A Better Approach?

In my continuing effort to find positive aspects of our gloomy socio-political landscape, I came across a very interesting experiment in public safety being conducted in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The city has established what has been named the “Albuquerque Community Safety (ACS) department.”

Launched in September, 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.

As slogans go, “Reinvent policing” or “Promote Community Safety” are certainly less off-putting than “Defund the Police,” but the premises are similar; the idea is to relieve police from the need to respond to  situations that don’t pose an immediate threat to public safety and that can be better handled by social workers or mental health practitioners who have the often-specialized skills to handle certain interventions.

Most police interviewed about such approaches are enthusiastic, not defensive.

“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.”

Even before the police killing of George Floyd sparked massive demonstrations, a number of cities were debating how to reduce the use of lethal force, how  to increase meaningful accountability, and how chronically understaffed departments might reduce the need to send uniformed officers to deal with issues that aren’t, strictly speaking, posing a public safety threat.

In Albuquerque, those discussions were made more urgent by the city’s experience; between 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.

If that wasn’t worrisome enough, the state’s behavioral health system was disintigrating.  A criminal investigation into whether 15 of New Mexico’s largest mental health providers had been defrauding Medicare led to the state freezing their funding. They were subsequently cleared of the the allegations, but according to the report, the state’s mental health system has never fully recovered.

Albuquerque’s aim with its new initiative was thus aimed at revamping its entire emergency response system, and not simply to reform policing.

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.”

“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.”

The effort in Albuquerque is still in its early stages, and police organizations and community groups will be watching to see how it works. The early indications are positive.

Wouldn’t it be great if the Left could stop having to defend clumsy language and the Right would admit that American cities need to handle public safety more effectively and with fewer tragic outcomes–if we could all just put our ongoing culture wars on hold, and instead work collaboratively to use emerging information and expertise to make our communities safer?

I guess I’m just a dreamer……


  1. Thanks. Good Stuff. Another interesting idea is in use in Minnesota. My understanding is that they have FREE Treatment on demand for substance abuse problems. In practice, the police may get a call about an addict sleeping on a park bench. Someone goes to see the person. They are given the option of going to jail or to free treatment – It is a free choice which way to go. That sounds like a very good idea to me. I expect I did not describe it properly but I hope you get the drift.

  2. I appreciate your effort to find messages with positive content. I need more of that.
    As a retired police officer I support ideas to reform the emergency response system in our community. We have become accustomed to calling 911 and expecting our police officers to arrive immediately and solve every problem, whether it is a crime or a social problem that would be better handled with alternative measures, but there was/is no alternative available so we would do our best and then take the next call. An alternative to non-violent, non-criminal situations is something that should be considered.
    “Defund the police” is a terrible slogan, but it is easier to chant than “Re-allocate your resources” at a protest rally. The line above about the Left not having to defend clumsy slogans, and the Right admitting that something needs to change, is good.

  3. Are you asking if we should study the issue of public safety in municipalities? Don’t our universities have entire departments dedicated to criminal justice? What about our Federal Justice Department?

    Couldn’t one of our Congressional Committees order a study on the subject nationwide and then implement the law to codify it?

    In Indiana, a quick Google search revealed this department:


    Why aren’t they making recommendations in Indiana?

    As a journalist who hopes to inspire citizens to take action, “defunding the police” gets more people off the couch than “transforming the police.” Especially after a white cop got caught on video killing a black guy with his knee.

    Going back to my original intent, why hasn’t this been studied already and implemented across the country?

    I don’t want to spoil the researcher’s outcomes, but I suspect this will work. However, I would make one suggestion now before the study begins, increase the pay scale for social workers and unionize their work. Quit taking advantage of their kind hearts and empathic souls.

    Or else you could get illegal immigrants to do their work as we do with all other capitalist tasks Americans refuse to do because of the oppressive pay scale. When social workers get paid less than retail workers, guess what happens to the supply of social workers? 😉

  4. We have gone from locking up and abusing the mentally ill to just ignoring them and hoping they go away, or at least don’t stay in our neighborhoods. This is part of the reason why we have enduring homelessness. It boils down to priorities. If our priorities are safe communities, then we must start investing in care for mentally ill and drug addicted citizens.

  5. best reaction here is to hve a citizens commitee who joins with the training of new police personel.many states do not allow any outside views of any training. having a broader view of how and why they are trained to do their job, would also lead to a more open views and ideas. many a story in the past 10 years have related to over posture of some,and many in some areas of the country.but,whats most intmidating is when you get stopped,for anything,and the first question is can we search your vehicle,for whatever they want to.(probable cause be damn here) ive come under this scenerio a few times driving truck, its my office,my living space and my job. no,is politly given with a smile,as i pull my drivers licence out of my wallet,my ACLU membership card is fully visable next to it.ive never be forced,but,i always explain,as they usually say,whatchahidding?im a citizen ofmthe United States,and i practice my consitutional rights,every day.they have always respected that,no issue.. if the people had more education on their rights,many of these problems may never have come to a fatal conclusion. then again,i had a L.A.county sheriff bash my head into the roof of my car while assuming the position while they (all 6 of them) ran a check on us,for cruising foothill blvd in tujunga,(rodney king blvd) because i was talking with my buddy.. we were two young navy guys circa 1972 who went to see what cruising in Calif,was all about. seems as i read over the years,that blue line has become a militaristic base of its own. targeting the military for such a job,only has a person who,has killed pull that trigger again. you never loose that thought.

  6. Years ago as a security officer in a hospital setting, I was fortunate enough to have participated in a training session called Crisis Prevention intervention. It was a series of techniques for non violent takedowns for patients acting out. It was excellent training.
    I do not know if this training is given to all police officers in all departments, but my experience taught me this is valuable training and maybe if not already offered to all officers, it should be.


