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Editorial: ABQ Community Safety Department has potential, pitfalls

As calls grow across the nation to defund police departments, the rational translation of that is to deploy resources so sworn officers only go where they are truly needed.

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller’s administration is proposing something along those lines in its new Community Safety Department. It would redirect calls that range from abandoned cars to kids who won’t listen to their parents to the new department – made up of social workers, transit officers, security officers and others – rather than police.

And that would leave sworn officers to handle crime, dangerous situations and public safety emergencies – the stuff they trained for in the academy.

It’s the same efficiency rationale the administration used last year when it launched a pilot program to send security personnel, rather than police or, even more expensive, fully manned fire trucks, to welfare checks of homeless and/or intoxicated individuals. While those calls do have the potential to turn violent, they account for 17,000 calls for service and cost taxpayers more than $1 million a year, with fewer than 1% requiring medical intervention.

So it makes sense that as the city carefully monitors that pilot project with an eye toward expansion, it looks at other calls for service that really should not involve an armed academy-trained law enforcement professional.

Keller and Chief Administrative Officer Sarita Nair say such calls include hundreds of reports of abandoned cars or frustrated parents saying their teen is struggling with addiction or their younger child “won’t listen.” It makes sense to dispatch teams of nuisance abatement officers for the former and social workers for the latter to best address residents’ needs. Rather than expect our sworn officers to be code enforcers and counselors along with being cops, why not take folks already employed by the city for those specific jobs and use them to their full potential? And if it works, add to their ranks?

Keller’s proposal has the potential to more efficiently deploy city resources with a softer touch. It promises to improve the delivery of social services to those who need them and take pressure off APD, which investigated more than 80 homicides in the city last year, solving about half of them. The city also suffers from high rates of violent and property crime, and those cases merit more investigative resources as well.

But the proposal also leaves a lot of questions on the table – ones that should be addressed before moving forward.

The city can start by getting data on several months’ worth of calls – determine which would have been handled by the new team and which by APD. Would it truly have saved resources? Are the savings sufficient to create a new department without increasing the city budget as promised? How necessary is it to create an entirely new department rather than simply reorganize? Those questions should be answered before moving forward.

And the idea this department would handle behavioral health calls – or domestic violence or the many others that can be a powder keg disguised as a family disagreement – is one that needs to be thought through very, very carefully.

Sending a social worker to a welfare check on someone with a warrant for felony assault, as the administration suggested this week, is concerning. Officials cited the April case involving Valente Acosta-Bustillos as being an example of one social workers would respond to in a non-threatening manner, which it is hoped would have led to a better ending. As it was, police showed up, Acosta-Bustillos wielded a shovel at officers and was fatally shot. What would have been the result had he wielded the shovel at an unprotected social worker?

Nair acknowledges such mental health calls would be “the longest poles in the tent.” And there’s no question 911 operators will have more on their plates as they are tasked with quickly assessing whether police, firefighters, social workers, evidence specialists, code enforcers, etc. are needed on a particular call.

But the idea of reorganizing to send the right people to the right situation is promising. Does it warrant a new department? We look forward to hearing the details and preliminary 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.