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Newly proposed department light on mental health pros

City security officer Jacob Francia drives in January. Security employees are on the proposed staff list for the Community Safety Department. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Forty transit security officers, and 13 security staffers from the Municipal Development Department.

Nine parking enforcement workers.

Six crossing guard supervisors.

An employee from the city’s syringe cleanup program.

The staff list that Mayor Tim Keller’s administration has proposed for the city’s new Community Safety Department this fiscal year is mostly a mixed bag of existing employees transferring from other city departments.

Largely missing from the proposed department – touted as a new option for answering 911 calls, including those related to homelessness, behavioral health and addiction – are licensed mental health professionals.

None of the 83 positions outlined in the 2021 budget proposal Keller has forwarded to City Council specifically requires a licensed mental health professional, but a spokeswoman for Keller’s office said the department may still have some on staff.

Keller’s budget creates four new administrative positions, some of which are “expected to have mental health licensure and credentials,” and includes $1 million for outreach and prevention positions that are not yet explicitly defined but would likely have licensure requirements, mayoral spokeswoman Jessica Campbell told the Journal in an email.

The proposed transfers into the new department also include seven civilian employees from the Albuquerque Police Department’s Crisis Outreach and Support Teams who work nonviolent cases and are required to have a degree in a social work-related field, Campbell said, and three people from the Family and Community Services Department, including a social worker/coordinator.

At this point, she said, the city is still sorting out many of the specific details for a department that Keller’s budget says would respond to 911 calls with staff who “may have backgrounds as social workers, peer to peer support, clinicians, counselors or similar fields.”

“We do not have additional details (about the personnel) because this proposed budget is only for the next eight months, and provides time for a thoughtful, community-driven approach to building the department,” Campbell said.

Keller’s budget – which would carry the city through June 30 – is now pending before the City Council, which begins a series of public hearings this week and is slated to vote on Oct. 19.

The new department – dubbed ACS – would cost $7.5 million this year under Keller’s proposal. The funding, like most of the staff, would come from existing programs and departments, including Municipal Development, APD and Family and Community Services. Despite that, total police spending would still grow 3% compared to last year’s budget, and Family and Community Services appropriations would rise about 2% under Keller’s proposal.

Some city councilors say the department, as presently proposed, does not appear to represent much change for Albuquerque.

Council President Pat Davis called Keller’s proposal “a good start” but unlikely to shift much work away from police officers. He noted that the city’s security officers are already responding to 911 calls for “down and outs” – someone in public view who appears to be unconscious – as a way to lessen the burden on the Albuquerque Fire Rescue paramedics. That started last year.

“At the moment, a very small amount of that first ($7.5 million) proposal is going to change how we respond to … community calls for service, and I think we could do better,” Davis said.

Councilor Trudy Jones, meanwhile, questioned the staffing model presented as a way to truly improve community safety.

“It’s just shifting money around to different places that weren’t necessarily called for in the budget,” she said, adding that she would have preferred to have a more fully formed proposal before council.

Davis said he is ready for bigger-picture budgetary discussions – including whether some of the money allocated annually to hire new police officers could be better spent on ACS or similar initiatives – but that he does not object to launching the new department even with some lingering questions about its structure. Too often, he said, promising public programs suffer from limited early investment and momentum.

The Keller administration expressed urgency, saying that the department will evolve as necessary once it gets off the ground.

“The work has to start now,” said Mariela Ruiz Angel, the ACS coordinator. “Building a first-of-its-kind department is going to take time, and we intend to use this fiscal year to build a strong foundation for the meaningful work this department will do.”

City Councilor Diane Gibson said the budget as presented has raised questions in her mind about what exactly ACS is supposed to do and that she is hopeful Keller’s administration will continue building it.

“I’m really trying to give them the benefit of the doubt,” she said. “I’m sure they’ve got something more than this.”

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