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It's early October, and perhaps the busiest week of the year in New Mexico's largest city. Hundreds of hot air balloons dot the cloudless blue sky — part of the annual balloon festival that Albuquerque hosts.

Walter Adams and Leigh White are on patrol. Their white car, stamped with "Community Safety" decals, is headed for a neighborhood once known as the "war zone."

Adams and White aren't carrying guns, though. Instead, they are armed with a trunk full of water bottles, Cheez-Its, and Chewy bars. Both are wearing jeans and matching black T-shirts. Skee-Lo's 1990s hit "I Wish" is blasting from the radio.

While Adams drives, White eats breakfast snacks and works on a black Dell laptop. Before long, the first dispatch flashes over the computer screen. They have to head west.

A few minutes later, they're standing outside two tents pitched in the trees near a church. People walking or jogging along a nearby trail glance over.

"Someone called 911 and said there was a fire," says White. A man inside the tent curses back at her.

"We know better than that," he says. He's been homeless for seven years, he tells them. "That's what people do, call the cops," he adds.

"We're not here for that," said Adams. "What happens is police get a call, and they send us."

White and Adams, in fact, aren't police. What they do is not normal emergency response work nor normal police work. It's something of a hybrid — part of an experiment that Albuquerque is hoping will change public safety in America.

They are members of the Albuquerque Community Safety (ACS) department. Launched in August, the agency is intended to complement the city's police and fire departments by having teams of behavioral health specialists patrol and respond to low-level, nonviolent 911 calls.

Last July, Minneapolis also launched a civilian crisis response corps to handle certain mental health emergencies without police. The pilot program, operated by Richfield-based Canopy Mental Health & Consulting, features mental health professionals in two-person teams who will always be on call.

The change fulfills a key demand among many activists, who since George Floyd's murder have taken aim at the city's reliance on police for emergencies that don't necessarily require an armed response.

Still, ACS is among the first stand-alone departments of its kind in the country. Authorities here hope it will defuse the kinds of tensions between police and residents that have surfaced in cities across the country and help reinvent 911 emergency response systems, which many believe have become antiquated.

Lt. Jerrad Luciani, of the Albuquerque Fire and Rescue Department (center), trains behavioral specialists with the first Albuquerque community safety team on how to respond to dispatch calls.
Lt. Jerrad Luciani, of the Albuquerque Fire and Rescue Department (center), trains behavioral specialists with the first Albuquerque community safety team on how to respond to dispatch calls.

Ann Hermes, Christian Science Monitor

On this stop, the program makes its small mark. Adams tells the homeless man about resources available at HopeWorks, a local nonprofit. The man says he's been there before, but never upstairs, where many of the services are.

"As long as you show commitment, they'll help you," says Adams.

The man says he'll go.

To understand why the city has become one of the first to push public safety in a new direction, you have to wind the clock back a decade.

From 2010 to 2014, members of the Albuquerque Police Department shot and killed 27 people. One of them, in March 2014, was James Boyd, a homeless man diagnosed with schizophrenia. An investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice concluded a month later that the APD "too often uses deadly force in an unconstitutional manner," including against "individuals who posed a threat only to themselves." The police entered into a court-approved agreement with the DOJ that October, which the department has been operating under ever since.

Initially, police shootings in the city decreased for several years. But more recently they have begun to rise again. From 2015 to this year, Albuquerque had the second-highest rate of fatal police shootings in the country among big cities.

While all this was going on, New Mexico's behavioral health system was falling into disarray as well. In 2013, the state launched a criminal investigation into 15 of its largest mental health providers — accusing them of defrauding Medicaid — and froze their funding. The state attorney general cleared all the providers of the allegations, but the state's mental health system has never fully recovered.

Since moving to Albuquerque from the East Coast 20 years ago, White has watched as the city's police and mental health care systems have fallen in national rankings — and wondered what she could do.

"I have certainly seen it get a whole lot worse in Albuquerque over the last couple of years, especially with COVID," she says. "I thought [ACS] would be a great way to get back involved in the community, let these folks know that there's somebody that cares."

About 1 in 4 people killed by police since 2015 had mental illnesses, according to a Washington Post database. Many of those killings occurred after the families of those people called the police for help.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put even more strain on systems in cities such as Albuquerque, in both funding and demand. But the new agency has the potential to bring some changes locally.

The sun sets over homes in an area known as the “war zone” in Albuquerque due to the area’s high crime rates.
The sun sets over homes in an area known as the “war zone” in Albuquerque due to the area’s high crime rates.

Ann Hermes, Christian Science Monitor

"By and large [ACS] is a positive move" for policing in the city, says Peter Simonson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico. "It holds the promise that perhaps someday we will see fewer armed officers interacting with people in mental health crisis."

Suspicion and curiosity

White and Adams are having a busy morning. They respond to five calls, most of them dealing with unsheltered people and homeless encampments. Each follows a familiar script. The two responders pull up in their white Honda Civic; Adams and White grab water bottles and snacks from the trunk. They offer them to the people in the encampments, who eye them with a mixture of suspicion and curiosity. Then the behavioral health specialists ask the people if they're connected to services, or want to be.

White, with a keen eye for detail, notices cuts or hospital bracelets, and checks to see if anyone wants medical attention. Adams approaches them with a disarming ease. He ambles up and greets people like he would a stranger he's asking for directions. It's an unruffled approach born of his past.

Adams grew up in Las Vegas, N.M., which had widespread gang and drug problems. It also was home to the state's main psychiatric hospital. To keep him out of trouble, Adams' father would have his son accompany him to basketball games at the hospital.

So, starting in third grade — long before he knew about behavioral disorders — young Walter began socializing with people who were dealing with mental health problems. It is something he leans on today.

Adams came to ACS from the criminal justice system — specifically juvenile corrections and specialty courts for people with behavioral health disorders. Like many of his colleagues, he's spent years dealing with people some might consider dangerous or threatening.

ACS teams operate under some restrictions. While the responders have been integrated into the 911 system, the calls they get are screened first by the police department to determine whether they meet certain classifications — no firearms on the scene, for instance — and then by fire department staff.

For now, the ACS teams are also only working 8 to 5, avoiding the possible hazards of night duty.

Before the launch of the ACS initiative, the new recruits had to go through considerable training before being allowed to roam Albuquerque's streets.

For now, there are 10 emergency call types ACS personnel will respond to, ranging from homelessness to suicide. Albuquerque receives about 200,000 of these calls a year.

Patience, compassion, snacks

The last call of the morning brings Adams and White to a gas station convenience store at a busy intersection near downtown. A homeless woman outside the store is shaking and yelling to herself. She eventually takes the bottle of water they offer and sits down in the shade. Adams believes that she is on drugs or may suffer from mental illness, but she's answering their questions and staying calm. Until she isn't.

She starts shouting to herself. Adams calls for an ambulance. It arrives a few minutes later, followed by a fire truck. After a short discussion with the other responders, the woman is sedated and taken to a hospital.

Adams walks away from it like he has the hundreds of other calls he's taken so far in his new job. No matter the circumstances, he approaches each incident, he says, the same way: with patience, compassion, and snacks.

"I serve those people with the same intention that I would want someone to help my family," he says.

This story is part of the SoJo Exchange from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.

Star Tribune reporter Libor Jany contributed to this report.