ABQ Community Safety Dept.–1st in the Nation

By Lance Chilton

Mariela Ruiz-Angel is determined to get it right.  She wishes it could be faster, but she knows that there are many people looking over her shoulder, some saying that a cabinet-level department like her Albuquerque Community Safety Department (ACS) isn’t needed, some saying that it doesn’t go far enough – that the city needs to take away all police funding. A handful of cities around the country are also looking at ways to civilianize their public safety response, but Albuquerque is the first in the nation to create an independent, cabinet-level department; a full third branch of the 9-1-1 system. 

Hiring of responders to problems of homelessness, substance abuse and mental health will start within the next two months, with extensive training to follow immediately – training in racial equity and implicit bias, in effects and manifestations of mental illness and alcohol and other drug use, in motivational interviewing, community problems and resources.  Training will be coordinated with other entities, including the New Mexico Highlands University Department of Social Work, the city’s Office of Equity and Inclusion, and the joint city and county Mobile Crisis Teams.  They will even use trained actors to simulate people in crises the trainees will likely encounter.  The director notes the importance of looking to the well-being of her responders, providing support for their physical and mental health.

Ms. Ruiz-Angel credits the mayor and city councilors of all persuasions with enthusiastic support for her new department and says they have appeared to be convinced of its necessity.  Both the mayor and city councilors have publicized the existence of the new department and appointment of its three leaders, Ms. Ruiz-Angel, ACS director; Jasmine Desiderio, Deputy Director of Policy and Administration; and D’Albert Hall, Deputy Director of Field Response.

When community responses begin in late summer or early fall, Ms. Ruiz-Angel expects referrals to come from the city’s 3-1-1 and 9-1-1 lines, from the new 9-8-8 suicide prevention and mental health crisis line, and from police and fire calls that indicate a low risk of violence.  She notes that only 5% of all calls to emergency lines in Albuquerque indicate a possible need for force; many public safety calls currently dispatching other first responders could be handled by responders hired by her department.

The ACS director has had a large and strong planning team in place, chaired by Sarita Nair, city Chief Administrative Officer, and Chris Melendrez, director of City Council Services.  Currently housed in City Hall old Water Authority Office on the first floor, the department hopes to move to new quarters, and may have a large presence in an as-yet unbuilt structure at San Mateo and Kathryn in the Southeast Heights, that might serve as a one-stop hub for a variety of community services.

Ms. Ruiz-Angel expects her new department to take a public health approach to community problems, with responders working not only on acute problems, but also in working with the community to prevent such problems and to follow up after they are de-escalated.  Responders would be trained to detect and ameliorate the effects of crises on family and community members.

With such an ambitious agenda, the Albuquerque Community Safety Department will take months to come up to full speed.  When it does, however, it could be one of the city’s most important services to its residents.  We’ll check in again after a few months to see how it has progressed.