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Two obvious fixes for APD are staring us in the face

Since 1984, I have worked with the city, county, court system and jail attempting to improve how law enforcement and the legal system deal with people with disabilities. I believe the “defund police” movement can guide how to improve Albuquerque’s longstanding problems.

The U.S. Department of Justice identified APD as among America’s most violent police departments, with an unconstitutional “culture of aggression;” and certain APD employees and police union members still resist real culture change. So I understand why many people suggest entirely replacing our police department with other mechanisms that aren’t staffed by personnel acculturated to aggression and led by supervisors habituated to unnecessarily using force.

Nonetheless, rather than completely “un-funding APD,” I support the approach suggested by Christy Lopez, a retired Department of Justice lawyer, who wrote, “Defunding the police means shrinking the scope of police responsibilities and shifting most of what government does to keep us safe to entities that are better equipped to meet that need. It means investing more in mental-health care and housing and expanding the use of community mediation and violence interruption programs.”

As a first step, I support City Council President Pat Davis’ proposal to study APD staffing to determine which of APD’s current activities should be performed by others instead. Mayor Keller’s newly proposed “Community Safety Department” could bring vast improvements, some day, if properly conceptualized, resourced and administered.

Without any study or new department, two APD activities should be performed by others, immediately.

COAST

In 2003, a homeless man with schizophrenia who was frequently arrested for petty offenses resisted another arrest, shooting APD Sergeant Carol Oleksak with her gun. In response, Mayor Martin Chavez convened a summit to “address the issues of mental illness and homelessness.” Thereafter, APD created its “Crisis Outreach and Support Team” (COAST), comprised of “civilian employees supervised by a department sergeant” who provide “crisis intervention, access to mental health services, and education” and “perform case follow up in order to connect individuals in need with service providers.” None of COAST’s functions are “policing,” but the city has refused to move those tasks from APD to another entity that serves people experiencing homelessness and/or mental disabilities. No study is necessary to know that tracking down people with mental disabilities to encourage them to participate in treatment is not “policing.”

Transferring the resources of the COAST team out of APD is a no-brainer. But the city’s administration hasn’t done it.

Welfare checks

When a family member wants help getting mental health treatment for a loved one, the city sends APD officers to conduct “welfare checks” despite frequent, including recent, tragic results. On March 30, APD officers responded to Valente Acosta-Bustillos’ family’s request for a welfare check. Two police officers went to his home, ultimately shooting him to death. On June 4th, Max Mitnick’s family similarly called 911 requesting help getting Max mental health treatment. Reportedly, Max had not threatened anyone when the call was made. Nonetheless only police responded, then shot him in the head.

Mental health professionals, not police, should be in charge of “welfare checks.”

The core problem is budgetary. Albuquerque spends one third of its general funds on APD and almost nothing on mental health services. The city’s budgets for 2014 and 2020 prove the point: In fiscal 2014, Animal Welfare received $10,069,000, Parks and Recreation $36,072,000, mental health services $2,470,000 and police $163,070,000. In fiscal 2020, Animal Welfare received $12,512,000, Parks and Recreation $42,888,000, mental health services $3,696,000 and police $210,057,000.

Albuquerque spends three times as much on animal welfare as it spends on mental health services, more than 10 times as much on parks and recreation, and spends 50 times more on APD than it spends on mental health services. This year, Albuquerque is spending more on golf courses – $5,146,000 – than on mental health services. As Lopez said, Albuquerque needs to “invest more in mental-health care and housing and expand the use of community mediation and violence interruption programs.”

If not now, when?

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