeal Thursday. The next step is a hearing before the Zoning Board of Appeals in April, Schwartz says, and then the board would have 60 days to issue a ruling. The stay against the permit would remain in effect until the board issues a decision, legally freezing construction on the project until potentially as late as June. If the Zoning Board rules the permit can move ahead, Schwartz says he still has the opportunity to appeal to the Superior Court.

DeKalb County Commissioner Ted Terry told Truthout he also plans to file an appeal alongside the South River Watershed Alliance using a similar argument to Taylor’s — that the permit violates the Clean Water Act. Terry, whose district includes the South River Forest, said his attempts to have the county reject Atlanta’s applications for permits have been met with silence.

“The announcement [of the permit] last Tuesday between the mayor and CEO Michael Thurman was a bit of a shock because they literally emailed us at 1 pm on the day of a 3 pm press conference,” Terry said. “It’s like that old saying, ‘When you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.’”

Terry emphasized the lack of transparency from city and Atlanta Police Foundation leaders pushing the training center project over the past two years, telling Truthout there hasn’t been a sincere attempt to engage the larger community or include county representatives like himself. In September 2021, the Atlanta City Council approved the project despite nearly 17 hours of comments from more than 1,100 constituents across the city, 70 percent of whom expressed firm opposition. Black working-class communities who actually live in the proposed area of unincorporated DeKalb County, and therefore aren’t represented in Atlanta’s City Council, also vocally oppose the project.

Residents are also fighting other development projects threatening the South River Forest, including a planned expansion of Hollywood’s Blackhall Studio, which they say would further intensify gentrification in an area that has one of the widest income inequality gaps in the country. Organizers argue both projects would further displace working-class Black people rather than prioritize the kinds of solutions the city and county desperately need, such as affordable housing.

The release of the body camera footage and news of the permit appeal also come as former Emory University President Claire Sterk stepped down this week from the board of the Atlanta Police Foundation. Sterk resigned from the board after more than 100 health care workers and students affiliated with Emory signed a letter calling for her resignation. The campaign is now focused on pressuring Foundation board member Douglas Murphy with the Emory Department of Surgery to follow suit.

The Emory letter is just one of many pressure campaigns that have kicked off at several universities and colleges in Georgia, including the historically Black colleges at Morehouse and Spellman. Faculty at Morehouse, Martin Luther King Jr.’s alma mater, also signed a letter in opposition to the project, prompting Mayor Dickens to meet with students and faculty of the larger Atlanta University Center system, including Morehouse President David Thomas, about student opposition across the system’s campuses.

Mayor Dickens reportedly became visibly frustrated during the meeting, telling students that he “was not a sellout.” Students at Mayor Dickens alma mater, Georgia Tech, are planning another protest against the training center today.

“In Black community vernacular, when you have to say you’re not a sellout, that usually means you are a sellout,” Community Movement Builders’ Franklin told Truthout, calling the burgeoning student movement at the city’s historically Black colleges and universities one of the most significant recent developments in the ongoing struggle against the police training center. “There’s actually now a larger movement building here to stop Cop City even as [city officials] grant themselves the permit to try to build this thing.”

A Georgia State University student and movement organizer told Truthout he is working to more closely coordinate student groups across different universities. Students are focused on organizing a large convergence during a week of action March 4-11 to reoccupy the South River Forest, he says. “We don’t want police to just chop down as many trees as they can before [a Zoning Board decision on the permit appeal]. So the legal front is really important for that strategy,” said Elias, who requested a pseudonym to avoid police surveillance of his organizing activities.

The land around the site slated to become the training center is associated with the Old Atlanta Prison Farm, a complex of farms sold in a land lottery to a chattel slave plantation. The site became a city-operated prison and dairy farm where incarcerated people were forced to grow crops and raise livestock to feed the populations of other city prisons from about 1920 to 1989, according to the Atlanta Community Press Collective. Today, the area continues to host a shooting range, juvenile detention facility and the Helms state prison.

The struggle against the training center has brought activists against police violence together with environmental activists as well as Muscogee (Creek) tribal members, whose ancestors originally inhabited the land before their forced removal in the early 19th century. Highlighting the intersection of the training center’s social and environmental injustices, they point out that not only is the South River Forest and watershed, known to the Muscogee as the Weelaunee Forest, one of the city’s most important defenses in the face of the worsening climate crisis, it’s also long been the site of racist displacement, enslavement and carceral subjugation.

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