Albuquerque proposes new agency amid calls for police reform

June 15, 2020 GMT

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller said Monday he wants to create a new city department to focus on community safety as political pressure mounts for elected leaders to defund the police department amid the latest national wave of protests over use of force.

The new department will be designed to provide another option besides dispatching police or firefighters and paramedics whenever someone calls 911. The department would be made up of social workers and other civilian professionals who would focus on violence prevention, mental health and homelessness, for example.


“It is fascinating that given all the challenges in America over the last 100 years on a number of fronts, when it comes to public safety we still just think there’s two departments — police and fire — in every city. I think fundamentally this could be a new model for how we look at public safety response in cities across the country,” the mayor said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Keller formally announced the effort during an online news conference. He promised what he calls a civilian public health approach to community safety that is built on dispatching the right resources depending on the nature of the call. That could mean a social worker rather than an armed officer, he said.

It was a Sunday night ride along with police that Keller said helped him understand there needed to be a shift in how the city responded to emergency calls. He said officers have had too many things added to their plates over the years with the expectation that additional training would help them deal with new problems. This effort, he said, is aimed at freeing them to deal with crime while specialists with the new community safety department can handle the social needs.

Calls for reform — and politicians’ vows to take action — have surged following the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis. Floyd’s death ignited protests around the world, with some of the early demonstrations being followed by violence, arson and vandalism.

The Albuquerque Police Department began implementing reforms years ago under a prior administration as part of a consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department. Federal authorities in 2014 issued a scathing report in response to a series of deadly police shootings in the city that pointed to patterns of excessive force, constitutional violations and a lack of training and oversight of its officers.


During its tenure, the Keller administration has touted the overhaul of use of force policies as well as the shift in recruitment from advertising the police department’s helicopters and tactical teams to a push for those candidates who want to be “guardians” in their community. There also have been changes within the curriculum at the police academy due to the DOJ reforms.

Civil rights and mental health advocates expressed some hope that the new system could reduce interactions with armed officers, but there were still many details to be worked out.

Barron Jones, a senior policy strategist with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, said his organization has been monitoring the police reforms over the last six years and believes one of the consistent themes has been a lack of accountability.

“While we appreciate the efforts of the mayor to set up a system where it decreases the likelihood of armed police officials responding to calls, how is it going to be funded and will it have a strong mechanism of accountability?” he said.

Jones also said the call in Albuquerque is not to defund the police force, but rather to reprioritize spending on making communities whole and building trust.

The plan calls for “reallocating millions of dollars.” Keller’s administration promised not take money away from core police work or the court-mandated reforms already underway.

While city officials aren’t saying exactly how much money will be needed, Keller said he believes it can be done with existing funding. It’s more about restructuring and refocusing some programs already provided through the city’s various social service offices, he said.

Keller’s administration plans to work the City Council, community members and experts over the next two months on the details of the new department. The process of setting up the new agency will likely take several months and require action by the City Council on budget matters and approval from the U.S. Justice Department for any policy changes giving the ongoing consent decree.