Why Albuquerque is responding to calls to defund police with a new unarmed public safety force

Calls to defund the police are being heard in New Mexico’s largest city where this week Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller announced plans to create a first of its kind, unarmed public safety force.

The so-called Albuquerque Community Safety department will serve alongside the Albuquerque police department but be made up of unarmed social workers who are trained to respond to emergency calls pertaining to homelessness, mental health, and non-violent emergencies.

As Keller told Yahoo Finance’s YFi PM, the new force will give dispatchers a third option besides police and the fire department to de-escalate certain situations.

“This isn’t about all situations would be different, but we think there’s a lot of less intense situations that we can pull out and treat differently,” he said.

Funding for the new department would come from shifting resources away from about five other departments, Keller said, including the city’s police, fire, and transit departments. In total, it’s estimated to become a $10 million department out of the gate.

Interestingly, the creation of the new safety department was applauded by Albuquerque Police Chief Mike Geier, who said the shift will alleviate an already stretched police force and allow his officers “to focus on reducing crime.”

Proponents of the novel community force are hopeful it can lead to an improvement in a reduction of force that has long plagued Albuquerque. The city has for years been navigating a Justice Department consent decree, or a federal order to reform policing, after a scathing review of a string of police shootings.

Demonstrators protest the death of George Floyd in downtown Albuquerque, N.M., Sunday, May 31, 2020. Floyd was a black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

Just last summer a homeless man was shot 11 times and killed by a troop of five Albuquerque police when he failed to follow orders at a bus stop. Body cam footage showed the man reaching for his waistband after witnesses reported him to be waiving what turned out to be a BB gun. Under the new program, a trained homelessness specialist might be more suited to help ensure the situation isn’t met with the same amount of firepower or the same amount of force.

“We just add more to officers’ plates,” Keller said. “The solution is always, ‘Well, officers should be trained in behavioral health and then addiction and how to deal with homelessness.’ And I think what our police chief recognized is that one, that hasn’t been working very well. Two, it really doesn’t help folks. And, three, we actually have an officer shortage, so that’s why we think this third model is the right way to go.”

As other policing experiments in other cities have showed, sometimes creating new departments can help institute a new culture. As Yahoo Finance previously highlighted, the city of Camden, New Jersey was able to show a substantial drop in violent crime after disbanding its city police force and establishing a new county community force. Keller is hopeful the same creativity can also result in positive reform in Albuquerque.

“It is fundamentally creating a third department, so it’s a very different approach than we tried before,” he said.

Zack Guzman is the host of YFi PM as well as a senior writer and on-air reporter covering entrepreneurship, cannabis, startups, and breaking news at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter @zGuz.

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