Editorial: Packing pepper spray a sad commentary on Downtown safety - Albuquerque Journal

Editorial: Packing pepper spray a sad commentary on Downtown safety

Predators better not get aggressive with Bernalillo County workers on their way to and from work. Because that unassuming, mild-mannered county employee who we routinely see stamping marriage licenses and zoning variance applications might well be packing pepper.

The Bernalillo County Commission did the right thing and approved an amendment to the county’s weapons policy last week that allows employees to carry pepper spray both outside and inside the county’s Downtown headquarters at Alvarado Square. County workers are now allowed to carry a pepper spray canister up to 3 ounces after notifying Risk Management in writing. Once in Alvarado Square, employees must keep their pepper spray canister concealed.

The county Workplace Violence Policy prohibited employees from having weapons of any sort on county property. Of course there were exceptions for law enforcement personnel or county employees who have approval to carry a weapon as part of their job duties.

The amendment makes an exception for county employees at Alvarado Square for self-defense purposes; adding pepper spray won’t be considered a weapon under the weapons policy unless other parameters of the policy are violated.

“The county recognizes that employees may encounter unsafe circumstances during their ingress and egress to Alvarado Square,” the amendment states. “This policy is intended to allow employees to have pepper spray while outside of work in an emergent circumstance.”

About 800 county employees work at Alvarado Square at 415 Silver SW every weekday. The building opened in August 2021 in the city’s beleaguered Downtown after a $68 million renovation. Just two months after opening, the atrium-style building at Silver and Fourth SW was riddled with gunfire that caused more than $400,000 in damage. Fortunately, the shooting was at night and no one was hurt.

But obviously employees are not feeling safe during the day either. Downtown has been the site of aggressive panhandling through the years, and it has only gotten worse. Businesses have moved out of the area due to concerns over the safety of their employees and customers and the city is asking Downtown businesses to pitch in funding to pay overtime for increased police presence.

A county spokesman says the policy change allowing pepper spray is a result of employee inquiries, not a consequence of any particular event. County employees have only a short walk to Alvarado Square from nearby parking garages, but still, many apparently don’t feel safe doing so.

“There’s concerns (that) we are in a Downtown area; the county can protect its building, but once you get out of the property you have to protect yourself,” county spokesman Tom Thorpe said. “People have asked for the ability to do that and the county says ‘absolutely.'”

County leaders were right to amend their workplace policy — but it is a sad commentary on how bad crime has become in the heart of the city.

And the policy revision raises the question: Are members of the general public safe walking to Alvarado Square to access county government services?

We editorialized back in 2013 that consolidating previously scattered county government services at Alvarado Square made sense. Having an ample-sized, one-stop shop to conduct county business was a good idea. But not if people don’t feel safe going there.

The lack of dedicated parking was a factor back then, but it was hoped parking garages in the immediate vicinity could handle demand. Unfortunately, Downtown parking garages can be the scene of drug use and dealing, and open defecation is not uncommon. It’s no wonder county employees feel unsafe parking there.

The county was right to empower county employees in their own self-defense. Perhaps commissioners should consider the safety of visitors to the building, too.

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.

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