ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – The City of Albuquerque is in the process of adding a third branch to its first responder system. The Albuquerque Community Safety Department will be dedicated to dispatching unarmed first responders trained in behavioral health and on-scene assistance to calls for non-life-threatening crisis-related scenarios.
Albuquerque Community Safety Coordinator Mariela Ruiz-Angel said planning came from Mayor Tim Keller’s administration in the hopes of alleviating emergency calls to the police and fire departments that had to do mental and behavioral health. She said her team was concerned that the pandemic would slow down the community engagement process. “Luckily we had a fantastic team, we used our technology, we did a ton of outreach and we were able to really accomplish something that I’m very proud of and I think the city’s very proud of, which is how to do true community engagement,” Ruiz-Angel said.
Planning began in June of 2020 and involved creating a survey for community members and organizations to fill out, in addition to multiple meetings between the administration and the public. They partnered with other organizations to host lectures and panel discussions to highlight issues and invite discussion.
In January of 2021, the community engagement report was released, listing the topics discussed over a six-month period of data collecting. The top five issues the community would like ACS to address are homelessness issues, needle pickup, welfare checks, suicide threats or attempts and mental and behavioral health.
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Many of the people surveyed preferred the mental health responders would have backgrounds in crisis intervention and trauma-informed care with professional backgrounds as social workers, psych nurses and mental health specialists. The report stated that while there was an overall agreement that the department should work as much as possible without the police, the recommendation was to get as much information as possible prior to arriving at the scene. Then determine if ACS or the Albuquerque Police Department approaches individuals first or if it will be both responders at the same time.
They’re also looking at where to place the ACS headquarters, potentially at a plot of land on San Mateo Blvd. and Kathryn Ave. “I think we want to be very strategic in where we place people, what parts of the city we take calls from so that we can be very focused on certain areas and so we can grow appropriately,” Ruiz-Angel said. “We think that this is an area of town that could definitely use a public safety center, but doesn’t necessarily need police and fire. It could be a place where relationships with the community can be built.”
Ruiz-Angel said they were very pleased with the amount of community response to the initiative, but that it would not stop there. “Community engagement really has to be ongoing, it has to be a constant conversation. Once we start to move forward, I think those same kinds of engagement processes can continue. This is just the beginning,” Ruiz-Angel said.
Ruiz-Angel said they wanted to make it clear to the community that these services would not take away resources or funding from the police and fire departments, but rather provide extra support and training that would benefit the community. They are currently in the process of hiring leadership for the department, which will be finalized by the end of the month before they start hiring staff.