A journalist says Atlanta police officers illegally detained him and threatened him with arrest for filming at the city’s public safety training center site, violating his civil rights.
Michael Watchulonis, an Atlanta-based independent journalist, filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Atlanta and four officers on May 16. He alleges the Atlanta Police Department officers illegally detained him on Jan. 15, 2022, for an hour and an a half at Intrenchment Creek Park while he was working on a story about the controversial training center.
Named in the lawsuit are APD Maj. Jeff Cantin, Officer Carlos Thomas, and Sgt. Jack Bentley. The final law enforcement defendant is identified as Officer “Mike Doe”, who may work for APD or the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the lawsuit says.
A city spokesperson said it has not been served with the lawsuit and that it would be inappropriate to comment on potential pending litigation.
The lawsuit describes how Watchulonis was walking along trails in the park when he was approached by APD officers on ATVs. The officers told him he was trespassing and pressured him to delete video footage from his camera or face arrest, violating his right to free speech, according to the lawsuit.
Watchulonis is represented by civil rights attorneys Gerry Weber and Drago Cepar. The lawsuit was first reported by Saporta Report.
The lawsuit alleges that the APD officers’ harassment of Watchulonis is part of the city’s ongoing pattern of interfering and arresting citizens “solely for constitutionally protected filming or photographing of police activity.”
“During the initial encounters with Defendant Thomas, Defendant Bentley, and Defendant Cantin, Mr. Watchulonis repeatedly and consistently explained to all officers involved that (1) he was a journalist, (2) he parked his vehicle in a public parking lot of the Intrenchment Creek Park, (3) he followed the public trails while walking through the forest, (4) he never encountered any sign or barrier indicating that he was no longer on public property, and that – (5) if by some chance he was unknowingly trespassing – he was happy to leave whatever area the officers were claiming he was not supposed to travel through if they directed him to a path to do so and gave him an opportunity to do so,” the lawsuit says.
Maj. Cantin told Watchulonis that anybody parking at Intrenchment Creek Park is “one of your little forest people,” referring to people who oppose construction of the Atlanta public safety training center and the land swap DeKalb County officials approved with Blackhall Studios, according to the lawsuit.
“Mr. Watchulonis was interfered with in his filming and later detained solely because he was seen filming and/or because (as the officers opined without basis) he supported the views of the ‘little forest people,'” says the lawsuit.
Numerous gatherings and protests have taken place at Intrenchment Creek Park and dozens of people arrested in police sweeps of the area, many facing serious domestic terrorism charges. Environmental activist Manuel Terán was killed in the park in January during a police raid to clear protesters from the site.
In March, DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond ordered the park closed to the public because the Georgia Bureau of Investigation said it found potential booby traps.
The story has been updated.