Posts Tagged ‘policing alternative’

Photo: Ann Hermes/CSM.
Leigh White and Walter Adams, behavioral health specialists, respond to a 911 call about a homeless encampment in Albuquerque. They are members of the Albuquerque Community Safety department, an ambitious experiment in policing, according to the
Christian Science Monitor.

Is there another way to do policing that actually accomplishes the goal of keeping people safe? That is the question communities have been asking themselves since the demonstrations and riots of 2020. The epicenter of that upheaval, Minneapolis, just voted against doing away with the police department altogether since no clear alternative had been proposed. Now let’s take a look at a small-scale experiment in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Henry Gass has the story at the Christian Science Monitor. “It’s early October, and perhaps the busiest week of the year in New Mexico’s largest city. … Walter Adams and Leigh White are on patrol. Their white car, stamped with ‘Community Safety’ decals, is headed for a neighborhood once known as the ‘war zone.’

“Mr. Adams and Ms. White aren’t carrying guns, though. Instead, they are armed with a trunk full of water bottles, Cheez-Its, and Chewy bars. … Before long, the first dispatch flashes over the computer screen. They have to head west.

“A few minutes later, they’re standing outside two tents pitched in the trees near a church. People walking or jogging along a nearby trail glance over.

“ ‘Someone called 911 and said there was a fire,’ says Ms. White. A man inside the tent curses back at her.

“ ‘We know better than that,’ he says. He’s been homeless for seven years, he tells them. ‘That’s what people do, call the cops,’ he adds. ‘It’s [bull].’

“ ‘We’re not here for that,’ replies Mr. Adams. ‘What happens is police get a call, and they send us.’

“Ms. White and Mr. Adams, in fact, aren’t police. What they do is not normal emergency response work nor normal police work. It’s something of a hybrid of the two – part of an experiment that Albuquerque is hoping will change public safety in America. 

‘We’re not quite sure if [everything] is going to work,’ says Mariela Ruiz-Angel, director of ACS. ‘But if we don’t get this going, [if we] try to overanalyze, we’ll never get anywhere.’

“They are members of the Albuquerque Community Safety (ACS) department. Launched in August, the agency is intended to complement the city’s police and fire departments by having teams of behavioral health specialists patrol and respond to low-level, nonviolent 911 calls. 

“While it is modeled after programs in a few other cities, ACS is the first stand-alone department of its kind in the country. The initiative is still nascent – Mr. Adams and Ms. White are one of just two responder teams at the moment. But authorities here hope it will defuse the kinds of tensions between police and residents that have surfaced in cities across the country and help reinvent 911 emergency response systems, which many believe have become antiquated.

“ ‘What Albuquerque is doing is really exciting and innovative,’ says Nancy La Vigne, executive director of the Task Force on Policing at the Council on Criminal Justice, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. Police chiefs ‘almost universally say we’d love to offload these calls to other people. We need these types of models to be developed and implemented, so we can learn from them.’

“On this stop, the program makes its small mark. Mr. Adams tells the homeless man about resources available at HopeWorks, a local nonprofit. The man says he’s been there before, but never upstairs, where many of the services are.

“ ‘As long as you show commitment, they’ll help you,’ says Mr. Adams. The man says he’ll go. …

“From 2010 to 2014, members of the Albuquerque Police Department shot and killed 27 people. One of them, in March 2014, was James Boyd, a homeless man diagnosed with schizophrenia. … The police entered into a court-approved agreement with DOJ that October, which the department has been operating under ever since. 

“Initially, police shootings in the city decreased for several years. But more recently they have begun to rise again. … While all this was going on, New Mexico’s behavioral health system was falling into disarray as well. … Since moving to Albuquerque from the East Coast 20 years ago, Ms. White has watched as the city’s police and mental health care systems have fallen in national rankings – and wondered what she could do. …

“In many cities, calling 911 hasn’t always been the best way to get someone help. Albuquerque’s aim with its new initiative is as much to re-imagine its emergency response system as it is to reform policing. …

“ ‘The default response is to send police to a scene and hope they solve whatever is happening,’ says [Rebecca Neusteter, leader of the Transform911 project at the University of Chicago Health Lab, an initiative aimed at reforming the nation’s emergency response system]. That’s ‘really not in anyone’s interests.’ …

“ ‘By and large [ACS] is a positive move’ for policing in the city, says Peter Simonson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico. ‘It holds the promise that perhaps someday we will see fewer armed officers interacting with people in mental health crisis.’ 

“Ms. White and Mr. Adams are having a busy morning. … Mr. Adams and Ms. White grab water bottles and snacks from the trunk. They offer them to the people in the encampments, who eye them with a mixture of suspicion and curiosity. Then the behavioral health specialists ask the people if they’re connected to services, or want to be. …

“Mr. Adams approaches them with a disarming ease. He ambles up and greets the individuals like he would a stranger he’s asking for directions. It’s an unruffled approach born of his past. 

“Mr. Adams grew up in a town, Las Vegas, New Mexico, that had widespread gang and drug problems. It also was home to the state’s main psychiatric hospital. To keep him out of trouble, Mr. Adams’ father would have his son accompany him to basketball games at the hospital.

“So, starting in third grade – long before he knew about behavioral disorders – young Walter began socializing with people who were dealing with mental health issues. …

“ ‘You knew those people, you knew their name, you talked to them. So to me, it wasn’t anything new or different.’ ”

Read more about these remarkable people and about the innovative program and the people it serves at the Monitor, here.

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