ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – A new proposal from the City of Albuquerque could make for a major shift in who responds to mental illness and other public health calls. In a news conference Monday, Mayor Tim Keller announced his intention to create what the city is calling the Albuquerque Community Safety Department.
“When you call 911, all across America, the response is fire or police or both,” Keller said. “We’re adding a third response into that equation by developing a civilian, professionally trained approach, a public health approach really, to public safety.”
While the department is still just a concept, Mayor Keller says the city intends to create an agency that will dispatch unarmed, specially trained professionals to respond calls on mental health, drug addiction, public inebriation, homelessness, “down-and-outs,” and other low-priority calls like abandoned cars and traffic management. The Keller administration says the “cabinet-level department” will take armed police officers out of these situations so those police officers can focus on violent crime.
“We’re creating a new model for community safety that sends the right resource at the right time on the right call and that’s where our current two departments have always struggled,” Keller said.
Amid national protests centered around the role of police departments in communities, Keller said Monday the concept of the “Community Safety Department” comes out of years of meetings with community leaders, focus groups, and city departments. Albuquerque’s Chief Administrative Officer Sarita Nair said weekly meetings involving multiple city departments have consistently centered around finding solutions aside from sending police officers to calls about homeless encampments and people passed out in parks.
“By sending police to all of these calls, we were doing more than overburdening these officers,” Nair said. “We were sending the message that a wide range of social issues including poverty, substance abuse, and behavioral health challenges were, in fact, criminal problems.”
Over the last several years, the city has launched several new initiatives to reduce police involvement in non-emergency situations. A pilot program called the “Crisis Outreach and Support Team” helped transfer more than 15,000 down-and-out calls from the police department to the fire department. Homeless encampment calls have also moved to homeless outreach teams.
The city has also been forced to change its response to the mentally ill over the last several years, in part, due to a court-enforced settlement agreement reached between Albuquerque Police and the Department of Justice. In April 2014, the DOJ determined APD had a pattern or practice of excessive use of force. In the years since the city has trained all of its officers in “Crisis Intervention Training” to help respond to calls where mental illness is a factor.
“This whole concept of just asking the officer to get some training and do more for new problems… we’ve really gotta think about,” Keller said. “This is something different, we would hope that again, the non-violent, or non-criminal welfare checks could be done by unarmed civilians who are professionally trained.”
Over the next several months, the city will begin a planning process for the department. They plan on gathering input from experts and the public on how to bring the department together with existing resources from several departments as well as adding new resources.
“We’ll also work closely with the DOJ and the other folks involved in police reform on how we structure the new department and what types of calls they handle,” said Nair. “One of the more complex challenges will be handling calls for mental and behavioral health challenges which of course is why the DOJ came to Albuquerque in the first place. I just want to assure all of the people in our community that have devoted their entire careers to advocacy on these issues that we will involve them in planning a thoughtful and careful approach to this department.”
The city envisions “Community Safety Department” responders also having the ability to call the police for backup if they need assistance or if there is a safety threat. Additionally, the city says social workers will be a key part of this department.
While acknowledging there is a lack of professionals in this area, the city will be partnering with state universities and colleges to create a pipeline program where students will receive funding if they commit to working for the department after completing their education.
How much the department will cost or where its funding will come from is unclear. Mayor Keller stated Monday that the department’s creation will start with a focus on “restructuring and reallocating resources” that the city is already investing in different areas, saying he anticipated “tens of millions of dollars that will move” with the department’s creation.
“We do anticipate some budget requests on violence intervention around diversion and so forth but that will go through the normal budget process and that process during ‘Corona-time’ is totally different,” Keller said. “We’re going to work on it in July, we’ll probably submit our budget in August, and there are some kind of fiscal reasons why we probably need to finalize that budget by the end of October but that is council’s choice of course council is the appropriating body for the city.”