Why Albuquerque's Latest Experiment in Policing Doesn't Involve Officers

Henry Gass / The Christian Science Monitor
Why Albuquerque's Latest Experiment in Policing Doesn't Involve Officers Leigh White and Walter Adams, behavioral health specialists, respond to a 911 call about a homeless encampment in Albuquerque. They are members of the Albuquerque Community Safety department, an ambitious experiment in policing. (photo: Ann Hermes, CS Monitor)

It’s early October, and perhaps the busiest week of the year in New Mexico’s largest city. Hundreds of hot air balloons dot the cloudless blue sky – part of the annual balloon festival that Albuquerque hosts.

Walter Adams and Leigh White are on patrol. Their white car, stamped with “Community Safety” decals, is headed for a neighborhood once known as the “war zone.”

Mr. Adams and Ms. White aren’t carrying guns, though. Instead, they are armed with a trunk full of water bottles, Cheez-Its, and Chewy bars. Both are wearing jeans and matching black T-shirts. Skee-Lo’s 1990s hit “I Wish” is blasting from the radio.

While Mr. Adams drives, Ms. White eats breakfast snacks and works on a black Dell laptop. Before long, the first dispatch flashes over the computer screen. They have to head west.

A few minutes later, they’re standing outside two tents pitched in the trees near a church. People walking or jogging along a nearby trail glance over.

“Someone called 911 and said there was a fire,” says Ms. White. A man inside the tent curses back at her.

“We know better than that,” he says. He’s been homeless for seven years, he tells them. “That’s what people do, call the cops,” he adds. “It’s [bull].”

“We’re not here for that,” replies Mr. Adams. “What happens is police get a call, and they send us.”

Ms. White and Mr. Adams, in fact, aren’t police. What they do is not normal emergency response work nor normal police work. It’s something of a hybrid of the two – part of an experiment that Albuquerque is hoping will change public safety in America.

They are members of the Albuquerque Community Safety (ACS) department. Launched in August, the agency is intended to complement the city’s police and fire departments by having teams of behavioral health specialists patrol and respond to low-level, nonviolent 911 calls.

While it is modeled after programs in a few other cities, ACS is the first stand-alone department of its kind in the country. The initiative is still nascent – Mr. Adams and Ms. White are one of just two responder teams at the moment. But authorities here hope it will defuse the kinds of tensions between police and residents that have surfaced in cities across the country and help reinvent 911 emergency response systems, which many believe have become antiquated.

“What Albuquerque is doing is really exciting and innovative,” says Nancy La Vigne, executive director of the Task Force on Policing at the Council on Criminal Justice, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. Police chiefs “almost universally say we’d love to offload these calls to other people. We need these types of models to be developed and implemented, so we can learn from them.”

On this stop, the program makes its small mark. Mr. Adams tells the homeless man about resources available at HopeWorks, a local nonprofit. The man says he’s been there before, but never upstairs, where many of the services are.

“As long as you show commitment, they’ll help you,” says Mr. Adams.

The man says he’ll go.

Since the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020, cities around the country have debated how to reform policing – from reducing the use of lethal force, to increasing accountability, to curtailing the need for officers to deal with complex social issues at the expense of genuine criminal investigations.

Albuquerque has been debating change, too. Yet to see why the city has become one of the first to push public safety in a new direction, you have to wind the clock back a decade.

From 2010 to 2014, members of the Albuquerque Police Department shot and killed 27 people. One of them, in March 2014, was James Boyd, a homeless man diagnosed with schizophrenia. An investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice concluded a month later that APD “too often uses deadly force in an unconstitutional manner,” including against “individuals who posed a threat only to themselves.” The police entered into a court-approved agreement with DOJ that October, which the department has been operating under ever since.

Initially, police shootings in the city decreased for several years. But more recently they have begun to rise again. From 2015 to this year, Albuquerque had the second-highest rate of fatal police shootings in the country among big cities.

While all this was going on, New Mexico’s behavioral health system was falling into disarray as well. In 2013, the state launched a criminal investigation into 15 of its largest mental health providers – accusing them of defrauding Medicaid – and froze their funding. The state attorney general cleared all the providers of the allegations, but the state’s mental health system has never fully recovered.

Since moving to Albuquerque from the East Coast 20 years ago, Ms. White has watched as the city’s police and mental health care systems have fallen in national rankings – and wondered what she could do.

“I have certainly seen it get a whole lot worse in Albuquerque over the last couple of years, especially with COVID,” she says. “I thought [ACS] would be a great way to get back involved in the community, let these folks know that there’s somebody that cares.”

