ALBUQUERQUE, NM (AP) — Quinn Mulhern and Leigh White are driving downtown one morning in early December when they spot an elderly woman lying on a pile of blankets on a sidewalk. She is surrounded by belongings, including a wheelchair and a walker.
Mulhern takes a sharp right down the side street, parks a white urban Ford Escape with “Community Responder” written on the side, and he and White jump out.
The pair wear jeans and jackets to cover their long-sleeved Community Safety Department t-shirts. Radios hang from cords around their necks. They crouch next to the woman and hand her water bottles, a blanket, and a pair of socks, ask if she needs anything, and encourage her to use a bus pass to get to the West Side Homeless Shelter.
Ultimately, that’s all they can do.
Mulhern – who was a mixed martial artist before going back to school to pursue a master’s degree in social work – and White – a former correctional officer who cites her personal experience navigating the system as a single mother — are behavioral medicine doctors who roam the streets as part of the city’s newest department.
Albuquerque Community Safety was launched in late August and has received widespread national media attention. Articles praised the city’s goal of using social workers instead of law enforcement to address societal issues.
Local residents were also intrigued, although some were far more skeptical, including a woman White said had repeatedly demanded if they were “willing to die for the city”.
“Sometimes the hardest part of the job was balancing the citizens making the calls,” White told the . “We cannot always meet their expectations. There are limits to our work and to what we can achieve.”
Oftentimes, callers expect officers to arrest people who are camping on public property, which Mulhern says they — or the police — don’t do. He said when they approach someone on the street, they ask for a first name to establish a relationship, but they don’t do criminal background checks or see if someone has a warrant out. While there are many naysayers, Mulhern said he’s also spoken to people who seem to think the department is a solution to the complex problem of police brutality.
“It’s an attempt to replace a number of jobs that police usually do. …” Mulhern said. “There’s this idea that we’re going to wipe out the board like conflict and homelessness, and it’s like, no … I think we’re doing a good job and an important job and doing it well, but it’s like a piece of a bigger puzzle .”
APD in the midst of reform efforts
In June 2020, as the nation was gripped by protests over the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and calls to “defund the police,” Mayor Tim Keller announced that the city would create a new Department of Public Safety that would respond to calls involving behavioral health, homelessness, addiction, and other issues.
The Albuquerque Police Department has been criticized for its treatment of the homeless and those with mental health issues in the past and is in the midst of years of reform efforts.
Eleven days before the mayor’s press conference, an APD officer shot dead a man suffering from a mental health crisis at his parents’ home. Officer Jose Ruiz shot and killed Max Mitnik when the 26-year-old approached him with a paring knife and begged to be shot. Though Mitnik survived the shooting, his mother has told the Journal he will never be the same again.
An internal investigation found the officer had used reasonable force. However, it turned out that he could not control the scene, which escalated the situation leading up to the shooting.
ACS director Mariela Ruiz-Angel said she watched video of the encounter several times and wondered how her responders could handle it differently. For one thing, Mitnik wanted to be taken to the hospital, but not in handcuffs.
“There was a moment where he was like, ‘Okay, I’m going,'” Ruiz-Angel said during an interview.
But, she recalled, officers said they had to handcuff Mitnik to transport him.
“Had we gotten him in the car and just let his mum in the car with him, would that have been a different outcome?” asked Ruiz-Angel.
Ruiz-Angel said dispatchers don’t typically make calls to ACS when a person is reported to have a gun; However, when responders arrive at the scene of a crime, they often find that people are armed. She said emergency crews had not been threatened by anyone, but if they had, they were told to withdraw from the situation and call for help.
Ruiz-Angel grew up in El Paso, Texas. In her 20s she worked in customer service for a large corporation before going back to school to do a masters in social work and business administration. She worked for the Albuquerque Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs before being hired to found ACS in 2020. In April she was hired as director.
