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NM city to launch Alternative Response Unit for low-threat 911 calls

The unit will be composed of a police officer, a paramedic, a behavioral health caseworker and a social worker

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Photo/City of Santa Fe

Victoria Traxler
The Santa Fe New Mexican

SANTA FE, N.M. — After years of development, the city of Santa Fe is preparing to launch a new emergency response unit with a goal of alleviating the workload of the police and fire departments and providing better support to community members in crisis.

The Alternative Response Unit will be a multidepartment unit composed of a police officer, a paramedic, a behavioral health caseworker and a social worker to address low-threat 911 calls in which someone may need help rather than a jail cell. The unit will begin operating May 4 on a schedule of two days a week, with hopes of expanding this summer, Santa Fe fire Chief Paul Babcock said.

The program comes amid a national conversation on police reform and the need for new methods of addressing mental health- and behavioral health-related 911 calls.

Mayor Alan Webber said the unit is “the right thing to do right now.”

“It has been a process to get here,” he said at a news conference Monday morning. “But if you look at how cities across America are trying to respond to different needs, different times and a better utilization of the trained men and women in our fire and police departments, this approach makes real sense.”

Funding for the unit comes as part of Webber’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2022. The recommended $475,000 would allow for a second team to add to the outreach effort after July.

The response unit is branching off the Santa Fe Fire Department’s Mobile Integrated Health Office, which offers a range of community medical services, operates an Opiate Outreach program and provides case management for the city’s law enforcement diversion program, called THRIVE.

“The Alternative Response Unit is really an outgrowth of that, and that commitment to making sure people get the appropriate response, get the appropriate services and that police can be freed up to do the work that police know how to do best,” said Kyra Ochoa, acting director of the city’s Community Health and Safety Department, an umbrella agency that includes both the police and fire departments. City police Chief Andrew Padilla said the program is a step toward changing law enforcement to fit the needs of the community. The new unit will deploy for various types of calls, such as those reporting disorderly conduct, a person who appears motionless, aggressive panhandling or welfare checks, he said.

“We want to have this team go out and outreach and speak to these people, connect them with services, which in turn will allow police officers to focus on those patrols and not have to respond to basic calls for service,” Padilla said.

Behavioral health responses that “historically involved police cars, firetrucks, and ambulances” are inefficient and counterproductive for people in crisis, the city said in a news release about the Alternative Response Unit. Babcock explained how a call might play out: The unit would self-dispatch, or respond to a scene without being directed by 911 dispatchers, for a low-violence call; a police officer would make sure the scene was safe and determine whether there was a need for further backup; a paramedic would assess if the person needed medical attention; and the social worker and case managers would connect the person with community services.

Ochoa said the success of the program would be measured by whether people were successfully connected with community services, general community feedback and an analysis of whether it was relieving pressure from the public safety system.

“The most important thing is that we’re getting folks who are suffering from mental illness and substance use disorder into the help they need, because that creates the safer community for all,” she said.

Staff for the unit are undergoing a number of trainings, including crisis intervention, trauma-informed care, suicide prevention and harm-reduction trainings, said Andres Mercado, the fire department’s battalion chief of Mobile Integrated Health.

The program resembles a similar effort in Albuquerque, which announced its Community Safety Department in June. The agency deploys unarmed personnel to emergencies, including social workers, housing and homelessness specialists, and violence-prevention coordinators, according to the city’s website. While Santa Fe’s response team will be mostly unarmed, the police officer will be carrying a weapon for safety but will be “dressed down” — or out of normal uniform, Padilla said.

Budget approval for the program will be decided by the City Council on Thursday.


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