Three teams of civilians trained as behavioral health responders hit Albuquerque streets Sept. 8 to handle certain 911 calls and relieve the burden on Albuquerque police.
When the initiative of Mayor Tim Keller’s administration is fully operating, as many as 3,000 emergency nonmedical, nonviolent calls a month could be routed to the civilian responders in the new Albuquerque Community Safety Department, city officials say.
That would make a dent in the estimated average of about 40,000 calls for service a month that APD receives.
“911 gets so many calls, and we just don’t have enough cops,” said Mariela Ruiz-Angel, director of the community safety program. “We (the civilian responders) can take the low priority calls that would take police three to four hours to get to.”
The 911 dispatch system routes calls to the teams when there are disturbances, issues involving mental health or homelessness, suicides, welfare checks and other lower-level calls. Once it is fully staffed, the program will be able to operate 24/7 by the end of the year or earlier. Depending on the demand, Ruiz-Angel hopes to add at least 100 more responders.
The aim is to free up Albuquerque police officers to answer calls for more serious offenses more quickly and permit officers to focus on core police work and community policing reform efforts.
City Councilor Lan Sena, who was appointed in March 2020 and is now running for election on Nov. 2, said in an interview, “There’s always been an issue in terms of police staffing.
“At this moment, we are using our officers as a one-stop shop, and sometimes the calls don’t really necessitate an officer. We need a more nuanced approach.”
APD Chief Harold Medina said that over his 23-year APD career, there have always been 911 calls on hold waiting for an officer to respond. But some of those calls aren’t police matters – such as a barking dog or a 7-year-old who needs discipline, Medina said.
Some calls are already being routed to other city agencies or the APD telephone reporting unit, he said.
With police shortages reported nationwide, including in New Mexico, Medina said, the work of trained civilians is becoming more important.
“I think the days of officers responding to every single call because somebody wants us there is unsustainable.”