NM mayor creates alternative department to respond to non-violent calls instead of police

The department will respond to 911 calls for non-violent crimes, homelessness and mental health issues

Albuquerque Journal

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — After weeks of nationwide protests calling for police reform, Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller announced the city is creating an alternative department to respond to non-violent calls, like those dealing with mental health and homelessness.

Keller said this first-of-its-kind program is a unique solution to a number of challenges the Albuquerque Police Department is facing.

"This would be a third branch of our public safety department," Keller said. "What we found over lots of research actually is that there is a real need for folks who are experts in things like homelessness, behavioral health, mental health instead of police or fire."

Keller said the program, which they're calling the Albuquerque Community Safety Department, will allow un-armed professionals to show up to scenes for non-violent crimes, rather than armed police officers. These professionals will respond to calls on homelessness, addiction, mental health, & other issues. Citizens will still be able to call 911 to report a problem, but from the initial intake process their call could be rerouted to ACS.

"It is also reallocating resources, there's no doubt about that but it's also refocusing what our officers are supposed to be working for," he said. "This also should allow them to focus on crime fighting."

With the movement calling to "defund police," Keller said for them this initiative does not mean they're taking away money from core police work or other reform efforts.

"It's in no way changing any of our approach with respect to addressing crime from all sides, and that also including hiring more officers. We have to do that," said Keller said. "They're plates are just totally full right now, trying to be everything to every call, so this also should allow them to focus on crime fighting."

While much of this is in its early stages, Sarita Nair, the Chief Administrative Officer, said the funding for this already exists.

"We can do the first phase of this department using existing dollars and existing resources," Nair said. "And then as we move into the next budget planning cycle, which has been changed because of the coronavirus, we actually end up with a little more time, to look at next year's budget, and that's going to work to our advantage as we put together the plan for this department."

Keller said for the most part, much of the department can be approved on a local level, but there are some parts that might have to be approved by the courts or even the Department of Justice. Since 2014, the city and APD have been working on police reform, after it was mandated by the courts after a federal DOJ investigation found that officers had a pattern and practice of excessive force.

But where will these experts come from?

"We have some already, that's the good news, because we've been piloting these programs, we know we have some in our family and community service team we also know we have some in our fire department and we do have some at APD," Keller said.

The city is also planning on creating a pipeline program with universities to get students involved early. And what happens if an unarmed professional is suddenly in a dangerous situation?

"It's absolutely a real concern and it's actually the same concern we have everytime the fire department is called, so we're going to use the same model," he said. "APD already has a way to be close by on stand by for that kind of situation."

Currently, Keller said they're continuing to have discussions with city council members and other leaders to figure out how exactly this will all work out.

"For us, we hope it's an example of innovation that is right for our city," Keller said.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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