Following fatal interactions between the police and those experiencing mental health crises, the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico, has followed in the footsteps of Denver and Oakland and established Albuquerque Community Safety (ACS), a public safety branch that operates in addition to police and fire departments.
ACS employs public safety representatives with backgrounds in social work, counseling, and peer support. The department’s two-person teams are dispatched to nonviolent and nonmedical 911 calls. In addition to mental health assessment tools and expertise, the teams are also equipped with water, snacks, blankets, and hand warmers.
Unfortunately, New Mexico has one of the highest rates of fatal police encounters and high rates of incarceration over hospitalization for those with mental illness. ACS is working with police departments to bring down these numbers and Lt. Matt Dietzel of the Albuquerque Police Department told NBC News, “I definitely think that ACS will assist us in reducing the number of people with behavioral health issues who are arrested.”
One area of special training of ACS workers is approaching squatters who take up residence in empty buildings. Rather than arresting or kicking them out, ACS asks them about their physical and behavioral health concerns and then connects them with appropriate community resources. These behavioral health dispatchers can call for police backup if an encounter turns violent, but according to ACS, no call has required police assistance in the six weeks the program has been up and running.