In many cities, calling 911 hasn’t always been the best way to get someone help. Albuquerque’s aim with its new initiative is as much to re-imagine its emergency response system as it is to reform policing.

The 911 system is now about 60 years old. It hasn’t changed much since emergency medical services were added to calls in the mid-1970s. “We ultimately decided to couple care with enforcement,” says Rebecca Neusteter, leader of the Transform911 project at the University of Chicago Health Lab, an initiative aimed at reforming the nation’s emergency response system. And since then “this critical gateway [has] been neglected.”

About 1 in 4 people killed by police since 2015 had mental illnesses, according to a Washington Post database. Many of those killings occurred after the families of those people called the police for help.

“The default response is to send police to a scene and hope they solve whatever is happening,” says Dr. Neusteter. That’s “really not in anyone’s interests.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has put even more strain on systems in cities such as Albuquerque, in terms of both funding and demand. But the new agency has the potential to bring some changes locally.

“By and large [ACS] is a positive move” for policing in the city, says Peter Simonson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico. “It holds the promise that perhaps someday we will see fewer armed officers interacting with people in mental health crisis.”

Ms. White and Mr. Adams are having a busy morning. They respond to five calls, most of them dealing with unsheltered individuals and homeless encampments. They all follow a familiar script. The two responders pull up in their white Honda Civic, and Mr. Adams and Ms. White grab water bottles and snacks from the trunk. They offer them to the people in the encampments, who eye them with a mixture of suspicion and curiosity. Then the behavioral health specialists ask the people if they’re connected to services, or want to be.

Ms. White, with a keen eye for detail, notices cuts or hospital bracelets and checks to see if anyone wants medical attention. Mr. Adams approaches them with a disarming ease. He ambles up and greets the individuals like he would a stranger he’s asking for directions. It’s an unruffled approach born of his past.

Mr. Adams grew up in a town, Las Vegas, New Mexico, that had widespread gang and drug problems. It also was home to the state’s main psychiatric hospital. To keep him out of trouble, Mr. Adams’ father would have his son accompany him to basketball games at the hospital.

So, starting in third grade – long before he knew about behavioral disorders – young Walter began socializing with people who were dealing with mental health issues. It is something he leans on today.

“My dad’s playing basketball and I’m just there. I was around it,” he says. “You knew those people, you knew their name, you talked to them. So to me, it wasn’t anything new or different.”

Mr. Adams came to ACS from the criminal justice system – specifically juvenile corrections and specialty courts for people with behavioral health disorders. Like many of his colleagues, he’s spent years dealing with people some might consider dangerous or threatening. And while he admits that ACS is in its infancy, he thinks they could be doing more.

“Ninety-five percent of our calls are unsheltered individuals,” says Mr. Adams. “We can respond to others. [But] I think [officials] are still getting used to it.”

ACS teams operate under some restrictions. While the responders have been integrated into the 911 system, the calls they get are screened first by the police department to determine whether they meet certain classifications – no firearms on scene, for instance – and then by fire department staff.

For now, the ACS teams are also only working 8 to 5, avoiding the possible hazards of night duty. They hope to have 24/7 service by the end of the year.

Once the responders are available round-the-clock, Mr. Adams doesn't envision many concerns. “It would be more intoxicated people, potentially more dangerous,” he says. But “I don’t think the response would be different.”

Not everyone agrees with that. Some think more serious call types could dramatically change what team members do, and, more important, what happens to them.

And those circumstances could determine how successful the program is.

Or isn’t.

In the lead-up to the launch of the ACS initiative, the new recruits had to go through considerable training before being allowed to roam Albuquerque’s streets. They met with various emergency response professionals to learn about coping with different situations.

Some of the training was technical – how to use “MDTs,” the mobile data terminals that flash calls across the screens in their cars. Other lessons were case specific: How do you transport someone who is drunk? What do you do if you take someone into custody and they have a dog?

Yet a key focus of the training was on the main concern that many people have about the ACS program here and initiatives like it around the country – safety. How do you send unarmed social workers or behavioral health responders into potentially dangerous situations without getting them killed?

“Every call you go on you should expect the potential for violence,” Lt. Jerrad Luciani of Albuquerque Fire Rescue (AFR) told the new recruits during an instruction session in August. “Keep your head on a swivel.”

“A bullet can travel faster than you,” added AFR Capt. Alejandro Marrufo. Even though calls are screened to avoid putting AFC team members into potentially dangerous situations, no one can predict when something might go wrong.

“There’s only so much the call taker can do to determine what’s happening on the ground,” says Dr. La Vigne of the Council on Criminal Justice. “Situations can also become threatening in real time as well.”

