Alibi V.29 No.26 • June 25-July 1, 2020 

News Feature

A New Public Safety Department

Mayor Keller’s new public safety department could reduce burden on cops

Mayor Keller spoke about his plans for the new department.
Mayor Keller spoke about his plans for the new department.
Clarke Condé
Albuquerque has become a focal point for the national movement against racist police violence since the shooting of a protester at a prayer gathering on Monday, June 15, for the removal of the controversial “La Jornada” statue in front of the Albuquerque Museum. Immediately after the shooting, a tank and police officers in riot gear arrived and began shooting tear gas, flashbangs and non-lethal bullets into the crowd of protestors and counter-protestors.

The shooter, Steven Baca, ran unsuccessfully for Albuquerque city council last year. The District Attorney’s office has dropped the most serious charges against Baca and has asked that the investigation be conducted by the New Mexico State Police, citing concerns that APD’s response to the shooting may have compromised the crime scene and that eyewitnesses may be “reluctant to cooperate with [the] agency in the aftermath of [the] response to the situation.”

The victim, Scott Williams, is in the hospital in stable condition and, as of publishing, is expected to live.

Earlier on Monday, June 15, Mayor Tim Keller announced the formation of Albuquerque Community Safety, a new unarmed public security department in Albuquerque. This department’s purpose is to handle public safety calls related to homelessness, addiction and mental health issues instead of the Albuquerque Police Department, which is currently called in to deal with such cases. “The new department is the culmination of two years of preliminary work to change the way Albuquerque handles public safety, and comes amid nationwide calls to move resources away from armed police response as a one-size-fits-all answer,” Mayor Keller said in a press release. “[The] Albuquerque Community Safety department will help the City focus police efforts and resources on fighting violent crime, and firefighters and paramedics on fires and medical emergencies.”

Keller has estimated that at least $10 million will be reallocated to fund this new department, which will be assembled before the end of the year.

This response comes after many other American cities have announced their efforts toward police reform and defunding since the ongoing protests sparked by the extrajudicial police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man in Minneapolis.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed has recently announced the creation of an unarmed department to handle non-criminal calls, similar to Mayor Keller’s new proposal. The New York Police Department has announced it will disband its plainclothes anti-crime units, which disproportionately targeted Black and Latinx people. The Minneapolis City Council has voted to disband the Minneapolis Police Department altogether and create an alternative to public safety.

When asked what the impetus for creating this new department was, Councilor Pat Davis said, “In public budgets, law enforcement is the most expensive and least effective form of public health interventions. Cops aren't the best providers for public health and homeless services.” The department, which will also be reachable by calling 911, will be composed of social workers and homelessness and violence prevention experts.

“Over the past two years, we've increased funding to Family & Community Services Department by 40 percent. APD was increased by only 20 percent, mostly for oversight and compliance,” said Councilor Davis. “So we've been moving this direction, but it's important for us to capitalize on this moment of public support to pressure skeptical votes on the Council to make this change permanent.”

Are we seeing the sunrise on a bright new future for Albuquerque?
Are we seeing the sunrise on a bright new future for Albuquerque?
CABQ.gov / cc
Some local activists and community organizers have mixed feelings about the new public safety department, especially in light of APD’s response to the shooting at the La Jornada prayer vigil.

“If this saves people’s lives, that’s the most important thing,” said Melanie Yazzie (Diné), an organizer with The Red Nation and Assistant Professor of Native American Studies and American Studies at UNM. “But what is [Mayor Keller] going to do about the bigger picture? That has to involve divesting from systems of state violence like the police and investing in programs that allow Native people and people of color to lead dignified lives.”

Yazzie and other community organizers calling for the defunding of APD point out that the communities most affected by police violence aren’t convinced that more officers will create a better, safer relationship between the public and the police. “We don’t need more officers on the streets,” Yazzie says. “Police escalate situations. They do not de-escalate. When they’re armed, that potential for violence increases dramatically.”

Christopher Ramirez is executive director of Together For Brothers, a local organization that supports young men of color in becoming community leaders. “Why haven’t we already been doing this?” he asks of the new public safety department.

He is also skeptical of APD’s continued role in his community and is concerned about Mayor Keller’s commitment to hire more police officers.

“In a basic sociology class, you’ll learn that the correlation isn’t: more police equals less crime. The more police we have on the street actually increases crime. … The system of policing is set up to create a controlling narrative that young men of color are criminals. I’ve been a part of community dialogues where police showed up in uniform, with their guns! It created an environment where our young people felt they couldn’t even speak up out of fear.”

On June 17, City Councilors Lan Sena (District 1) and Pat Davis (District 6) co-sponsored a bill to discontinue APD’s participation in the “1033 Program,” which allows city police departments to acquire military surplus equipment for civilian law enforcement. As the text of the new proposed legislation states, “Studies have shown and diverse groups from the Charles Koch Institute and the American Civil Liberties Union have concluded that the militarization of police erodes public trust and leads to increased police violence, while the use of military grade weapons has not been show [sic] to significantly reduce crime.”

One thing this bill did not address was the department’s continued use of the military equipment it already has, such as the tank that was seen after the shooting at the Oñate statue last week.

Ramirez says that, while this new bill seems like a step in the right direction, he is worried that it’s more about politics than actual action.

“[In the press conference] Councilor Davis said that we have to save some of that [equipment] for hostage situations. But I wonder, how many hostage situations do we really have in Albuquerque? And those that we do, is using tanks and riot gear really the best way to de-escalate a hostage situation?”