Given the numbers of police shootings that have come under fire in recent years, it’s not a stretch to say that police departments, even in large cities, are ill-equipped to handle people whose mental health is putting them in situations where they may harm themselves or others. In San Antonio, though, calls involving people with mental health issues are funneled to a small Mental Health Unit; the film Ernie & Joe: Crisis Cops follows two officers in that unit and tells their stories.
ERNIE & JOE: CRISIS COPS: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: Directed by Jenifer McShane, the film shows Ernie Stevens, one of the unit’s founding officers, and Joe Smarro, a former Marine who has dealt with his own mental health issues after tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, doing a different style of policing. Instead of bounding into a situation in uniform, guns drawn and yelling at the people whom they’re trying to subdue, Ernie and Joe are dressed in polo shirts and jeans, and they talk to the people like they’re people, spending as much time as they need to persuade the person to go with them to a mental health facility. Then, they often follow up with the people to see if they need more help.
McShane takes the time to show Ernie and Joe together as partners, the origins of the unit, and show the two of them lecturing fellow cops as well as cadets during mental health training that has only recently been increased to 40 hours from a mere 8 a few years ago. The goal is to get more cops to actually talk to mentally ill people instead of scaring them with ramming into their houses with guns ablaze.
In a couple of fascinating segments, we see the partners talk to individuals and gain their trust enough to get them to come with them to get help; the best example is, while they were on a uniformed patrol shift for overtime pay, they talked a woman named Kendra, a crack-addicted schizophrenic who was about to jump off a highway overpass, into getting help, and their follow-ups with her show her doing much better, albeit experiencing a few setbacks along the way.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: In a lot of ways, the film feels like an extended version of Cops or Live PD, except the cops are actually talking to the people that they’re trying to subdue, rather than screaming at them with guns drawn.
Performance Worth Watching: McShane also delves into the lives of both Ernie and Joe; Ernie joined the SAPD right after high school and, inspired by Joe, is looking to get his bachelor degree. Joe is examined more in-depth. He looks like any crew-cut, slightly paunchy Texas police detective, but he’s been through a lot: he was physically abused and sexually abused as a kid, went right into the Marines at 18 after having the first of his five kids with three different women, and hears the same voices that many of the people he tries to help hear. Freshly divorced, he paints to help quiet the voices. To say Joe contains multitudes is an understatement.
Memorable Dialogue: Joe does a TEDx talk about being in the Mental Health Unit and he says, “During my career, I’ve learned to look at another person and say, though maybe not explicitly through my words, I see you. That is, you don’t have to hide from me. You don’t have to pretend with me. And you certainly don’t have to fear me. Because I relate to you. I see you.”
Our Take: Ernie & Joe: Crisis Cops is a fascinating look at how police departments can handle the mentally ill if they have the proper training and desire to help instead of just going into a situation with guns ablaze. And, in showing how Joe and Ernie go about doing their work, it’s a stark reminder that most police departments have little to no capacity to figure out how to handle situations where someone who has mental health issues will potentially harm themselves or others.
Think about it: San Antonio has almost 1.5 million people, and yet the SAPD’s Mental Health Unit has just recently added its 20th officer. So in even a progressive department like the SAPD, they can only get to a fraction of people who need help. And what’s refreshing about this documentary is that both Ernie and Joe profile as guys who not only admit that they get scared when they confront someone in a dangerous situation, but aren’t afraid to tell both the people they’re trying to help as well as their fellow cops about their own vulnerabilities. They also tell the truth; in their training sessions, we see both men talk with cops and cadets about the usual “macho cop” stereotype, which doesn’t generally get good results when dealing with people struggling with mental health issues.
McShane lets situations like the one with Kendra, which we see via dash cam, play out, and it was fascinating to hear how much she didn’t trust Joe and Ernie because the two of them were in uniform; had the same situation happened when they were in plain clothes, she may have come down sooner. But, despite the barrier, the two cops use the skills they’ve refined over the years to bring her down and get her the help she needed. We were riveted during that extended segment, despite the fact that it was visually static.
Their honesty is bracing. They admit that their tactics always work — Joe talks about the trauma of seeing someone they were helping make that jump — but they and their MHU colleagues have helped thousands of people, so the results are there.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Ernie & Joe: Crisis Cops is a perfect example of a “don’t judge a book by its cover” kind of documentaries. It’s a fascinating look at a different kind of policing style that we hope becomes normalized around the country in the 2020s.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, VanityFair.com, Playboy.com, Fast Company.com, RollingStone.com, Billboard and elsewhere.