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Details about mayor’s public safety proposal remain scarce

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Chief Administrative Officer Sarita Nair discusses the mayor’s plan to create a department to respond to 911 calls regarding behavioral health, homelessness and other non-criminal issues. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

After the mayor’s announcement that he would like to create a department of “trained, unarmed professionals” that would respond 24/7 to 911 calls involving behavioral health, homelessness, addiction and other social issues, city councilors, advocates and the union wanted a lot more information.

Mayor Tim Keller, Chief Administrative Officer Sarita Nair and City Councilor Lan Sena were joined by several other city officials as they spoke about the proposal at a news conference Monday but said they are still in the beginning of the planning process. Keller and Nair had already spoken to the Journal and other news outlets, including The Washington Post, about the plan over the weekend.

Nair said that the city has some of the groundwork laid out through existing programs and that a lot of the details still need to be worked out. She said rough estimates suggest the new Community Safety Department would need 32 people for each its six area commands, staffed around the clock, to respond to tens of thousands of calls a year.

“Now that we’ve said ‘let’s create this third response department,’ we’ll begin the process of really getting into the weeds of what it’s going to look like, how it’s going to affect dispatch, how this is going to look in terms of staffing, what are the (standard operating procedures) going to look like,” Nair said. “We have to think through all of these issues now, and that’s where the input from community and experts is going to be really critical.”

For example, Keller said the new department could respond to “nonviolent and noncriminal” welfare checks.

In late March, two APD officers were dispatched to do a welfare check on a man whose family was worried because he had not shown up for work or answered his phone in several days. The officers realized the man, 52-year-old Valente Acosta-Bustillos, was wanted on a felony warrant for not attending a court hearing and tried to arrest him. The warrant stemmed from an incident earlier in the month in which he got into a fight with a neighbor and was charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

Lapel camera video shows that the officers chased Acosta-Bustillos inside the house to arrest him and – after he swung a shovel at them – shot him. Acosta-Bustillos was mortally wounded and died at a hospital.

Asked about that incident, Keller said that had the new department been in place in March, its staff could have performed the welfare check instead of police officers.

“In general, yes, that’s a big reason why we’re doing this department,” he said.

Crime, police reform

Albuquerque has made a name for itself in recent years for high levels of violent and property crime – and in 2019 the city had more homicides than any other year in recent history – and Keller said that the Police Department will remain committed to combating violence. He said the city will not divert money from core police work or the yearslong reform effort that the Police Department is undertaking after a Department of Justice investigation found that officers had a pattern of excessive force.

“We know that in Albuquerque we have to respect the core police work that we need in our town,” he said. “But we also have to include the fact that we have to prioritize non-law enforcement alternatives.”

Peter Simonson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, said that the organization thinks a new department is a step in the right direction but that it is not a “silver bullet.”

“To achieve the real, lasting change Albuquerque deserves, the City still needs to reduce the number of armed police officers patrolling the streets,” Simonson wrote in a statement.

The details of how the department would be implemented, how much funding it would need and how it would work remain scarce. Keller said his administration hopes the city can fund it without increasing its overall budget.

“We can do this with the existing budget, because these groups – our Homeless Advisory Council, our Mayor’s Youth Advisory Council, One Albuquerque Kid’s Cabinet – they have all been working and talking about this issue for several years,” Keller said.

Shaun Willoughby, president of the police union, said that he’s glad the mayor has recognized APD remains underfunded and needs more officers and that he is “cautiously positive” about the proposal.

“There are definitely calls where they are not police calls, if we can provide services to the public in circumstances like that, I think it would be better for everyone,” Willoughby said. “I’m concerned about … that’s kind of a robust idea, and that’s a big project. … In order to really accomplish the mayor’s vision, I believe they are going to have to find additional funding to make it grow and make it work.

“That funding can’t come from the police budget, so it’s going to have to come from somewhere else.”

Concerns about funding

Some city councilors also expressed concerns about how the city would fund a new department. The City Council passes the budget and allocates funding.

“Everything costs money,” Councilor Brook Bassan said, adding that she needs to know what would happen to other city departments if some of their budget is allocated to the new department.

She said the proposal has potential but does not seem fully formed.

“I still have a lot of questions that are unanswered at this point, and we need to be very hesitant that we suddenly have a new department with no plan,” she said. “I’ve been assured in the next couple of months we’ll learn more and create details for this plan. It’s just not the way I’m used to working.”

Councilor Trudy Jones said Keller’s administration has done little to explain how it would work, and the lack of specifics gives her pause. She raised questions about sending unarmed city staffers to down-and-out calls or welfare checks that could turn unexpectedly dangerous and about the financial considerations of creating a new department.

“I believe there are so many missing details, as in all details,” Jones said. “There are no details that I’ve seen.”

But Councilor Diane Gibson said moving nonemergency calls away from police and fire departments and to professionals who can assess and respond to the specific situation is a good approach.

Keller’s plan “can fill a need the city has had for a very long time,” but long-term success will require a sufficient level of resources, she said.

City Council President Pat Davis said he doesn’t think that the mayor’s proposal is much different from the ideas he and other councilors put forward last week about taking non-police services out of the Police Department and providing additional funding for social services. He said the City Council will start hearing community input and ideas in July.

“If it’s just limited to homeless and behavioral health outreach, it’s probably quicker and easier to integrate with the fire department and community services program. … That might be an easy way to get this started over the summer,” Davis said. “Short and easy, we could do it more quickly; long term, it should be its own department outside of public safety, but we might not be there yet.”

Arthur Bell, an activist and lifelong New Mexican, said he’s optimistic but hopes the administration will listen to the community and those who are most affected by excessive use of force. He said it’s clear that the mayor doesn’t plan to follow the rallying cry and “defund the police.”

“With that said it’s just a whole bunch of the same with people saying, ‘We care, we care, we care,’ and then they show us they don’t,” Bell said. “We would hope the mayor will have more action and less talk with regards to this new program.”

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