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Since the killing of George Floyd, the calls from protesters to defund police departments across the country have grown. But a North Carolina state representative says it's more about rethinking modern day policing. (June 10) AP Domestic

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AZTEC — Elected leaders in San Juan County agree with people calling for defunding police on one thing: law enforcement officers have been asked to step into the role social workers should play.

But that doesn't mean they believe this problem should be solved by slashing police budgets.

"It just doesn't make sense to think that you could defund the police to whatever extent," said County Commission Chairman Jack Fortner.

More: What does 'defund the police' mean and why some say 'reform' is not enough

The phrase 'Defund police' became a battle cry for protesters following several notable deaths of Black Americans at the hands of police officers. These deaths have led to increased scrutiny of law enforcement. Advocates for defunding police say some of the money from the law enforcement budgets could be reallocated to provide mental and behavioral health services, and that some of the current law enforcement duties should be given to social workers.

The latter part is where elected officials like Fortner agree with the advocates.

"Law enforcement really has many duties," Fortner said. "They're not meant to be social workers."

Law enforcement is a large portion of general fund budgets

In the past, the largest general fund expenditure for the county has been to fund the Sheriff's Office. More than 40% of the county's general fund has gone to the San Juan County Sheriff's Office in past years, according to county documents.

That same trend holds true for the cities in San Juan County.

Bloomfield City Manager George Duncan said approximately 37% of the city's budget goes to the police department. He said the preliminary budget sets aside $2.2 million for the police department.

The preliminary budget for the City of Aztec anticipates spending a little less than $2 million on the police department, which is about 25% of the general fund. The preliminary general fund budget is less than $7.8 million.

Farmington also devotes more than 20% of its general fund to the police department and raised gross receipts taxes in 2018 in part to better fund law enforcement.

San Juan County works to better address mental, behavioral health

Even before protesters in cities throughout the United States began demanding defunding of the police, San Juan County began evaluating the mental and behavioral health gaps in the community and what could be done to better serve people dealing with crisis.

Fortner said right now many people who experience a mental or behavioral health crisis end up in one of two places: jail or the hospital.

"We're trying to find a way to answer calls so that people don't end up in the hospital or in jail," he said. 

Fortner said the county is trying to find ways to address that so people aren't going to the hospital in crisis and to "prevent people from going to jail when they have a mental health issue and not a danger issue."

More: Defund police in schools? How the movement got momentum after George Floyd's death

He supports finding additional funding for mental and behavioral health, but not taking it from the Sheriff’s Office budget. In fact, the San Juan County Commission recently approved applying for a grant that would help meet some of those goals. 

Fortner said he thinks law enforcement in San Juan County is perceived differently than in many parts of the United States where the calls to defund police have taken hold.

He credits that community support to outreach efforts local law enforcement has undertaken. He also highlighted the work of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission and the cities in San Juan County. 

Fortner said Native Americans are "an essential part of our community, our economy, our elected officials."

"Whoever it is who perceives discrimination, it needs to be heard and addressed," Fortner said.

Farmington mayor says police department is ahead of the curve

Farmington Mayor Nate Duckett is proud that his city’s police department has been ahead of the national conversations when it comes to use of force, de-escalation training and community policing.

Five years ago, when the city hired Chief Steve Hebbe, Duckett said the police department also began reviewing its use of force policies — and those policies exist today as an example for other police departments throughout the nation.

"We're all going to be struggling to make budgets work, not just for our police department but for our entire city services," Duckett said. "The COVID-19 situation is going to leave us all in a very deep hole, and we're looking for ways to work with that and keep our priority services at the standards that this community demands. And that includes law enforcement and fire and streets and parks and all of those things."

Farmington has invested in non-traditional ways of policing, including an Alternative Response Unit that includes an emergency medical technician, the Joint Intervention Program to help address addiction and the park ranger program that provides an unarmed community police unit in the parks and downtown.

"We've already been challenging the process," Duckett said.

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He said he has been impressed by Police Chief Hebbe and Farmington Fire Chief David Burke as they work to find ways to address some of the public safety challenges facing the city. 

Duckett said policing is not a static system and the way police departments operate today is much different than the way police worked in the 1980s.

He anticipates the police departments nationwide will continue to evolve, with Farmington police being a leader in those efforts.

“I would anticipate we are going to continue to challenge the curve,” he said.

But while he acknowledges that change is coming to police departments around the United States, Duckett does not support the idea of defunding police. He said the statement “defund police” is foolish and that calling for police reform is a better way of moving forward.

The police are an important part of the community, in Duckett’s eyes. They enforce the laws and provide support. And, as Farmington looks to diversify its economy, a strong police force can be an incentive for new businesses to open up shop within the city.

Just because he does not support the defund police movement does not mean Duckett is not in favor of investing additional resources in mental and behavioral health services. The city and the county have been partnering with Presbyterian Medical Services and San Juan Regional Medical Center to create a campus of care for substance abuse on Ojo Court.

Duckett said there is a great social services network in the community that works with law enforcement every single day to address needs. He highlighted Four Winds Recovery Center and Totah Behavioral Health as examples, as well as the Joint Intervention Program and Sobering Center.

"We're going to continue to find ways to support them the best that we can," he said. "And probably in new ways that we have not done before."

In addition, Duckett said officers receive training for how to respond to people dealing with a mental or behavioral health crisis. 

"Their ongoing training needs to be in continuing to learn ways of de-escalating situations where you don't have to use force on individuals to help get them into a place where they're able to get back to normal life," he said.

Aztec mayor praises de-escalation training

Aztec Mayor Victor Snover said the city has not discussed re-appropriating any money from the police department to other areas. 

"There's always ways to try and use our resources to accommodate more people," Snover said.

Like Farmington, Snover said the Aztec Police Department has benefited from having a proactive chief who pushes for de-escalation training. He said Aztec does not have a lot of serious crime and has a small police force.

Bloomfield mayor says police are needed more than ever

"The City of Bloomfield is in no way at all thinking about defunding the police department at all...I don't think you should punish a whole entity for the acts of one bad or a few bad," said Bloomfield Mayor Cynthia Atencio. "You're always going to find that. But, at this time with everything that's going on, I think we need the police more than we ever have. And, of course, if we had more money, we would offer them more."

Atencio said Chief David Karst has reviewed policies and procedures since the city hired him. 

"I do think that society has come to a point where they rely on police when they deal with mental health issues," Atencio said. "Those aren't things that you can, in my opinion, address when police are on a call. There's just not enough time."

She said there needs to be more resources available for mental health care and some situations where someone is in a mental health crisis may be better handled by a mental health professional. However, Atencio said she does not know how to best address that.

At this time, Bloomfield is operating on a tight budget. Atencio said the Bloomfield Police Department, like all city departments, is facing cuts due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. And the department was already understaffed, according to an independent assessment performed by the San Juan County Sheriff's Office.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at hgrover@daily-times.com.

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