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……