Vera aims to shift public safety investment from reactive approaches that punish to proactive responses that create healthy individuals and communities and address underlying causes of systemic problems.

The Los Angeles jail system is the single largest mental health institution in the United States. As of March 2021, around 40 percent of people in the Los Angeles County jail system had mental health needs. That number is up 21 percent since 2020, part of a decade-long increase in the number of people with serious mental health conditions in county jails. The county spends up to $654 a day to incarcerate people in mental health units at its jails. In contrast, community-based housing and clinical care costs approximately $180 a day.

Vera and partners have advocated for increased funding for the Los Angeles County’s Office of Diversion and Reentry (ODR) Housing Program, which is an alternative to incarceration that provides community-based housing and services to people with mental and other complex health needs. The goal is to break the cycle of incarceration and put more people on a sustainable path to living healthier lives. ODR, in collaboration with its system partners, has supported the release of more than 8,500 people from jail since 2015. In October, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved funding to increase the ODR Housing program from 2,200 beds to 2,950. This is the largest program expansion since ODR was created in 2015.

In New Orleans, Vera advocated for investments in crime prevention strategies, including community violence intervention programs, youth programs, and a continuum of community-based mental health care. Our March presentation to the New Orleans City Council provided a detailed plan for how the city could use American Rescue Plan Act funds to invest in public safety solutions that address the root causes of crime. Vera’s efforts to shift the crime narrative and debunk myths of policing providing public safety have contributed to a climate in which some elected officials have begun to focus on the importance of prevention.

Photo by Justin Katigbak

Vera also launched Civilian Crisis Response: A Toolkit for Equitable Alternatives to Police in April to assist communities that aspire to design and deliver crisis response services that truly address community needs. People experiencing behavioral health crises are in urgent need of compassion, care, and support—to ease their distress and to plan for their ongoing well-being. In the vast majority of jurisdictions, law enforcement officers—through 911 calls and other means—are tasked with responding to people in crisis. They are often ill-equipped to do so.

Too often, law enforcement involvement makes these situations worse. This is particularly true in Black communities and other communities of color, which have disproportionately shouldered the harms of policing. The tragic killings by police of Daniel Prude, Deborah Danner, Walter Wallace Jr., Joseph DeWayne Robinson, and far too many others experiencing behavioral health crises have driven community demands for systemic change. An increasing number of jurisdictions are developing civilian-led crisis response programs. Staffed by unarmed teams of clinicians, peers, and other specially trained non-police responders, such programs are demonstrating that they can safely act as a first response for people in crisis. However, to truly address the needs of people most harmed by the status quo, jurisdictions must work to eliminate racial disparities and improve outcomes for everyone as they plan, implement, and evaluate these programs. Researchers from Vera interviewed national subject matter experts and local program stakeholders, including people with direct experience in establishing and managing crisis response operations. Using these findings as a foundation, Vera’s toolkit provides guidance to advocates and practitioners who aspire to design and deliver more equitable crisis response services in their communities.

With funding from the Joyce Foundation and in partnership with the National Offices of Violence Prevention Network, Vera has also kicked off a national landscape analysis of offices of violence prevention and neighborhood safety (OVP/ONS). This project seeks to identify what will make these offices across the country successful and impactful by showcasing how they can lead a coordinated and sustainable ecosystem of public safety responsive to their local communities’ needs. As demand and funding for community violence intervention strategies fortunately grows, it is even more critical to understand how local government can enable their efficacy.

In 2022, Vera also launched the Police Data Transparency Index (PDTI). The PDTI provides community-informed metrics for measuring police data transparency and calculated transparency scores for 94 cities and counties across the country, which cover 25 percent of the U.S. population. Communities’ demands for police accountability require information about what police do, but police data transparency is low nationwide. The tool allows users to see the national landscape of police data transparency, identifies data about law enforcement activities that cities should make available to inform public safety system transformation, and provides an assessment of how cities are performing in the release and accessibility of data. It also serves as a directory of links to available data across the United States. The tool revealed that key data was missing in over half of cities analyzed, including more than half of cities failing to provide data on officer-involved shootings, police patrol activities (like arrests and traffic stops), or community calls for service. Of the 94 cities and counties reviewed, 37 communities—39 percent—had no 911 call data at all.