SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – Santa Fe is the latest city in the state to create a new way to respond to mental and behavioral health calls instead of police. Santa Fe Mayor Alan Webber announced the new program on Monday called the Alternative Response Unit.

Last June, Albuquerque announced it was creating a new Community Safety Department to address these types of calls. While it has a similar goal, Santa Fe’s new unit will work differently.

“The idea of the Alternative Response Unit is to provide services to people who have behavioral health or mental health needs who really require a different kind of service than what we provide when we send a police officer all by themselves,” Mayor Webber said. “Being mentally ill is not a crime. Having a behavioral health issue is a health problem not a matter for criminal justice.”

The new unit will start as one team made up of a police officer in a dressed-down uniform, a paramedic, and a social worker, all trained in crisis intervention. At a press conference on Monday, Santa Fe Fire Department Chief, Paul Babcock, explained the calls will come into dispatch. With the police officer being the only person on the scene armed, he or she will make sure the scene is safe and that the individual does not have a weapon. The paramedic will make sure the individual needing services is okay and the caseworker will help connect the individual with needed resources. While many cities are creating similar response teams, Mayor Webber said this one is catered to Santa Fe.

“Santa Fe is a city where families are the most important building block of our community. And, the effort with this project is to respect that family engagement with people who need this kind of help. We want families to be confident if they have a family member who needs help and they call for help, they will get this unit coming to serve them and it will be sensitive and it will be compassionate and it will reflect that sense of family and community spirit and it won’t just be a cold bureaucratic response. It will be a family-based effort,” he said.

A representative from the National Alliance on Mental Illness Santa Fe called the changes ‘essential.’

“Because one of the things not spoken here is these problems are family problems. And Santa Fe is a community of families and families struggling with an individual with a mental illness diagnosis a substance abuse problem are always hesitant to call 911 for help because they’re afraid it won’t come out well,” he said. “They read the news they see the TV and there’s a lot of fear out there and this is a major step forward in being able to build trust and demonstrate competence in being able to come in and help in 911 calls and encourage families to get the help as soon as they need it and not put it off.”

City officials are also hopeful the Alternative Response Unit, which they said has been seven years in the making, will help ease the amount of calls police and firefighters are responding to. For Mayor Webber, the new unit will also allow mental health to be talked about more freely and be a priority coming out of the COVID.

“Let’s make mental health something we want to address and give people support for and make sure there’s help for people who are struggling with their own mental health as we come out of COVID. I think it’s really critically important that the next pandemic not be a mental health pandemic,” he said.

The city said it will track the success of the new unit in a number of ways including doing follow-up work to see if individuals are still connected to needed services and see if it helps reduce the amount of calls police and firefighters are responding to.

The Alternative Response Unit will start on May 4. For the first three weeks, it will be operating two days a week. If approved by city council, there is $475,000 in the budget to have a second team in the unit in July.