HBO Makes Award-Winning Doc 'Ernie & Joe Crisis Cops' Available Free Online For Mental Health Awareness Month
Jenifer McShane's film documents two San Antonio police officers who use empathy, innovative techniques to defuse mental health emergencies
In an ideal world people experiencing mental health emergencies would have no difficulty getting immediate professional help. In the real world, though, it is often police officers who become first responders in such crises.
According to data from the American Psychiatric Association, 25-percent of people with mental health disorders "have been arrested by police at some point in their lifetime." Yet most police departments around the country do not give their officers specialized training in how to respond to mental health emergency calls.
One exception is the police department in San Antonio, Texas, which mandates every one of its officers undergo extensive crisis intervention training (CIT), to learn how to safely deescalate situations involving mentally ill people. The award-winning HBO documentary Ernie & Joe Crisis Cops focuses on two SAPD officers who have demonstrated remarkable success when they intervene in crisis situations.
They're light years ahead of a lot of places.
The documentary directed by Jenifer McShane shows officers Ernie Stevens and Joe Smarro responding in real-time to crises, like a call reporting a disturbed man pacing in a court building. Instead of confronting the unarmed man with guns drawn, barking commands, Ernie and Joe talk with him calmly, gently defusing his acute paranoia.
"It’s a shift in law enforcement [thinking]," Stevens tells Nonfictionfilm.com. "Because [traditionally] we're taught to take control, walk in [saying], 'Everybody be quiet! I'm here now to save the day. You're going to listen and do what I say and I'm going to fix this problem.' And the reality is you're not going to fix anything."
HBO is making Ernie & Joe Crisis Cops available for free through the end of May on its YouTube Channel, in recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month. [Click on the link to watch the film; for more on the documentary continue reading below].
One of the tools Ernie and Joe deploy is "active listening." They also train other officers to make effective use of it when encountering mentally ill people.
"What we tell the officer is the way to judge this, if you're doing it correctly, is are you listening more than you're talking? If you're listening more than you're talking, you're doing a good job. If you haven't said a word, A-plus, you're really doing a good job," Stevens comments, adding, "This may be the first time anybody's even listened to this person, who's venting about a situation. And if the officer can validate that and let them know, 'I'm here and I'm listening to you -- and I'm not going to try to solve the problem, I want you to tell me how I can help you.' -- and if it's within my abilities that's exactly what I'm going to do."
One of Smarro's most potent techniques is to share his own vulnerabilities with people in mental health crisis, be they suicidal or agitated in some other way.
"It's one thing to make a concerted effort to see somebody. But to really kind of close that loop, you have to be willing to be seen in return. And for me, that's why I'm so open and vulnerable to people. But it comes at a cost," Smarro acknowledges. "Allowing yourself to be put out there so much can be exhausting."
McShane commends the San Antonio Police Department for its out-of-the-box program.
"They're light years ahead of a lot of places," the director observes. "There's effort being made and there is success... a lot of positives that haven't even kind of occurred to other [police forces] yet. So I'm hoping the film will inspire some 'Aha!' moments."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.