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Crisis teams to help police with mentally ill, addicts

Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry

Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

Police and sheriff’s deputies may have some extra help next year when they respond to emergencies involving people struggling with mental illness or addiction.

The city of Albuquerque and Bernalillo County plan to create three mobile crisis units that will include both law-enforcement officers and mental-health counselors.

Mayor Richard Berry said the goal is to provide more effective help to someone in crisis, rather than having an officer simply take the person to an emergency room or jail. He envisions three-person teams in which two officers respond to calls alongside a certified mental-health expert.

Bernalillo County Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins

Bernalillo County Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins

“This is a way to get the person help and treat them on scene,” Berry said in an interview last week.

Albuquerque police will employ two of the teams, and Bernalillo County will have one. They could be responding to calls as early as January, Berry said.

The joint effort is expected to cost up to $500,000 a year.

“I’m thrilled to see that there is acknowledgement that this is a responsibility for us as a community – not just county government, not just city government,” County Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins said. “We both have an obligation to work together.”

Creation of the mobile crisis units comes as the city and county cooperate with the goal of improving behavioral health services. The county imposed a new tax in 2015 that raises about $17 million a year for new programs, and the city estimates that it spends somewhere in the neighborhood of $16 million a year on behavioral health.

A joint panel of city councilors, county commissioners and a representative of the mayor is evaluating what new behavioral-health programs to launch.

The two governments, for example, are examining the possibility of operating a crisis stabilization center – a place where officers or family members could take people struggling with mental illness or addiction, assuming the person isn’t a threat to themselves or others.

The County Commission has so far agreed to tap into its new tax to fund about $5 million in programs, including community engagement teams that check on people before a police response is required, housing for homeless teens and efforts to help children who have a parent in jail or struggling with mental illness and addiction.

Albuquerque police are also moving to improve their response to people caught in a mental-health crisis. The city is training all of its field officers in crisis intervention and de-escalation techniques, following a U.S. Department of Justice investigation that criticized APD for its treatment of people with mental illness or in crisis.

The shooting of a homeless camper in 2014, for example, led to murder charges against two officers. The trial resulted in a hung jury.