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Tennessee Quietly Rolls Out Its Own 810-Acre “Cop City”

“It seemed like they were purposefully not saying much about it, trying to keep it hush hush,” said one organizer.

Demonstrators gather and march through downtown protesting the police killing of Tyre Nichols on January 28, 2023, in Memphis, Tennessee.

On Sept. 27 Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee stuck a shovel into a wide trough of dirt on Nashville’s western edge. Flanked by a row of state representatives and law enforcement officials, Lee broke ground on a new hub for law enforcement training and administration across Tennessee. Lee’s administration has quietly worked on the Multi-Agency Law Enforcement Training Academy (MALETA) for the past two years. The project is expected to fill more than 800 acres, with an estimated cost of $415 million. Lee says that “unprecedented times call for unprecedented support.”

MALETA represents a growing trend in police departments across the country that are investing in massive, militarized police campuses — like Atlanta’s Cop City. At the same time, its size, scope, and history are broader than what that comparison might suggest. Since Lee took office in 2019, Tennessee’s right-wing regime has struggled with community groups and progressive politicians over the future of policing in the state. According to Jamel Campbell-Gooch, organizing director of the Nashville-based Southern Movement Committee, MALETA is “a manifestation of the gap between what the public sees as public safety and what our local and statewide elected officials see as public safety.”

As grassroots social justice movements have argued for police reform and abolition in cities like Memphis, Nashville, and Knoxville, the state government has committed to strengthening Tennessee’s police forces. MALETA represents the newest phase of that struggle, and its development offers vital insights into how militarized police campuses might play out elsewhere in the country.

A Quiet Rollout

Many Tennesseeans were unaware of MALETA’s existence before September. The Tennessee Holler, a progressive media outlet, posted on social media that the groundbreaking was “the first we’ve heard of MALETA.” Nashville Scene advice columnist Chris Crofton remarked, “I find it insane that it was not discussed during the recent mayoral election. Why the hell are we talking about stadiums and sidewalks when an armed camp is being built in our city?”

According to reporting from the Tennessee Lookout, Tennessee’s Department of General Services began discussing a new law enforcement training center in 2017. But Lee first announced MALETA on Jan. 31, 2022, during his annual State of the State address to the Tennessee General Assembly. As part of a huge slate of investments in law enforcement — like additional staffing, grants for anti-violence initiatives, and efforts to recruit officers from blue states — Lee proposed more than $350 million for the project. As the state nailed down design and construction costs, that number grew to more than $400 million.

The conservative Washington Examiner reported Lee’s announcement in February 2022, but little national media has covered the project.

“With only minimal announcements here and there, there hasn’t been much for the media to catch,” said Amber Sherman, a community organizer who’s worked with the Memphis Black Lives Matter chapter and Shelby County Young Democrats. “It seemed like they were purposefully not saying much about it, trying to keep it hush hush.”

State officials argued that MALETA could effectively replace a number of older criminal justice facilities — especially Tennessee’s current Law Enforcement Training Academy, which is located on the other side of Nashville. Former Nashville Councilmember Russ Pulley called that building “significantly outdated” while endorsing the new facility in August.

Lee also emphasized that projects like MALETA represented “a respect for the rule of law and a rejection of the ‘Defund the Police’ movement that we’ve seen across this country.” Community organizers like Sherman have been closely watching the project unfold as they’ve worked to transform police throughout Tennessee.

“Law and Order” Versus “Defund and Abolish”

Grassroots movements have protested numerous cases of Tennesseans killed by police in the past decade, including 19-year-old Darrius Stewart in 2015, 17-year-old Anthony Thompson Jr. in 2021, and 29-year-old Tyre Nichols last year. Since 2019, abolitionist demands have entered the state’s political mainstream, as some organizers have questioned whether increased training can effectively end police violence and create safer communities.

“I think we’re living in a time of response to that conversation,” said Campbell-Gooch, “which is a doubling down on the institution of policing across the country.” During the George Floyd uprisings in 2020, Lee latched onto “defund and abolish” as a rhetorical enemy. When protesters occupied Nashville’s Legislative Plaza for months in the summer, the governor refused to meet with them, equating calls to “Defund the Police” with “embrac[ing] lawlessness.”

Instead, Lee created the Law Enforcement Reform Partnership, a working group composed mostly of state officials, police chiefs, and representatives from law enforcement advocacy groups. Their recommendations included a statewide review of use-of-force policies, improved information sharing around disciplinary actions, and an increase in officers’ required training hours. The state also used $300,000 in COVID-19 relief to fund 90 new cadet scholarships at the Tennessee Law Enforcement Training Academy. MALETA is a natural next step in Lee’s own vision for statewide police reform, which has focused almost exclusively on funding for new officers, training initiatives, and infrastructure for carceral institutions.

