The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued interim guidance saying municipalities should not clear homeless encampments during the pandemic, because that can increase community spread and cause people to lose touch with service providers. The City of Albuquerque is still clearing encampments, but over the last several weeks the Albuquerque Police Department has changed some practices in interacting with people experiencing homelessness, according to APD Deputy Chief Harold Medina. He spoke with Khalil Ekulona, host of Your N.M. Government.
MEDINA: One of the things that we did do early on is we really recommended to our officers not to make physical arrests if they didn't have to, and to educate and work with the community. We had a meeting early on with Health Care for the Homeless, and with other parts of the city of Albuquerque government, and we got some direction on some situations where, you know, we may want to consider not moving a homeless camp if we didn’t have to. Sometimes we could use the information we're given, because the situation dictates that we're able to do it. But then, at other times, for example, if somebody has an encampment on private property, we're kind of limited by, you know, it's not our property, we can't force somebody to leave these individuals on there.
So I think that just making sure that we're issuing citations in lieu of arrest, and I think this goes back to a lot of the trust that we had been working to develop over the past year. I helped organize the feeding of about 350 homeless a Saturday for the past 12 months at the homeless shelter. I've had every area commander take a team out there, and through community donations we've been able to provide a meal. And it's really changed the culture and the perception of officers towards the homeless, which I think is a great thing.
KUNM: What does the police department make of the CDC recommendation in terms of, ‘hey, this is how we have to deal with this encampment on a street corner or in an alley?’
MEDINA: We try to leave people we try to work through other providers to get them the services they need. We try to get them into temporary housing with some of our city community partners will utilize our [Crisis Outreach and Support Team (COAST)] unit and as a last resort, if it is a problem and the unique situation dictates that it's best that we need to get people to move on, or officers will have to make that decision. It's all dependent on the situation.
There’s so many different factors that we've learned that affect how we interact and deal with the homeless. If we're able to get those resources, [and] they’re willing to work with us, we may take down an encampment, but we're taking it down because this person is going to a location such as a hotel, because COAST was able to get them somewhere to stay.
We really try to communicate well with the homeless; we try to get them the resources they need. And we recognize that they're in a tough spot, and a lot of them are suffering mental illness or some kind of substance abuse problem. And I hope that our officers always have empathy and understanding for the position these people are in life, and that they make the right decisions in how they choose to address a situation.
KUNM: How have things changed overall for your officers, in how they conduct day-to-day operations?
MEDINA: One of the first things we did early on, as we were hearing news of this starting in other cities, me and Chief Geier spoke about it and we implemented a plan where we reduced officers going out and taking calls that they didn't have to take face-to-face.
About a year, maybe a year and a half ago, we got all of our officers cell phones, so that they could have access to language interpretation lines. So when they're dealing with individuals, they can make sure that we have the ability to communicate with all aspects of the community. Those phones came in key at this point, and nobody back then could have imagined the impact that it would have. And actually, the feedback from the officers has been tremendous and they feel that this is helping them. We gave them the ability to take calls over the phone, and I can say we're going to keep that after this is done. Because it's reducing our response times.
The amount of time it takes an officer basically to drive to a scene, a lot of times they've already called the person taking the report, and if there's nothing to follow up on, well, then we want to make better use. And I always use the analogy like: if we were a car, at some points in time we were probably getting four miles a gallon, but we want to do is to increase that and start getting 15-20 miles a gallon. And I think this is one of those first steps.
This is an excerpt from an interview that originally aired on an episode of Your NM Government, "Walking The COVID Beat." Catch that show every weeknight at 7:30 p.m. here on KUNM, or subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Your NM Government is a collaboration between KUNM, New Mexico PBS and the Santa Fe Reporter.