Should Albuquerque’s fledgling Violence Intervention Program be the model for New Mexico?

Proponents say it still needs time to prove its value, but some racial justice advocates hesitate to buy in

By: - September 23, 2021 5:45 am

A Minneapolis police officer rolls up caution tape at a crime scene in June 2020. (Photo by Brandon Bell / Getty Images)

A year and a half after the launch of Albuquerque’s Violence Intervention Program, questions linger about whether it is reducing shootings in the city and should serve as a model for similar programs in other parts of New Mexico.

Albuquerque’s program, started in March 2020, identifies people who are at the highest risk of being involved in “cycles of gun violence,” then employs peer support workers to offer “an exit from the dangerous life they are leading,” Program Manager Gerri Bachicha told lawmakers earlier this month.

If those people continue to engage in violence, police will arrest and charge them, said Luke Languit, an Albuquerque Police Department commander.

(Photo by Shelby Kleinhans for Source NM)

RELATED: Officials unveil their agenda to fight crime in Albuquerque (Sept. 22, 2021)

From the outside looking in, some dismiss the program because of the racial bias lacing the criminal legal system in Albuquerque and beyond. Others say the program needs more time to get off the ground and produce quantifiable results.

Cathryn McGill, founder and director of the New Mexico Black Leadership Council, said she is hopeful that the program will be successful.

“I’m hoping that we’ll use critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity — 21st-century skills — to implement the program, so that it’s not a tool of politics, but that it’s actual, tangible, on-the-ground work,” she said. 

McGill said she wants the community to be able to say in the future that the program proved its worth because something changed with real investment. 

Others don’t share that hope.

Community defense

Arthur Bell is the founder of the group Strong Black Fathers of New Mexico, which came out of the Black Lives Matter movement in the state over the past two years. Bell hasn’t been directly involved with the city’s Violence Intervention Program, but he’s heard “the program is just another Band-Aid that doesn’t really address the source problem.”

“I mean, to us, we feel like the source problem is access to resources,” Bell said — necessities like health care and housing.

When the program started last year, people from the city government tried to call in a lot of activists to provide input, said Selinda Guerrero, an organizer with Millions for Prisoners New Mexico.

Guerrero routinely does her own violence intervention and community defense work in her neighborhood. She said she declined to take part because she’s not interested in participating in a program where she is in the same space as police.

“Law enforcement cannot solve problems,” Guerrero said, and officers’ roles should be limited to actions like writing reports on car accidents or handing out flyers for missing children.

“But when it comes to violence intervention, you are not useful here,” she said. “Because we see what their tactics are.”

She is critical of any program that falls under the category of “community policing.” For years, police abolitionists have been critical of community policing as a way for law enforcement to build trust and more effectively impose order. For example, she said, police have been asking children in the International District to work as informants in their own neighborhoods. “To me, I can’t see that there’s a path there.”

An honorable exit

Languit said every week, APD and other police agencies review every single shooting in the city. The program identifies the people involved in those shootings, and then pings its workers with a “custom notification.”

Languit and the program’s social services coordinator tell victims who might be considering violent retribution — and their associates — that they must solve their problems through non-violence, he said. They offer to connect them to various social services and peer support and offer an “honorable exit” from committing future acts of violence.

“Then we’re taking it a step further by looking at their networks — who they hang out with, who they associate with.” Once all of those people are identified, he said, police can look at the incidents they’ve been involved in and their histories, and decide to either intervene or “utilize our enforcement or apprehension, you know, resources to take action to ensure that they’re not hurting the community.”

In other words, to arrest, charge and incarcerate them.

McGill added that when someone is a victim of gang violence, workers go into the hospital to meet with them. “So they go to the hospital, interview people, try to figure out if there some opportunities for re-engagement with that person in that community, if people want to leave that lifestyle,” she said.

That model has worked in other cities, McGill said, and the Albuquerque program is a hybrid of existing programs in Chicago and Oakland. It takes three to five years for something like this to get off the ground, she said.

UPDATE: Sept. 23, 1:30 p.m.

In an emailed statement, Violence Intervention Program Manager Gerri Bachicha said no program clients are turned over to the police. However, she said ethical practice standards require peer support workers and case managers to tell clients “that if they threaten to hurt themselves or others, we will have to act on that information.”

“In addition our case managers are mandatory reports for child abuse/neglect,” Bachicha said. She said the program uses a “policing strategy called focused deterrence.”

“Focused deterrence is individual-based, data-driven and focuses on the individuals and their associates who drive violent crime,” Bachicha said. “Data identifies those individuals currently involved in increasingly violent criminal activity and any associates that are also involved. Multiple types of intelligence are identified, analyzed and used to guide law enforcement actions to reduce gun violence in a more targeted manner.”

