Cities Embrace Civilian-Led Public Safety Solutions

Albuquerque, N.M., and Richmond, Calif., are among cities across the U.S. piloting new initiatives—and working to create safer communities.
Nazish Dholakia Senior Writer
Dec 12, 2023

Mariela Ruiz-Angel leads the third—and newest—public safety department in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Albuquerque Community Safety (ACS) delivers solutions to address the myriad issues—including mental health crises, substance use, homelessness, and community disputes—that typically don’t demand a police response, but for which police have historically been the default first responders. Although the department collaborates with the city’s fire and police departments, it is civilian-led and completely independent.

“Part of why ACS . . . became so essential was that the [previous] approach was not getting it done,” said Ruiz-Angel. “When we talk about first responders, the definition of a first responder is somebody who creates de-escalation in a moment of crisis. . . . And what was happening was that our police first responders many times were creating escalated situations.”

“We had to evolve our first-line response,” she added.

The department is also home to the city’s Violence Intervention Program (VIP), which employs peer support workers who engage with people who are most likely to be involved in gun violence. Peer support workers have lived experiences similar to those they work with. This shared experience helps them build relationships with people involved in violence.

“It really is about deterring retaliation and helping people understand that there’s a different path,” Ruiz-Angel said.

ACS’s creation is part of a recent nationwide push to develop and invest in proactive and non-punitive solutions that can reduce violence and promote safety. More than half of the 48 centralized government offices of violence prevention or neighborhood safety currently in operation were established since 2020, and at least 10 more are in the works, according to Vera’s recent report, Coordinating Safety: Building and Sustaining Offices of Violence Prevention and Neighborhood Safety. According to the report, these offices, which can serve as the hub for a city or county’s public safety services, “have the potential to radically transform governmental approaches to public safety.”

“When they are effectively resourced and structured, these offices can establish a new model for governments seeking to deliver safety—without the social costs that can come with an overreliance on policing,” said Daniela Gilbert, director of Vera’s Redefining Public Safety initiative.

A broad scope

ACS, which launched in fall 2021, is among the largest and most comprehensive of these offices, with a current budget of $17 million and more than 60 responders on staff. Ruiz-Angel said the office has responded to over 50,000 calls for service, directly diverting more than 33,000 calls from police. ACS—which, as of August 2023, operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week—now responds to more than 3,300 calls per month. Ruiz-Angel observed that there have been fewer incidents in which people experiencing mental health crises and homelessness have been shot by Albuquerque police since ACS began operating.

ACS’s VIP data shows that 91 percent of participants have not engaged in further violent crime in the subsequent two years. The department shares monthly reports to ensure transparency and accountability.

In Vera’s report, advocates underscore the importance of sustained, long-term investment in these services.

“It’s hard sometimes—especially in the VIP world—to show impact so quickly,” said Ruiz-Angel. Experts say measuring the impact of interventions designed to reduce immediate incidents of violence requires one to three years, while measuring the impact of prevention efforts can require five to 10 years. “My hope is that, in 10 years, we will be able to do a really good, strong evaluation,” Ruiz-Angel added.

In the meantime, she’s committed to being responsive to the community’s needs. This ethos has led to the launch of a violence intervention program at high schools in the city, which, in turn, led to the development of a program for middle school students following an increase in gun violence involving young people in Albuquerque. VIP’s peer support workers also engage people involved in domestic violence and auto theft cases.

“Sometimes it might feel like I’m throwing spaghetti at the wall. Some of these programs are pilots. But there’s a need, right?” Ruiz-Angel said. “There’s such a gap in services in so many ways.”

ACS is trying to chip away at that gap. The department is opening a Trauma Recovery Center in January 2024 and recently received a $2 million grant from the United States Department of Justice to further develop its VIP.

Targeted efforts, proven success

In 2007, Richmond, California, began operating its Office of Neighborhood Safety (ONS), widely recognized as one of the first such offices in the country. At the time of the office’s inception, the city had one of the highest homicide rates in California. Since then, Richmond ONS has squarely focused on eliminating gun violence. Its approach has proven effective; over the last 15 years, homicides have dropped 62 percent and firearm assaults have fallen 79 percent.

ONS’s outreach workers, called neighborhood change agents, play a similar role to ACS’s peer support workers: they build relationships with people involved in gun violence. This engagement often starts by helping people meet their material needs, which could include groceries, diapers, clothing, or job training.

“The purpose is for these folks to appreciate somebody just loving on them so that they can begin to trust us,” said Sam Vaughn, who leads Richmond’s ONS. He started at the office in 2008 doing outreach work part-time. “In the process, we encourage them to walk with us and make better decisions about their future.”

Richmond will soon expand its public safety scope by developing a crisis response program similar to Albuquerque and many other places across the country. Its new Community Crisis Response Program will respond to a range of calls, including calls related to welfare checks and domestic issues. It is expected to launch by August 2024.

Sustained investment

Albuquerque and Richmond are just two of many cities that are investing in offices of neighborhood safety and violence prevention. Seattle, for example, is developing a new public safety department that’s modeled on Albuquerque’s. The Community Assisted Response and Engagement department will include 911 emergency call takers and dispatchers; civilian responders who are trained to respond to emergency calls that do not warrant police, such as calls related to mental health and substance use; and violence intervention specialists.

Although the scope and strategies of offices of violence prevention or neighborhood safety can vary widely, they all serve a critical function by embracing a proactive, community-centered approach to delivering real safety. For these offices to fully realize their vision, they need sustained investment and resources.

“These offices represent a departure from the status quo for government and require different ways of budgeting, partnering with directly impacted community stakeholders, and using and sharing information,” Gilbert said. “We have a moral and civic imperative to set these offices up for success.”