Multi-agency policing has been a key part of that vision, as well. When two violent crimes in Memphis, Tennessee, made national headlines five days apart, Republican Sens. Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty urged President Joe Biden to increase federal investments in law enforcement hiring and joint task forces. Blackburn and Hagerty blamed rising violent crime on “the anti-law-enforcement movement that has wrought soft-on-crime policies.” State officials’ commitment to “law and order” reflects a long tradition of racially tinged discourse about crime: “there’s a lot of fearmongering happening, a lot of ‘tough-on-crime’ rhetoric, and most of it is targeted toward the Black-majority areas of the state,” Sherman said.

“Militarization of the Landscape”

MALETA’s proposed campus will take up 810 acres of state-owned land in Nashville’s Cockrill Bend area — more than double the size of the land originally leased for Atlanta’s Cop City in 2021. Currently vacant, the plot is located between Riverbend Maximum Security Institution and John C. Tune Airport. According to Campbell-Gooch, that area has represented “one of the few areas left heading into the city where there’s not huge industrial development going on.”

The construction site also sits adjacent to the Cumberland River, whose watershed has been “especially susceptible to the negative effects of urban development and pollution,” according to the Cumberland River Compact, a clean water advocacy and restoration organization. Michelle Sanders Parks, spokeswoman for the Department of General Services, stated that no major buildings are planned directly in its floodplain and that the state will seek to minimize the impact of a potential flood. But large developments like these can frequently carry unintended environmental impacts, such as ecological disruption and runoff from contaminated soil. Last August, for example, conservation group Tennessee Riverkeeper sued the owners of a landfill site in west Davidson County, where a 200-foot mountain of unused dirt from local construction sites poured runoff into a Cumberland tributary.

According to a Program Verification document released in March 2023, a number of facilities will be “spread across the site, each designed by a separate architect … and built by a separate contractor.” Major features will include the new academy building, a 35,000-square-foot firing range with “a high-tech simulator room” and “specialized training labs,” and a shared headquarters for the Tennessee Department of Safety and Department of Correction. Training amenities will include a mock courtroom and detention pods, an outdoor obstacle course, an Emergency Vehicle Operations Course, and a “scenario village” to practice tactical operations. At full capacity, the campus is designed to hold 400 cadets and 200 in-service personnel, with housing and dining facilities on site.

Nashville-based Kline Swinney Associates coordinated the master plan to combine the campus’s various needs into a single space and is also designing its firing range. Construction firm Reeves + Young, managing the firing range project, previously worked on Atlanta’s Cop City until a divestment campaign pressured them to back out last year. In total, almost 20 construction, engineering, and design firms are currently contracted to build MALETA.

It’s Bigger Than Atlanta’s Cop City

In 2018, 8.8% of law enforcement recruits in the U.S. started their training at a multi-agency training academy. Although regional multi-agency academies represent a small sector of police training, plans to build more pop up each year. Within the past three years, grassroots movements have resisted a number of other “Cop Cities,” including Chicago’s $128 million “Cop Academy,” a $330 million training facility in Baltimore, and a $43 million “Cop Campus” in San Pablo, California.

The Tennessee Holler, Nashville People’s Budget Coalition,and the Tennessee Green Party have explicitly compared MALETA to Atlanta’s facility. But its huge size and statewide scope significantly raise the stakes for these kinds of projects: planning documents note that “Tennessee is one of the few states in the nation” to work on one. A press release from the governor’s office also claims that “the vast majority of law enforcement officers across the state will receive training at MALETA” once it’s completed — including local police, corrections officers, and state highway patrol. “I don’t think it’s equivalent to [Cop City],” Sherman said. “I think it’s way worse.”

Across the country, elected officials and law enforcement agencies are pitching high-tech training facilities as the cutting edge of American policing — with the necessary space and infrastructure to develop anti-terrorism and anti-gang operations, try out militarized policing tactics, and keep local police rosters growing in size. In May 2023, Nashville Police Chief John Drake proposed a new “state of the art” training facility specifically for local officers that would be separate from MALETA. But as these projects continue to appear around the country, resistance campaigns will evolve to meet their dangers.

MALETA’s construction will begin later this year, with the final phase of construction planned to begin in 2025. Organizers like Sherman and Campbell-Gooch expect that community members will challenge the project as it moves forward.

“As long as these things come about, we will continuously see popular resistance like we have seen in Atlanta, Baltimore, and these other places that are experiencing a militarization of the landscape,” Campbell-Gooch said.

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