Pepper spray but no guns: New Mexico's most populous county offers workers a sop towards self-defense

(AP Photo/Tae-Gyun Kim)

Albuquerque, New Mexico set a new record for homicides last year, and unfortunately things aren’t getting any better in 2022. A recent report found that violent crime has increased by 30% in Bernalillo County since 2014, while arrests and convictions are down by roughly the same amount.

Things have gotten so bad that Bernalillo County supervisors are even admitting that county employees are at risk of becoming the victim of a violent crime as they’re making their way to and from the office, but they’re proposing a fundamentally unserious solution to the public safety problem.

Bernalillo County leaders want to amend the county’s weapons policy so employees can carry pepper spray in the event they encounter trouble coming into or leaving work.

According to the proposed policy change, “The county recognizes that employees may encounter unsafe circumstances during their ingress and egress to Alvarado Square. This policy is intended to allow employees to have pepper spray while outside of work in an emergent circumstance.”

Hundreds of employees work at Alvarado Square, the Downtown headquarters the county opened a year ago to consolidate operations previously spread out in multiple facilities. The county bought the building at 415 Silver SW, formerly home to Public Service Company of New Mexico, in 2017 and has spent $72 million on the project so far. The county’s current “Workplace Violence Policy” prohibits employees from having weapons – including “any device principally designed to cause bodily injury” – on county property unless they are law enforcement personnel or have approval to carry a weapon as part of their job duties.

The proposal going before the County Commission Tuesday adds language exempting pepper spray.

“The carrying of pepper spray by employees at Alvarado Square for self-defense purposes is allowable and pepper spray will not be considered a weapon under this policy unless other parameters of this policy are violated,” the proposed new language states.

According to the proposed rule change, if adopted employees would be able to possess a single 3-ounce canister of pepper spray at work but would have to alert the county’s Risk Management team beforehand and would have to keep the pepper spray concealed while they’re at the office.

While it’s nice that the county acknowledges that its employees “may encounter unsafe circumstances” on their way to and and from work, restricting their self-defense options to the use of pepper spray instead of allowing those who possess a concealed carry license to carry on the clock (or at least until they get to the office) is a clear indication that these officials are unserious about the “unsafety” of county employees.

I get that the Democratic-dominated county board of commissioners isn’t going to scrap its gun-free policy completely, but it seems to me that if the county is truly concerned about the safety of its employees there’s another option available to them: set up lockers inside Alvarado Square where licensed concealed carry holders can secure their firearms before they get to their cubicle. That would allow them to exercise their right of self-defense while on their way to and from their job, while still designating the office space inside the county government building a “sensitive place” off-limits to firearms.

Ideally the Bernalillo County commissioners would simply drop the idea of keeping Alvarado Square a victim disarmament zone, but that’s not going to happen unless a court orders them to do so. A more realistic and pragmatic step would be to recognize the threat to personal safety that county employees face before and after they clock in, and to ensure that they have access to the most effective self-defense tool around… as well as their constitutionally-protected right to defend themselves with it. Instead, the county is scheduled to vote on a resolution that acknowledges the threat to personal safety while refusing to give employees the ability to effectively fight back against armed assailants. That’s not a good look even in the best of circumstances, but with violent crime up and arrest rates trending down the proposal is even more insulting to those county employees who want to protect themselves from the growing danger on downtown streets.