The city of Albuquerque, New Mexico, has decided to the “defund the police” in a way that makes a recent satire by The Federalist a reality. In the satire article, “I’m The Rapid Response Social Worker Who Replaced The Police,” writer Dave Marcus outlines the naivete of sending social workers into dangerous situations in response to the movement. For dramatic effect, he uses bank robberies and riots. However, the types of situations Albuquerque intends to send unarmed similarly trained professionals into can turn just as deadly and dangerous. From the Washington Post:
Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller (D) announced on Monday the formation of a new public safety department designed to relieve stress on the city’s police. Instead of the police or fire departments responding to 911 calls related to inebriation, homelessness, addiction and mental health, the new division will deploy unarmed personnel made up of social workers, housing and homelessness specialists, and violence prevention coordinators.
The article goes on to say the Albuquerque Police Department is already short about 400 officers, speaking to what is already a nationwide problem with recruitment. Part of forming this new public safety department will be taking funds from the beleaguered police department and shifting it to the unarmed unit.
Mayor Keller justified his decision by saying:
“There is a huge portion of our community that doesn’t necessarily want two officers showing up when they call about a situation with respect to behavioral and mental health,” the mayor said in an interview Sunday. “So this is a new path forward for us that has been illuminated because of what we’ve learned during these times. Look, there’s political will; there was not political will to make this huge of a step three weeks ago.”
Well then, by all means. What Mayor Keller meant is the political pressure wasn’t there three weeks ago to do it.
Let’s do a reality check. As a registered nurse, I worked in the hospital, residential, and home care settings. I have had a front-row seat to behavioral and mental health issues. On any number of occasions, these situations devolved into physical violence and without a substantial and well-trained staff or law enforcement, these could have easily resulted in severe injury or death.
In the Hospital
As a newly licensed professional, I rotated through all of my hospital’s services for a year. It was part of a program to train well-rounded professional nurses who could speak to and address the full clinical picture a patient may present with. On the mental health unit, the vast majority of patients were previously diagnosed and had stopped taking their medications.
Part of one patient’s illness was hallucinations. She was convinced that a major Hollywood star was stalking her and would see and hear him until her medications were effective. One afternoon she saw me talking to “him” and became incensed. While I was standing at the nurse’s station, she rushed me from behind, slammed me into the desk, and had me by the hair.
It took two quick-acting orderlies, trained to apply appropriate physical restraint, and a second nurse who could grab the appropriate as-needed medication to break her hold on me. Without that support, she easily could have slammed my head into the desk or pulled me to the floor. Mental health patients in crisis can be extremely unpredictable. This risk would be heightened in a community rather than an inpatient setting.
In the Community
One home care job I had was taking care of severely ill children at home. Having a severely ill child causes significant stress in the home, even for the most capable parents. Alcohol and drug use and other domestic issues are not uncommon.
In one home, I walked in on a mom who was snorting cocaine in the only bathroom in the house, where I needed to clean some equipment. I used my training to try and deescalate her when she flew into a coke-fueled rage and threatened to kill me. Her mother lived in the house and called the police while her daughter menaced me, shoved me, and pretty much chased me around the house.
I have been involved in domestic situations that escalate quickly, been knocked across the room by a nursing home resident with schizophrenia, and walked into homes where a parent is severely drunk alone with their children, including one that is severely ill. Had I not been in a facility that was adequately staffed with trained personnel or been able to summon law enforcement, any number of situations could have ended tragically.
My AM podcast co-host Rick Robinson is a former law enforcement officer. The reason he is a former law enforcement officer is that he responded to a domestic dispute. It escalated and he got shot. Rick shared on our podcast this morning that domestic calls involving drugs, alcohol, and mental health issues were the calls where an officer was most likely to get hurt, in his experience.
Don’t Defund the Police — Resource Them
Yet these are the types of calls Albuquerque intends to send unarmed social workers and other professionals into. Perhaps a better solution would be a team environment that provides law enforcement with a resource team to bring in once the scene is safe.
One of the complaints in the article is law enforcement is often powerless to provide solutions to the root cause issues, such as mental health, substance abuse, or homelessness that other professionals can. Just like police secure the scene of a fire for many fire departments, perhaps they should secure the scene before a social service worker enters it. I guarantee a team approach will save lives.
I will end with a cautionary tale. Officer Garrett Rolfe was specially trained to deal with situations where someone is found to be under the influence. This specially trained team is a resource to other officers and is called in to help manage and evaluate situations just like the one in a Wendy’s parking lot in Atlanta.
No amount of training can ensure you will successfully deescalate a situation. Walking into them alone and unarmed is a recipe for disaster.