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How Albuquerque Is Tackling Community Safety

In June 2020, Albuquerque’s mayor announced a Community Safety department to put thousands of calls on homelessness, addiction, and mental health into the hands of trained professionals, to keep police officers focused on responding to crime. It was the culmination of two years of work to change the way the city handles public safety and was a response to nationwide calls to stop seeing policing as a one-size-fits-all answer.

Social workers, housing and homelessness specialists, violence prevention and diversion program experts would become an option for 9-1-1 dispatchers to contact when a community safety response is more appropriate than a paramedic, fire-fighter, or armed police officer. The City worked with community members and city officials to map out details of the department, which intended to reallocate millions of dollars and expand investments in violence intervention, diversion programs, and treatment initiatives.

As the city’s Director of the Office of Equity and Inclusion, Michelle Melendez, put it: “A social work response, rooted in social justice, gives us a much better chance of connecting people with the help they need and getting better outcomes for people of color without involving law enforcement.”

The City’s chief administrator, Sarita Nair, said: “By sending police to all of these calls, we were doing more than overburdening these officers. 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.”

A few months after the announcement, however, a fully staffed Albuquerque Community Safety Department (ACS) had not yet materialized in city budget plans delivered to the city council. As the Albuquerque Journal described: “The city’s new Community Safety Department this fiscal year is mostly a mixed bag of existing employees transferring from other city departments. Largely missing from the proposed department are licensed mental health professionals.”

Total police spending would still grow 3 percent compared to the previous budget, and Family and Community Services appropriations would rise about 2 percent. City leadership said it would take time to build the right foundation and for it to evolve.

Some city council members said the department, as proposed in the budget through June 2021, did not appear to represent much change for Albuquerque. Said one: Too often promising public programs suffer from limited early investment and momentum. Another said she was “really trying to give them the benefit of the doubt. I’m sure they’ve got something more than this.”

The mayor indicated that the pandemic and sheer economic survival curtailed the vision in 2020, resulting in a small budget for the new department. Ultimately, the mayor’s budget called for $7.5 million — but the council approved $2.5 million. Instead of 200 workers, the team started with closer to a dozen.

Mariela Ruiz-Angel,Community Safety Department Coordinator

Mariela Ruiz-Angel, the coordinator for ACS, told New Mexico News Port in December 2020 about some of the limitations to be resolved. People transported by police to needed services are required to be handcuffed in the back of a car. Other emergency responders, such as the fire department, are required to send people to the hospital in an ambulance.

‘Down-and-out’ calls, where someone is unconscious or intoxicated, or calls regarding homelessness, are common calls for emergency responses. About 10,000 of 17,000 calls do not end up needing emergency response or medical need. Said a representative for the Albuquerque Fire Rescue, “They really just have nowhere else to go.”

“We need to be able to transport people to treatment, emergency shelter, and other services,” Ruiz-Angel said. “The number one challenge is the lack of a 24-7 crisis triage facility and the general lack of social services that are open and available at night and on weekends. ACS can have the best professionals in the world, but without adequate services to help people, their emergency responses will only be a stop-gap measure.

Other challenges include the lack of a sobering center, the inadequate number of drug detoxification beds, the lack of a dedicated methamphetamine treatment facility or program, and the distance to the current City-run homeless shelter.

“Police officers should be fighting violent crime, firefighters should be fighting fires, paramedics should be responding to medical emergencies,” Ruiz-Angel said, and “trained, unarmed professionals should be addressing calls on mental health, addiction, inebriation, and homelessness where there is not a threat to public safety.”

Related Reading

Albuquerque city announcement, June 2020

Albuquerque Journal, September 2020

New Mexico News Port, December 2020