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Editorial: Projects offer better way for cops to deal with mentally ill

James Boyd.

That name evokes an unpleasant community memory of how interactions between people with mental health issues and law enforcement can go terribly wrong.

The homeless camper with a history of mental illness was shot during a standoff with police in the Sandia Mountains foothills in March 2014. That year, 43 percent of the Albuquerque Police Department’s officer-involved shootings occurred with people living with mental illness, according to a report by the CIT (Crisis Intervention Training) ECHO (Extension for Community Healthcare Options) program. And that year, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a scathing report that said APD’s policies, training and/or supervision of officer encounters with people with mental health issues were inadequate and too often led to use of excessive force.

So, soon after, CIT ECHO was launched in Albuquerque with a grant from the DoJ’s Bureau of Justice Assistance to raise awareness of how to deal effectively with those struggling with mental health issues. The weekly video conference workshops, attended by police officers and first responders, has since spread to other states.

And now the program here is out of money.

Its final report shows encouraging results. The perception of when participants thought use of force was required for officer safety dropped from more than 20 percent to about 3 percent. Participants felt more confident in dealing with people with a mental illness and better informed of the resources available to them.

This program dovetails into APD’s new Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, or LEAD, which will allow officers to determine whether the person they’ve arrested needs to go to jail or would better benefit from a trip to a detox facility and a meeting with a case manager who can help them plug into services such as Medicaid, housing vouchers and substance abuse treatment. Like CIT ECHO, it gives officers a chance to de-escalate a situation. And LEAD would allow officers to give those struggling with substance abuse issues the chance to get on track before getting an arrest and criminal record.

As APD works with DOJ on the last pieces of the law enforcement diversion program, the search is on to keep CIT ECHO and its weekly videoconference workshops in place (1) because they are working and (2) because there is a great need in New Mexico, particularly in the Albuquerque-metro area. The cost to keep CIT ECHO going is minimal – mainly covering the coordinator’s position and ancillary expenses. Considering the results so far, that’s a big return on a small investment.

Because the city is required, under its court-ordered oversight agreement with DOJ, to increase officer training in this area, it should look into its roughly $577 million general fund budget to keep it going. After all, when faced with what looked like a $40 million budget deficit last March, City Councilors raised the city’s gross receipts tax rate and stipulated at least 60 percent of the revenue go to “public safety budget goal priorities.” Then, the deficit magically disappeared. The need for behavioral health services did not. In addition, Bernalillo County, which includes all of Albuquerque, increased its gross receipts tax by around $20 million a year to boost resources for people with mental health issues.

So, metro consumers are already contributing a lot of cash to the cause. And they deserve to have it dedicated to programs that deliver results.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.