  7. I am sure mental health issues have always been handled poorly by the police, but a lot of this ties back to the same basic structural problems in the US, the “Health Care INDUSTRY” (not system).

    Starting in the 90’s when, for good reason, the state shut down the state run asylums like Central State, but the state just grabbed the savings and thrust the externalities onto the rest of society. Those externalities usually look like crazy homeless people wandering the cities.

    Since then, the only way you might be able to get adequate treatment for mental health problems is if you are sane enough to hold a job, but insurance companies severely limit this kind of coverage, even today.

    In addition treating addiction like a crime, rather than a mental health issues results in thousands of deaths from overdoses.

    It is wonderful news that some communities are starting to recognize that the police are ill equipped to handle mental health problems. Now we just have to get the rest of society to recognize that mental health (along with health) is beneficial for society as a whole.

    According to yesterday’s blog: We the People, just need better lobbyists!

  8. I see YouTube videos frequently when a 911 caller explicitly asks for mental health pros to intervene and 911 operators send armed cops instead, with deadly consequences for the victim(s).

    I wish them luck and i fully support this idea if done the right way. I have serious doubts it will.

    Another area of law that needs less armed cops and more people attuned to people’s needs is in domestic violence situations.

  9. Every organization is a toolbox filled with all of the tools that might be needed to do whatever job the person carrying the box might be asked to accomplish.

    In my lifetime we have gone from institutions for many of the mentally ill until we thought that was too expensive and an unnecessary restriction of their freedom and sent them into the streets. It’s about time that someone invented a tool to replace that in a helpful non-violent way. Our interim solution was to depend on volunteers to serve that community and the greater community by sympathy-based caretaking supplemented by police to deal with the ones rejecting help.

    Let’s call this new approach, paying professionals to deal with the problem what it is, socialized medicine for those indeed in need.

    How clever are we?

  10. I endorse all of today’s commentaries, especially those of Todd, James and Dan, so let’s take this a step further. What with the enormous demand on present day professionals to do the work police are not equipped to do and if we are to have professionals on the 911 and other ends of this public and mental health problem, professionals who are busy on their own, then let’s have our colleges and universities offer undergraduate degrees specific to the problem to relieve such professionals from the likely explosion of demand for their services presaged by the New Mexico example.

  11. I am a retired psych nurse and substance use counselor. I actually worked at Central State for 3 1/2 years. There was only 1 nurse for 300 plus patients on evenings. We had mental health techs. The buildings were not designed for people with chronic schizophrenia. They were designed for people who could go to halfway houses. People could be committed for treatment against their wills for 90 days and if they demonstrated little to no improvement in that period, they could be committed for 1 year. At least they all had food, clothing, shelter, and people watching over them.

    I worked as a psych nurse for 19 years and a substance use counselor for 27 years. I was appalled by the the system stigma I saw in insurance companies. They will not authorize payment for the levels of care and length of treatment that people truly need. The free market system needs to be more concerned with quality of care, not just profit. 90% of the mental health and addiction treatment centers were closed by St. Vincent’s in 2003, and I lost my job.

    Now many of those people are homeless. Yes, we need professional mental health workers skilled in deescalation to augment the police force. And yes, they need to be paid well. And yes, they will need access to doctors and medications to help stabilize people. Police officers are not allowed to carry guns into a mental health hospital. Imagine that. And yes, I knew how to take someone down without a gun and on occasion, had to do that with my coworkers. It was rare at St. Vincent’s because we were also skilled in deescalating people and had the needed medications readily available to us. But, of course, none of our patients had any weapons.

    911 workers need to be better trained to discern who should be sent when a family member calls. They should definitely ask if the person of concern has a weapon and what sort of weapon. We could also train EMS in mental health deescalation. We send EMS to car accidents so why not to help the mentally ill?

    Due to HIPAA, police have no access to anyone’s medical records. The people who work in psychiatric home care cannot tell the police who they are treating.

    The police need training so they know when to call for EMS to help deescalate the person acting out without using excessive force. I am certain that if and when a mentally ill person threatens the police with a weapon,they will continue to be killed.

    Mentally ill people are getting killed by the police because mental health and addiction treatment centers are costly and hard to access. Many of the best like St. Vincent’s have closed their doors thanks to the free market system in health care.

  12. A lot of this can be traced straight back to Ronnie Reagan’s incompetent administration and it’s stopping funding for residential mental health funding. Yeah Big Government BAD. Little Government GOOD. What a crock of bull.

  13. YAA – yet another anecdote – back in the ’70s, a man was alternatively trying to swim across a lake at night, and wandering onto a family’s property lunging at the mother and daughter who came out to see if they could help.

    I was called because, (1) I was a board member of the local “drop in” center, and (2) I was personally known to the family through that involvement. I had the “basic” training given to volunteer helpers.

    I was able to calm the young man down and prevent him from harming himself or others. Eventually, the police were called and took the man, very peaceably to a mental health facility.

    This was a Detroit suburb, so more like a small town, and the young man in question was white.
    I don’t know what would have happened if this had happened in the city and the man was Black, even in the ’70s – probably no shooting, but also probably not treated as kindly.

    I am part of the “Left” and I hate the “Defunding” concept. “Reinventing” or “Removing the burden of work that the police shouldn’t be saddled with” (OK – no too catchy) – those are the ideas we need – Albuquerque seems to be on the right track

  14. You are misinformed. San Deigo, Calif. has teams consisting of social worker, psychologist, doctor and police officer. These teams go to situations where they work to solve the issue at hand . The police officer is only there if danger to the other three happens. Great teams making great strides.

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