For now, there are 10 emergency call types ACS personnel will respond to, ranging from issues surrounding homelessness to suicide. Albuquerque receives about 200,000 of these calls a year. Over time, this list will expand, which is where complications could arise.

“It’s a complex problem of when to send who. But until recently we only had one option and that was police for everything,” says Matt Dietzel, acting commander of the police department’s Crisis Intervention Section.

“It makes me nervous, and I fully support ACS,” he adds. “There are tons and tons of calls for them to take. But there is probably a line” to draw somewhere on who gets sent out on what calls.

The new recruits know there will be challenges to face. Many of them come from backgrounds of managed care, where they had worked with individuals for a long period of time, and now they will be responding to spontaneous situations. But they believe their backgrounds will be an asset.

Chris Blystone moved to New Mexico from a small town in Michigan after the 2008 recession. He had hit bottom, along with the U.S. economy, and wanted to turn his life around. Raised by a single mother who had a litany of mental health issues and an abusive partner, Mr. Blystone was rebellious growing up. He got kicked out of his mother’s house and spent time on the streets, he says, stealing food and car stereos.

He got involved in the behavioral health system when he moved to New Mexico, working in a halfway house and then at HopeWorks. “It takes a hard life to deal with hard lives,” he says. “No guns and no weapons, just empathy and a soft touch. I think that can go a long ways.”

The police department does have some experience in dispatching social worker-types out into the streets. The Crisis Intervention Section contains eight detectives, two clinicians, and a psychiatrist. When police encounter unexpected behavioral issues on a call, this is the group they usually summon. The division also contains COAST, a small team of case managers that since 2005 has focused on helping mentally ill people who come into repeated contact with law enforcement. This unit will now be absorbed in the ACS program.

Mr. Dietzel, a police officer for 16 years, has watched as the department has struggled to adapt to its increasing behavioral health-related workload – and not hired the officers it needs.

“There’s never been enough officers,” he says. But, as ACS grows, “it’s going to help reduce the burden that [the police department] is facing right now.”

The ACS staff is expanding slowly, but another group of responders should be hitting the streets in November, doubling the department’s number of patrol units. Once the agency has hired its full complement of 41 field staff for the year, the goal is to take 3,000 to 4,000 calls a month. While this is a fraction of the overall 911 calls the city gets, advocates of the program believe it will have effects far beyond the emergency response system.

“You can correlate it to lives saved,” says Tim Keller, the mayor of Albuquerque and one of the driving forces behind the new initiative. He believes it will give police more time to respond to serious crimes, and “should build trust in communities,” especially ones that have been “overpoliced.”

Backers also note the program should be insulated somewhat from the vicissitudes of politics. ACS is budgeted as a stand-alone department, which means it may avoid some of the budget cutbacks that have historically bedeviled criminal justice reforms when violent crime spikes.

“We’re not quite sure if [everything] is going to work, says Mariela Ruiz-Angel, director of ACS. “But if we don’t get this going, [if we] try to overanalyze, we’ll never get anywhere.”

“Public safety has to at some point change,” she adds.

Eventually, authorities hope the program will help them tackle the root causes of systemic issues like substance abuse and chronic homelessness, as well as cut down on repeat 911 calls.

“We [want to] have enough longitudinal data to say that people who [were] calling 911 three hundred times a year are now calling [about] 12 times a year,” says Sarita Nair, the city’s chief administration officer.

The last call of the morning brings Mr. Adams and Ms. White to a gas station convenience store at a busy intersection near downtown. A homeless woman outside the store is shaking and yelling to herself.

The team worries she could stumble into the street, or accidentally hit someone walking past, so the two responders talk with her, keeping a bit more distance than normal. She eventually takes the bottle of water they offer, and sits down in the shade. Mr. Adams believes that she is on drugs or may suffer from mental illness, but she’s answering their questions and staying calm. Until she isn’t.

She starts shouting to herself. Mr. Adams calls for an ambulance. It arrives a few minutes later, followed by a fire truck. The woman was lucid and responsive, Mr. Adams says, “then she just flipped.” After a short discussion with the other responders, the woman is sedated and taken to a hospital.

It’s the kind of call that, if the wrong person responded at the wrong time, could have escalated like the James Boyd incident in 2014. Instead, everyone is leaving safe, and no police officer had to be there.

Mr. Adams walks away from it like he has the hundreds of other calls he’s taken so far in his new job. No matter what the circumstances, he approaches each incident, he says, the same way: with patience, compassion, and snacks.

“I serve those people with the same intention that I would want someone to help my family,” he says.

Still, he notes, ACS is “a work in progress.” “There’s no one that could tell us [how to evolve], because there has never been this type of program,” he says. “We’re going to grow together.”

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