She said ShotSpotter technology “exponentially improves that analysis,” but there is evidence to suggest that ShotSpotter actually does not detect gun violence and changes the behavior of police in neighborhoods where the technology is installed.

Bachicha said there are ways to address gun violence that both reduce enforcement and produce more public safety, and that the program endeavors to work with communities to reduce high levels of violence.

“Family and Community Services house the VIP Social Services components, and APD shares information with social service workers that helps to identify victims of gun violence for intensive services to intervene in the cycles of violence in which they are involved,” she said.

Bachicha said the program is now analyzing data they have collected so far and “will be scaling the most successful components of the program in the next two years.”

Bachicha said there is more to be done to analyze the data but “but of the 161 individuals we have intervened with through custom notifications, we are showing early signs of success, and with the intentional, researched-based scaling of the program, we hope to get out in front of the increase in gun violence within the next two years.”

She said the program started its hospital-based component on Aug. 1, 2021 and that will be expanded to include outreach and services to survivors of violent crime who typically are unable to access traditional services. This includes survivors who are unsheltered, navigating a chronic mental health concern or who have complex psychological issues, immigrants, refugees, people with disabilities or minors who are in state custody if, for example, their parents are imprisoned.

Theory and practice

The success of Albuquerque’s program will likely affect the chances of something similar being implemented all around New Mexico. A proposal to create such a statewide program has come up twice in the Legislature, once in 2020 and again this year. It has never reached a full vote in either the House or the Senate.

Carried by Rep. Gail Chasey, an Albuquerque Democrat, the 2020 bill attracted four co-sponsors but ultimately died in the House Appropriations and Finance Committee. Chasey introduced the bill again this year, but it died in the same committee.

“It’s time to scale this work,” Bachicha told lawmakers earlier this month. “Historically, law enforcement strategies to reduce violent assaults and gun violence have not created a sustained reduction in violent crime in New Mexico. And even worse, the strategies employed have often eroded the legitimacy of the police force to protect and serve in the communities most impacted by violent crime.”

According to legislative analysts, the 2021 version of the bill would have provided $10 million each year to the state Health Department, which would grant money to local governments and tribes. Those entities would then hire “community-based organizations” to actually run violence intervention programs.

But, McGill said, money alone cannot improve public safety.

“More importantly, we need a spectrum of advocacy and a continuum of care that has all the lenses of cultural humility and linguistic humility, that understands that we have to meet people where they are, that we can’t blame them,” McGill said.

Today, the program has one social services coordinator on staff and is working to hire another through a contract, Bachicha said, and they need more. McGill agreed that the program requires more than just one or two people doing the work to be successful.

“I have to believe that things could work, otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to continue doing this work,” McGill said.

McGill said Bachicha is a good person to have in charge of the program.

“She has spent her career and her life working in this arena, and so I trust her,” McGill said. “I believe that she is going to be able to put forth the theory about how we could make substantive change in New Mexico.”

What remains to be seen, McGill said, is whether it will move from theory to practice. It’s going to require some financial investment and additional hires, McGill said. 

There is a great deal of historical trauma, she added, and the issue of violence is emotionally charged. “People are going to choose sides like, it’s either ‘I’m for law enforcement,’ or ‘I’m for social justice and violence prevention,’ ” McGill said. “And what I would say is, it’s not an either/or. It’s a both/and.”

Who keeps us safe?

Richard Murray writes in the shade at Wells Park on Sept. 16. Moments later, Albuquerque police officers kicked him, his girlfriend and three others out of the park. (Photo by Austin Fisher | Source NM)

RELATED: Albuquerque police still sweeping homeless camps, despite CDC guidelines (Sept. 17, 2021)

Bell said the Violence Intervention Program is part of a larger problem with city government. He said officials should be putting money into providing things for young Burqueños to do, “not necessarily programs that pay people to act like they care about the problems that they’re not dealing with on a day-to-day basis.”

He and others have been telling city officials that they need community centers open for longer hours so that children can use them more and stay out of trouble. Instead, he said, the city government closed some of the centers to remodel them. 

Those remodeling projects also didn’t complete on schedule, Bell said, which kept them closed even longer.

“So basically, if we’re asking them for something, they’ll do what we’re asking but don’t do what we’re asking, if that makes sense,” Bell said.

Part of Guerrero’s hesitation about buying into the Violence Intervention Program is that from her perspective, police are at war with her community.

“I go out, and I do intervention all day in my neighborhood, with my community,” she said, “because I live in a neighborhood where it’s not safe for us to call the police.”

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.