Sending Help Instead of the Police in Albuquerque

In the southeastern corner of Albuquerque, near a wide mountain pass that opens onto an expanse of arid high plains, Sean Martin and Isaiah Curtis drove toward a Blake’s Lotaburger, a regional fast-food chain. Behavioral-health workers with Albuquerque Community Safety, a new city department, they respond to calls, mostly from 911, about nonviolent crises involving mental health, homelessness, or substance use. A.C.S. responders are trained to connect people from some of the city’s most vulnerable populations with professional help. In doing so, they also reduce those residents’ interactions with local law-enforcement agencies, which in recent years have had the second-highest fatal-shooting rate among major American cities.

Martin and Curtis were following a tip from a local nonprofit about a man who’d expressed an interest in housing vouchers. Behind the restaurant, they drove past dirt lots strewn with bottles and clothing. Near a short concrete wall, there were two charred tree stumps. It seemed that someone had set them on fire to stay warm, but the area was deserted. It was late morning at the end of November, and the air temperature hovered around forty degrees. Overnight, it had dropped well below freezing.

Martin, who is fifty-two and wore dark jeans, brown roper boots, and a green parka, stopped the car in front of the restaurant. He and Curtis, who is thirty-five and wore a gray, department-branded jacket with “Behavioral Health Responder” embroidered on the chest, entered to ask workers if they’d seen anyone matching the man’s description. No luck.

They returned to their car, which was loaded with medical equipment, as well as water, granola bars, and donated clothing to pass out during their rounds. As they readied to leave, they saw a different man on the other side of the street, sitting on a short retaining wall with several bags. “Should we?” Curtis asked. They crossed the road and introduced themselves, explaining that they could help connect him with resources he might need. The man, who hadn’t heard of Albuquerque Community Safety, said that he’d just got a job but, living on the street, didn’t know how he’d keep it. He said he felt hopeless.

Martin and Curtis knew that local shelters were mostly full, but Curtis hoped that the man having a job might give him a chance. He called a contact at the Albuquerque Opportunity Center, one of the city’s few long-term shelters, who agreed to reserve their final bed for the man. Martin and Curtis offered a ride, but the man, who appeared shocked, said he could get himself where he needed to be. He started to cry. As they walked away, Martin said, “That was a really good one. It’s not great that anyone’s feeling hopeless, but it’s great when someone’s looking for something, for housing, and we know how to help him.”

Curtis crossed the four-lane road and got back to the car. As Martin and I waited for the traffic to clear, an approaching Albuquerque Police Department cruiser switched on its megaphone. “Use the crosswalk,” an officer said, from within. He repeated his order, and Martin laughed. We walked to the nearest intersection.

Albuquerque Community Safety has fifty-four full-time crisis responders, who now field most of the calls related to mental-health and homelessness that previously would have gone to police officers or other first responders. The department was created in 2020, during the national reckoning over police violence sparked by the killing of George Floyd, and began operating a year later.

Between a quarter and a half of people killed by police in the U.S. are in the midst of a mental-health crisis. Removing cops from such situations has special significance in Albuquerque, where a pattern of excessive force by police officers, particularly in dealing with people with mental illness, has persisted for decades. The Albuquerque Police Department has been in a consent decree with the Department of Justice since 2014, longer than nearly any other law-enforcement agency.

A.C.S. responders come from myriad backgrounds. Martin was previously a social worker and case manager in Austin. Curtis is Diné (Navajo), from Shiprock, and worked with homeless clients at an Albuquerque health clinic for Native Americans. There are former teachers, nurses, and firemen; there’s an ex-M.M.A fighter and ex-officers from the Albuquerque Police Department. A.C.S.’s modest white Ford hybrids, bearing the department’s name in a cheerful typeface, are now a common sight around the city. And its responders, who are unarmed and don’t wear formal uniforms, have come to signify something new in Albuquerque: an effort that focusses less on penalizing low-level crime and instead, with a softer touch, attempts to address some of its causes.

The department ranks its incoming calls. Suicidal ideations are high; an unsheltered-individual call, lower. But most of the calls that are sent to A.C.S. would be considered less urgent for police. Cops might take several hours to respond, or not at all. A.C.S. responders might be there in minutes. They now take nearly fifteen hundred 911 calls a month, about three per cent of the million-plus that Albuquerque receives a year. To date, A.C.S. has responded to more than twenty thousand calls. Less than one per cent have required eventual police involvement.

Similar efforts exist in many cities, including CAHOOTS, in Eugene, Oregon, a three-decade-old program that pioneered alternative first response, and STAR, in Denver, one of many pilot programs which have cropped up since 2020. A.C.S. is the first to be an independent city-funded department reporting directly to the mayor, resulting in funding, staffing, and a caseload capacity far greater than those of other programs. Alex Vitale, the coördinator of Brooklyn College’s Policing and Social Justice Project, told me that A.C.S., which also runs violence-prevention, street-outreach, and community-assistance programs, shows how alternative approaches can address “just the huge range of things that we were told that only armed police could deal with.” He added, “That is just not true.”

