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Amid nationwide calls for police reform, Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller plans to create a public safety department that would send trained professionals to respond to certain calls for help in place of armed officers.
The Albuquerque Community Safety Department would have social workers, housing and homelessness specialists and violence prevention and diversion program experts who would be dispatched to homelessness and “down-and-out” calls as well as behavioral health crises.
Keller says such calls usually end with someone going to jail or to a hospital.
“And the determiner of that is either a firefighter or police (officer),” Keller said in a phone interview Sunday. “Neither of them should be making that initial call, unless it’s a situation of violence. But in general, that’s what we have to fix.”
The new department would connect people in need with services to help address any underlying issues.
Keller is expected to make a formal announcement at a news conference Monday morning.
The Albuquerque Police Department is already in the middle of a yearslong reform process mandated by the courts after a federal Department of Justice investigation in 2014 found that officers had a pattern and practice of excessive force.
This also comes during a national movement pushing for the reform of police departments after the death of George Floyd, a black man killed by a Minneapolis police officer last month.
The new department, which would be dispatched through the city’s 911 system, is also intended to free up the first responders who typically have to deal with down-and-out and behavioral health calls.
“We’re just expecting them to solve every individual’s problem, and I think that’s totally unfair to them and their training,” Keller said of police and firefighters. “We should have trained professionals do this, instead of folks with a gun and a badge.”
It’s still unclear how this new department would have responded to an incident on June 4 in which 26-year-old Max Mitnik was shot in a head by an APD officer in the Tanoan neighborhood after his parents called 911, they said, because he wanted to be taken to a hospital so he wouldn’t hurt them.
An officer, identified as J. Ruiz in a search warrant affidavit, shot Mitnik after Mitnik allegedly advanced toward Ruiz with a knife. Mitnik is in stable condition.
APD said both officers who responded were trained in crisis intervention.
“There were really only two options: One was the Police Department, and that’s who was deployed,” Albuquerque Chief Administrative Officer Sarita Nair said in a phone interview Sunday. “And the other was a paramedic response, which since there were no physical injuries at that point and the paramedics could only take him to the hospital, neither of those were the perfect response.
“We do know that this department will bring that third option to the table.”
Nair said that the shooting is still under investigation by the Multi-Agency Task Force and that she hasn’t seen the lapel video and didn’t want to comment further.
She added that officers can still be nearby when people from the ACS respond to a call in case things turn violent, similar to the way officers currently assist firefighters and paramedics on certain calls.
The Mayor’s Office will send its proposed budget to the City Council in August, which gives the office a few more months to determine where money for the ACS will come from.
“We are not taking money away from core police work or existing reform efforts,” Nair said. “We are not turning away from the crime challenges or de-prioritizing crime fighting. It’s actually just the opposite.”
Nair said the ACS should allow officers to do more community policing and allow APD to better staff the homicide and sex crimes departments that need more investigative resources.
Keller said he thinks the proposed department would reduce crime.
“This is going to allow officers to focus on day-to-day community police work, and I think it’s going to drastically reduce their 911 call response challenges,” he said.
Nair said that the city needs a pipeline of trained professionals to staff the department and that city leaders plan to work with state colleges and universities to create a pipeline program in which the city can help fund education for students who commit to coming to work for the new department after they complete their education.
Last week, City Councilor Pat Davis proposed similar reforms, from reorganizing the police budget and officers’ jobs on the street to emphasizing behavioral health assistance and studies to determine the best route for community engagement.
Keller said his proposal is much bigger than Davis’ plan because it provides a structural change to how the city responds to emergencies.
Nair said that city officials have spoken with the police union and that she believes there is a lot of common ground in the proposal.