NM city program sends medic, cop to low-threat 911 calls

Created earlier this year, Santa Fe's Alternative Response Unit members are trained in de-escalation techniques


Victoria Traxler
The Santa Fe New Mexican

On a recent afternoon, Antoine Mosley was panhandling on Cerrillos Road when the city's Alternative Response Unit arrived.

The unit includes a caseworker, a paramedic and a police officer who respond to low-threat 911 calls usually related to behavioral health issues. The unit members are trained in de-escalation techniques and often connect people in crisis with mental health and housing services.

When it is not responding to calls for service, the Alternative Response Unit is driving through Santa Fe offering food, water and support to those they see who may be in need.
When it is not responding to calls for service, the Alternative Response Unit is driving through Santa Fe offering food, water and support to those they see who may be in need. (Photo/Getty Images)

Before the city created the unit earlier this year, first responders had three options: Take people to the emergency room, put them in jail or leave them. The ARU offers another option, and it seems to be working so far, city officials said.

After the unit left, Mosley said he felt much better having the ARU respond than law enforcement.

"When it's police, I think, 'Oh god, what have I done here?' But with them, it's not as threatening," said Mosley, 52, who has been living on the streets of Santa Fe for over two years. "It's a lot better."

On that day, Sonia Bertola, a 40-year-old case manager, was joined by police Officer Mariah Gonzales, 28, and EMS Capt. William Brunson, 43.

Mosley had encountered Bertola before. He said she's been amazing and is trying to help him get housing through the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness.

"Sonia and them are the most help I've encountered since I got out of rehab in 2018," he added.

The city formed the ARU to alleviate the fire and police departments' workload and help residents struggling with behavioral health issues. Since its launch in May, the unit has been busy.

From May 5 to July 19, it responded to 226 incidents over 26 days. None of the incidents were determined serious safety issues, and an officer was with the team for 169 calls, according to the Santa Fe Fire Department.

Kyra Ochoa, the city's acting director of community health and safety, told the Human Services Committee in late June that the unit is prepared for whatever it's sent to do.

"The team was really well trained in crisis intervention, but they're also well trained in knowing when to call in additional backup by the police department," Ochoa said.

The unit is still self-dispatching to calls that come into the Regional Emergency Communications Center. It has already helped reduce fire and police call loads, she said.

"They are a small unit as it is, but three days a week is already making a dent and saving time in terms of calls for service," Ochoa said. "Police don't have to stay on scene as long, they don't have to respond to every kind of call that they would normally have to and they're back in the field sooner."

The unit plans to measure its success by seeing if patients are getting connected with services they need, such as finding housing, entering rehabilitation programs or receiving mental health care, Paul Babcock, the city's fire chief, said in an interview.

"We are taking baby steps with this unit, but we're very satisfied with the progress we've been making," he said. "We want to make sure we're doing it right."

Bertola has been a case manager with the city for the past two years after previously working in social service positions in New Mexico. She said the ARU has been the most rewarding job she's had.

"It makes me happy because it really does make a difference," Bertola said. "It's definitely been positive. I see it not just in what we do, but I hear it from other agencies as well."

On a recent morning, the unit responded to calls of trespassing and public disturbances. The team was able to help one woman set up a medical appointment and encouraged her to move along after receiving a complaint that she was trespassing.

"That's another great thing about the ARU," said Brunson, who's been with the fire department for 20 years. "We're able to follow up with people, even the same day, and see if they're getting the connections that they need."

When it is not responding to calls for service, the unit is driving through Santa Fe offering food, water and support to those they see who may be in need.

Ramos Tsosie, a 47-year-old mobile integrated health paramedic, has been with the city for six years. He said both the Mobile Integrated Health Office and ARU have become agents for change.

"I had three people in the area I was working with as a paramedic almost all at the same time," Tsosie said. "And all of three of them, within two or three months, died.

"It really just made it so clear to me that just taking them to the hospital wasn't making a difference in the trajectory."

The ARU, he said, was a way to identify people in the community who are at risk and provide them with options other than taking them to the hospital or leaving them alone.

Gonzales agreed, saying she often felt as an officer there were few options when responding to low-level violence calls.

"Prior to the ARU, I think our hands were tied," she said. "When there's a psych call or someone's suicidal, we automatically just take them to a hospital because that's what we were taught. But that may not always be the best for that person, and it might be a traumatic experience."

"But with the ARU, having a mobile crisis [unit], the case managers are great finding the right resources for that person. But prior to this, we had limited options," she added.

Ochoa told the Human Services Committee the unit has been a goal for the city for some time.

"One thing we always craved was how to get crisis response to be not an option for officers in the field but actually just something that is done as par for [the] course," Ochoa said. "By having the ARU as part of the staff, we've achieved that."

Mosley said he has dreams of becoming a pastor one day and had previously taken courses to become a minister.

"Being a pastor is in my family; it's in my blood," he said. "I just got to get off the streets."

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(c)2021 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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