Ruiz-Angel said as ACS grows she thinks the budget needs to double – but it will still be a much cheaper option than the police. ACS’s annual budget is $7.7 million, and APD’s budget is about 30 times larger.
“Even if you just think logistically about the vehicles that (the police) are buying and the guns that they are buying, the shoes,” she said. “We’ll probably always stick to something very casual, even though it might be uniform.”
According to a department spokesman, behavioral health workers have answered more than 1,500 calls since early September, and roadside workers went to 213 calls involving 753 individual contacts. By early December, nearly two-thirds of calls were from unprotected individuals and 17% were welfare checks. The remaining calls involved “down and outs”, behavior problems, beggars, or suspicious or intoxicated individuals.
As of the first week of December, ACS had hired or was in the process of hiring 20 of 24 behavioral health positions and 29 of 45 of its total field staff. The department also has a Clinical Supervisor, four Mobile Crisis Team Clinicians who accompany law enforcement on calls, two Roadside Responders and a community-focused Response Assistance team to help people affected by tragedy or violence. It has 10 vacancies for Community Responders to respond to minor injuries, abandoned vehicles, accidents with no injuries, and needle picks.
Ruiz-Angel said the expectation is that the department will double its operational units each year, eventually taking up to 40,000 calls a year. She said it is currently operating seven days a week from 7am to 8pm but hopes to be available 24 hours a day by the end of January.
“In my perfect world, if we could have behavioral health professionals in every neighborhood, in every precinct, in every quadrant similar to what we do in the police force, I think the results would be different because then you could have… deeper relationships with the community,” said Ruiz Angel.
Services in ABQ a bit “thimble”.
On December 10, with a Journal reporter and photographer in tow, Mulhern and White drove through the city, answering calls and scanning the streets.
While Mulhern drove, White sat in the passenger seat with an open computer on his lap and looked at the computerized dispatching records for the calls that firefighters and police officers responded to across the city. Albuquerque Fire Rescue scanner traffic crackles over the radio.
The first two calls they’re routed to — a man between two vehicles in a mall parking lot and a man next to a bike in front of a Wendy’s — result in no one being found. This happened in about 27% of calls ACS responded to in the first three months, while resources were offered on about 48% of calls and service was declined on about 17% of calls, according to data provided by the department.
When responders find someone who needs help, they say it’s often difficult trying to find what they need. Responders provide basic necessities and, if the person is interested, try to get them housing or case management services.
“Best case scenario – if the person is motivated and, you know, relatively mobile, they can get to where they need to go, they’re computer literate, they can use a cell phone if all those boxes are checked — even then, getting into the services to get a housing voucher to get on the more permanent housing list is quite difficult,” Mulhern said. “It’s not that easy. And we run into that a lot…Services are, I would say, a bit worn out.”
Sometimes the only thing they can do is call for medical help.
Just before noon, Mulhern spots a man lying face down – his head covered by a straw hat – on the sidewalk of an Interstate 40 exit. A bitterly cold, strong wind threatens to blow a shopping trolley with all its belongings into the street.
The emergency services park and Mulhern brings the shopping cart back onto the sidewalk. You squat down next to the man and ask if he’s alright, and he doesn’t move, just mumbles under his breath. After repeatedly asking how they could help, White finally calls for paramedics. While they wait, emergency services cover the man with a blanket to keep him warm.
Finally, an ambulance arrives from Albuquerque and loads the man on his back. Mulhern and White give the ambulance crew his backpack to take to the hospital.
Along the way, the team considers how ACS can fit into the first responder system alongside APD and AFR.
“The functions of the job dictate, to some extent, how people behave on the job, and it’s like we’re given that little extra superpower of not being able to arrest. We don’t even touch this whole world,” Mulhern said. “I think people are hanging up… ‘they’re going to replace the police with us.’ No… It’s a complement to that other necessary service where they have the power to arrest – someone has to have that too – but dividing it up seems pretty logical to me.”