Georgia authorities allege that state troopers in January fatally shot an environmental protester who had fired at authorities after a trooper shot pepper balls into the protester’s tent, according to incident reports obtained Friday by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The newspaper obtained multiple Georgia Department of Public Safety use-of-force incident reports through an open records request. The records offer the most complete account yet of authorities’ version of the Jan. 18 killing of Manuel Paez Terán, who went by the name Tortuguita and used the pronoun they.
Paez Terán was killed in DeKalb County's South River Forest as officers tried to clear activists who were camping near the site of a planned police and training center that protesters derisively call “Cop City.”
Protesters have questioned officials' assertion that officers shot Paez Terán in self-defense after the 26-year-old shot a trooper. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation continues to examine the shooting and has released few details about the incident, other than to say that preliminary evidence supports authorities' assertions and that the trooper was shot with a bullet from a gun Paez Terán legally purchased in 2020.
According to the newly obtained incident reports, Paez Terán briefly spoke to officers who came to the protester’s tent and refused their demands to leave the area, prompting authorities to fire pepper balls. Authorities say Paez Terán then fired multiple shots from inside the tent, and six officers returned fire, shooting the activist more than a dozen times.
“I knew the suspect in the tent was shooting at us because I could hear the gun shots coming from inside of the tent," according to a report written by a Georgia Department of Public Safety corporal. “I could see the front of the tent door flapping as the bullets ripped through it and I could hear bullets striking the vegetation surrounding me.”
The corporal said authorities had encountered Paez Terán inside the tent, and at one point the activist told the officers: “No, I want you to leave."
The corporal said Paez Terán was “very confident” in asking authorities to leave and “it was immediately apparent” that the protester had “no intentions of cooperating."
The corporal also wrote that, prior to the gunfire, he told Paez Terán that officers were about to fire chemical agents into the tent and that Paez Terán would be charged with criminal trespassing.
Paez Terán’s death and their dedication to opposing the training center has vaulted the “Stop Cop City” movement onto the national and international stage, with leftist activists from across the country holding vigils and prompting some to travel and join the protest movement that began in 2021. They say officers at the 85-acre (34-hectare) center would be trained to become more militarized and quell dissent, all while hundreds of trees are cut down, damaging the climate and flood mitigation in a poor, majority-Black neighborhood.
A few protests have turned violent, including earlier this month when more than 150 masked activists left a nearby music festival and stormed the proposed site of the training center, setting fire to construction equipment and throwing rocks at retreating law enforcement officers.
The Atlanta City Council approved building the proposed $90 million Atlanta Public Safety Training Center in 2021, saying a state-of-the-art campus would replace substandard offerings and boost police morale, which is beset by hiring and retention struggles in the wake of violent protests against racial injustice that roiled the city after George Floyd was killed by police in 2020.
For more than two months, Paez Terán’s family and their attorneys have called on officials to release information about the shooting. According to an autopsy the family commissioned, Paez Terán was sitting cross-legged with their hands in the air at the time they were shot. The autopsy report also notes it is “impossible to determine” whether the activist was holding a firearm at the time they were shot.
The family commissioned the autopsy after the DeKalb County Medical Examiner’s Office conducted the initial examination. Officials have not released the DeKalb County report, so it’s unclear whether it reached a similar conclusion that Paez Terán had their hands raised with palms facing inward at the time of the shooting.
The family’s attorneys did not immediately return a request for comment.