The department’s responders frequently encounter the same people. Earlier in November, I rode with Roxanna Balbuena, a twenty-nine-year-old South Texan who previously worked at a rape crisis center in Albuquerque, and Colin Kelly, a thirty-year-old Burqueño and former Albuquerque police officer. Sean Martin joined, too. He was reviewing the call log, which A.C.S. shares with police, firefighters, and paramedics, and noticed a familiar-sounding report. “Is this the Romanians?” Balbuena asked. She explained that a group of people, whom the responders believe are Romanian, had been seen panhandling with kids at a handful of intersections. A.C.S. had interacted with them multiple times, including just the day before. Whenever A.C.S. teams approached, Martin said, the group tended to flee. “We make the appropriate reports and referrals,” he added. “Then the rest is kind of out of our hands.”

Martin fielded another familiar call, a welfare check on a woman who had repeatedly called 911 to complain that a man was wandering around her neighborhood and hurting women. It was Martin’s fourth call at the home, and A.C.S.’s seventh. Martin said the woman’s claim had so far been unsubstantiated. We pulled up near her home, a few blocks south of Route 66, on a street that often attracts tourists. The house at its end was a filming location for “Breaking Bad”—the apartment Jesse shared with Jane, and where Jane died. The door was behind the house, down a short alleyway, and Martin knocked on it, announcing he was with A.C.S. A few windows were ajar. The team sensed movement from within, but no one answered. After a few minutes, they left.

The department sometimes gets “multiple calls on the same individual daily or weekly,” Erica Gutierrez, an A.C.S. supervisor, told me. “We continue to try to help them because one day they’re going to be ready to change.” Until that time comes, she added, “we want to build that rapport with them.” A.C.S. doesn’t compel anyone to go into treatment, with rare exceptions, such as when there’s a threat of imminent harm. Several times, I watched responders approach people who, despite being in apparent need, declined services. Martin explained that the policy is not only legally and ethically necessary but has a therapeutic benefit, too. “In some cases, it’s the only power they have in their lives, to make those decisions,” he said.

Every day, they find people who are ready. That morning’s first call was for a woman in a wheelchair who had called dispatchers to request A.C.S. Her last known location was a Greyhound and Amtrak depot, where a Spanish mission clock tower watches over a series of outdoor seating areas that usually host dozens of homeless people. Kelly circled the area a few times, but the woman was gone. Then a man approached, wearing brown pants and a brown jacket. He said he recognized the car, and asked the responders for a ride to detox. He was from Oklahoma, he said, and had been in Albuquerque three months and was ready for a change. Kelly and Balbuena placed his belongings in white garbage bags, a precaution to keep a person’s possessions together, and stashed them in the trunk. The car’s back window was ringed with stringed lights interspersed with purple spiders, a decoration from Halloween. “I need to stop at Lowe’s soon for some Christmas lights,” Balbuena said.

The spirit and timing of A.C.S.’s creation, nearly three years ago, conjured a vision of greater public safety in Albuquerque, including increased protection of its residents from police. When Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller announced its formation, the then chief of police, claiming that his officers were stretched too thin, welcomed an alternative department that would take low-priority calls off officers’ hands and free them up to focus on violent crime, which was rising unpredictably. A.C.S. being a distinct entity has tangible benefits, Mariela Ruiz-Angel, the organization’s director, told me, including that police have no formal influence over the organization’s vision or operation. But that arrangement cuts both ways. The creation of A.C.S. has not “done much to change the culture” of the Albuquerque police, Barron Jones, a senior policy analyst with the A.C.L.U. of New Mexico, told me. Nor has the new department materially affected police operations or accountability measures.

A.C.S. is one of several alternative first-response programs to have cropped up since the reckoning with police violence of 2020.Photograph by Ed Kashi / VII / Redux

Albuquerque Police Department officers shot at a record eighteen people in 2022, killing ten. Most of those killed appeared to be suffering from a mental-health crisis, according to reporting from the Albuquerque Journal. By contrast, police in New York City, which has a population fifteen times greater than Albuquerque’s, fatally shot thirteen people in 2022. (Across the country, it was on average a record year for fatal police violence.) The current Albuquerque police chief, Harold Medina, has attributed last year’s shootings in part to a pandemic-era rise in both national firearm sales and homicide rates. (The homicide rate in Albuquerque has risen some twenty-seven per cent since 2018.) Gilbert Gallegos, a spokesperson for the Albuquerque Police Department, said that “some [of the shooting victims] may have been suffering from a crisis, but it is unknown for most of them. What we do know is the vast majority over the past five years have been under the influence of drugs (usually meth) and/or alcohol.” In late January, the Albuquerque police announced a revision of its use-of-force policies, which law-enforcement officials hope will limit the use of fatal force.

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