Keller introduces new leadership of Violence Intervention Program

Family and friends hold a vigil to honor the life of Jacqueline Vigil, who was shot and killed in her driveway in November 2019. Mayor Keller is taking a different approach under the Violence Intervention Program, that combines law enforcement with social workers to prevent gun violence. (Ludella Awad / NM News Port)

By Ludella Awad / NM News Port

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller has introduced new leadership of the Violence Intervention Program (VIP), an initiative announced last year that combines law enforcement with social workers in an attempt to prevent gun violence.

“This is a very unique model,” Keller said, indicating it comes from a public health approach and emphasizes early intervention with troubled young people.  “Often what’s leading them to crime are actually personal and social issues that if you provide help in those areas it will actually break that cycle of retribution.” 

Under the program, the City of Albuquerque is partnering with the District Attorney’s Office, the Children, Youth and Families Department, and other partners around the state. 

The new leadership includes program manager Gerri Bachicha, social services coordinator Angel Garcia, and Albuquerque Police Department Commander Luke Languit of the Violent Crimes Reduction Division.

The leadership also includes Tanya Covington, who manages the city’s Rapid Accountability Diversion program, announced last January. The program is based on restorative justice, an approach to criminal behavior that seeks to connect perpetrators with their victims to mediate better outcomes. 

Covington will help VIP focus on early intervention in youth violence and underage drinking. 

“Young people who make bad choices around alcohol and parties do not need to be swept up into the cycle of the criminal justice system,” Covington said in a press statement. “If we can reach them, help them understand the consequences of their actions, and give them basic skills like de-escalation, we can improve outcomes for them while reducing crime.”

Family and friends hold a vigil to honor the life of Jacqueline Vigil, who was shot and killed in her driveway in November 2019. (Ludella Awad / NM News Port)

The VIP approach tries to understand what is driving violent crime in the city. It includes in-person communication with high-risk individuals with the aim of breaking the cycle of violence. 

“VIP’s focus will be targeted to a small but very high-risk population that drives violent gun crime in Albuquerque,” Bachicha said. “This data-driven program identifies the drivers of violence in our community, and works on several levels to reduce the risk of those drivers being involved in any further gun crimes.”

Earlier this summer, following racial justice protests prompted by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Keller announced the Community Safety Department, which would see trained personnel respond to calls about homelessness, addiction, and mental health instead of the police.

Keller, a Democrat, has been facing criticism that he isn’t doing enough to stop violent crime. In early July, U.S. Attorney General William Barr announced Operation Legend, an initiative launched under the guise of stopping violent crime that included Albuquerque in a national deployment of federal law enforcement agents.

Keller and APD Chief Mike Geier were both critical of the move, suggesting that it’s an election-year stunt.

“We always welcome partnerships in constitutional crime fighting that are in step with our community, but we won’t sell our city for a bait and switch excuse to send secret police to Albuquerque,” Keller said in a statement released shortly after the expansion into Albuquerque was announced. “Operation Legend is not real crime fighting; it’s politics standing in the way of police work and makes us less safe.” 

Meanwhile, Geier said the initiative is “politics standing in the way of police work.” 

Keller emphasized the need to rebuild trust between citizens and law enforcement officers, and said VIP will help do that.

“The importance of this partnership cannot be overstated, especially during this climate of distrust,” Mayor Keller said. “We need vulnerable communities and law enforcement to begin to see each other in different ways. VIP will help find crucial common ground, build new relationships, and significantly reduce gun crime in their neighborhoods.”

This comes after APD has now fatally shot four people this year — Orlando Abeyta in January, Valente-Acosta Bustillos in March, and Jose Vallejos and Ken Reiss during the same five-hour period in August. An APD officer also shot and seriously injured Max Mitnik, a man who was experiencing a mental health crisis at the time of the shooting, in June. 

Ludella Awad is a reporter for the New Mexico News Port. She can be reached on Facebook (here) or at nmnewsport@gmail.com.