Community safety responders train for their first weeks in the field

Long-promised solution to dangerous interactions between police and nonviolent people starts to gain traction in Albuquerque

By: - October 22, 2021 5:14 am

Actors and trainees work through communication and de-escalation techniques on Thursday, Oct. 21, in Albuquerque’s City Hall. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source NM)

On the first floor of Albuquerque City Hall, in the former spot where people paid water bills in person, an actor is training the newest community safety responders.

“Are you a narc? Are you here to get a fix? Why are you here? Who are you?”

The actor addresses the woman who is in training, one of nine people that are part of the second cohort of Albuquerque Community Safety Responders, an initiative that is getting city employees on the streets to respond to nonviolent complaints and connect people to community providers offering health care, housing and food options.

The trainee responds to the actor. Then she takes a break and collects herself, and hears from the other five people in her class who evaluate how she did. 

When she returns to the simulation, she has better composure, and she communicates more openly.

“Are you a narc?” the actor asks again, resuming the training. 

“No, I’m here because we received reports about syringes in the alley. I’m here as part of the City of Albuquerque street team, and I’m cleaning up,” she said. “I’m noticing a lot. Is there anything you’re seeing?”

The training on interpersonal communication is key for these responders. They will take nonviolent calls for people in distress in place of a police officer in an effort to de-escalate first response and connect people to services. 

The program launched in September. Five responders are in the streets taking calls from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. So far, the ACS team has responded to more than 400 calls, according to Director Mariela Ruiz-Angel. 

“We’re really able to look at the person and the individual and really try to figure out how we meet their needs,” she said.

She said the program expects to have enough people trained to facilitate a 24/7 response by Summer 2022.

The bulk of the calls are for homeless services, property or business owners asking for assistance with an unhoused person. Ruiz-Angel said ACS is quite aware that their service could become the first call for people in Albuquerque that have an issue with unhoused individuals, but she wants the community to know their responders can do so much more.

“We had a call yesterday actually from an individual who lives with his mother — for the last six years actually — has been heavily intoxicated and goes out in the middle of the day to start yelling at neighbors and picking fights with people at the park that’s in front of his home,” Ruiz-Angel said. “What we realized is that, although he’s not ready for help, we want to follow back up with his mother as well to see if she needs help. Because that’s part of sometimes the issue is that your parents sometimes tend to be that shelter for you. And it sounds like it’s been an issue for a long time.”

Quinn Mulhern is part of the new cohort. A recent graduate with a master’s in social work, he said the program is rigorous and something he’s excited to see start from the ground up. 

“I’ve gone out and shadowed responders who are now in the field,” he said. “I’m spending most of my time going through these scenarios with live actors, discussing the approach, discussing how to do motivational interviewing, for example, which is just a way to converse with someone so that they feel comfortable and talk about themselves in an honest way.”

Ruiz-Angel said many of the applicants have similar credentials as Mulhern. 

“We have had really amazing professionals who have really great backgrounds but maybe just haven’t necessarily done some of the implicit bias work,” she said.

Some people wanted to join who had a background at the Metropolitan Detention Center. Ruiz-Angel said at first, she thought were going to be a bad fit, but “they’re freaking awesome.” Other times, she added, folks come from working at the jail for an interview asking “When do we get to like put them in a lock?’” and it raises alarm bells. “I’m like yeah, not a good fit. Pretty much anyone that starts out their interview with like,’ how do I protect myself?’ is already a bad fit.”

She said the people responders will meet — often routinely — should not be perceived as a threat from the start, though threatening behavior might on the way if the conversation isn’t focused on de-escalation. 

“People aren’t necessarily dangerous until you start to escalate, or if they feel threatened, then yeah, they might,” she said. “And not that we’re oblivious to people becoming violent or getting upset. I always say, ‘You get to a scene and trust your gut.’ ”

Responders are unarmed, usually wearing sneakers and plain clothes, most often in an unmarked vehicle. If situations do turn sour or violent, they have direct communication with APD.

ACS is operating with a budget of $7.5 million. It’s also seeking money from a bond, something that would move the operation from the first floor of the old water utility office to a spot centrally located in the city, closer to community services. 

For Mulhern, the responder expected to hit the streets in the coming weeks, he’s noticed a lot of intersection between his expertise in social work and the training he’s picking up from ACS primarily in the fields of trauma-based and strength-based interventions.

“You’re actually coming to the situation with sort of a fresh, open mind, a blank canvas, and getting this information from the person, so that you’re not being biased and you think you know the answer for their life,” he said, “but coming to them and really listening, and having that active listening so that you can respond organically to their problems.”

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Shaun Griswold
Shaun Griswold

Shaun Griswold is a journalist in Albuquerque. He is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, and his ancestry also includes Jemez and Zuni on the maternal side of his family. He grew up in Albuquerque and Gallup. He brings a decade of print and broadcast news experience. Shaun reports on issues important to Native Americans in urban and tribal communities throughout the state, including education and child welfare.