Ernie & Joe: Crisis Cops
Documentary starring Ernie Stevens and Joe Smarro.
Directed by Jenifer McShane
San Antonio, the seventh most populous city in the United States, known for its rich Hispanic culture, delicious food, and The Alamo where the 1836 battle for Texas independence from Mexico was fought. In Jennifer McShane’s third feature documentary she turns her focus to the battle against mental health as two SAPD officers, Ernie Stevens and Joe Smarro, incorporate new methods when responding to calls dealing with the mentally ill. Empathy and compassion replace bullets and incarceration as the two men, part of a 10-person Mental Health Unit, take the audience on an eye-opening journey.
One in five Americans has a mental health diagnosis. After stating the fact onscreen, the documentary opens with Body Cam footage of a mentally ill man fatally shot by Dallas police. In the video we see a mother walk out the front door while informing officers that her adult son is bipolar and schizophrenic. When he appears at the door holding a screwdriver, police order him to drop the possible weapon. When he refuses and steps outside, the officers open fire while his mother is heard screaming in the background.
Like an episode of “Cops” we watch as Ernie and Joe hit the streets of San Antonio. In one of the most captivating scenes, dashcam footage captures the two officers as they encounter a suicidal woman named Kendra hanging over the ledge of an overpass about to throw herself onto oncoming traffic on I-10. The tense scene provides an intimate look at the process by the SAPD officers as they take their time to “listen” to Kendra whose paranoia is de-escalated enough for her to sit down on the curb with the officers to talk it out.
In the past Kendra would have probably been tackled, cuffed, and arrested but part of SAPD's Mental Health Unit involves following up with the people these officers encounter. Ernie and Joe are seen making home visits and meeting with counselors, methods that are now being incorporated by police departments and first responders around the country.
McShane’s excellent 2011 documentary (“Mothers of Bedford) gave us an intimate look at five women behind bars struggling to remain in their children’s lives while striving to better themselves. Shifting the focus to preventive incarceration, “Ernie & Joe” establishes the fact that jailtime is not necessarily the answer especially when dealing with mental health.
Joe Smarro joined the SAPD in 2005 after serving a stint in the Marine Corps. He reveals that at one time he had suicidal thoughts while suffering from PTSD. Now he plays soccer and paints when he’s not working overtime on patrol. Ernie Stevens has been with the SAPD for 22-years. He’s an avid churchgoer who spends his downtime with family. He’s also back in school pursuing his Masters. The two men are more than just partners. There is an undeniable bond between the two friends that gives the film a personal touch. We care about these individuals and the admirable work they are doing.
The average Police Academy features 60 hours of training on how to shoot a gun while only 8 hours is spent on mental health and communications. With so many reports of police malfeasance in the news it’s refreshing to see a film focused on the positive work accomplished by law enforcement officials. And it’s a bonus to see this affirming work carried out in the Alamo City.
“Ernie & Joe: Crisis Cops” won the special Jury Award at SXSW this year. It’s uplifting, absorbing, and one of the best documentaries of the year.
Now showing in select theaters. Premieres on HBO this Tuesday, November 19.