The buddies are officers Ernie Stevens and Joe Smarro, partners in the San Antonio Police Department. The social issues have to do with the unit Ernie and Joe work in, a Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) that specializes in responding to mental health-related incidents. Early in the film Stevens and Smarro get a call about a mentally ill man pacing in a courthouse.
Instead of confronting the man aggressively, they calmly probe what’s got him disturbed. They’re dressed in plain clothes and take a seat as the man shifts nervously.
“How you doing? You okay?” Ernie asks him. “How can we help you today?”
“We kind of catch flack internally in the department of being poor tactically…because you sit down with people,” Joe notes in the film. “I’m not going to stand over them and talk down to them. I’m going to sit down and get down to their level because they’re going to tell me a lot more than they’re going to want to tell you.”
The man’s agitation gradually dissipates and the incident ends with him leaving peacefully with Ernie and Joe. But in other jurisdictions around the country, situations like that often end tragically. According to a survey by the nonprofit Treatment Advocacy Center, “as many as half” of all people killed in encounters with police were suffering a severe psychiatric condition.
“It’s happening all over the place,” McShane notes. “I feel we’re really doing everyone a disservice, including the first responder, sending [officers] into situations without any real knowledge as to what they’re seeing and options for handling it,” McShane comments. “So we’re kind of setting up a bad scenario for everybody and not just the person who’s in crisis.”
San Antonio’s police department requires 100% of its officers to undergo extensive crisis intervention training, teaching them to de-escalate and defuse encounters with the mentally ill that might otherwise end explosively.
“It’s a shift in law enforcement,” Smarro tells Deadline. “Because [traditionally] we’re taught to walk in and take control. ‘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.”
“Sometimes less is more in law enforcement,” Stevens adds. “This may be the first time anybody’s even listened to this [distressed] 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…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.’”
“They’re light years ahead of a lot of places,” McShane says of the San Antonio Police Department. “There’s effort being made and there is success. There’s a lot of positives that other places haven’t even kind of occurred to them yet. So I’m hoping the film will inspire some ‘Aha!’ moments.”
Ernie & Joe: Crisis Cops opens in theaters in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, qualifying the film for Oscar consideration this year. It debuts on HBO this coming Tuesday. At the SXSW Film Festival, where the film premiered in March, it won a Special Jury Prize for Empathy in Craft.
The documentary explores what motivated Ernie and Joe to serve on the CIT unit. For Stevens, participating in a training session years ago impacted him profoundly.
“When I went through CIT training and I heard a family member speak about what it was like living with her son who had mental illness, her story broke my heart. It just broke me completely,” he recalls. “And I knew right then I had to do something, I had to do my little part, whatever that meant, to get the ear of the department and the community to help not only her but families like her that struggle with mental health needs.”
Smarro’s sense of empathy comes from having dealt with mental health issues himself, stemming from a childhood of physical and sexual abuse. He’s remarkably candid about the trauma he suffered.
“When you do that you really are allowing yourself to be vulnerable,” he observes. “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.”
Despite the dramatic subject matter of the film, it includes moments of humor as when Ernie and Joe conduct a training session for officers.
“My name’s Joe Smarro. I’ve been with SAPD since 2005,” Smarro says by way of introduction. “Before that I was in the Marine Corps. Oorah!”
Stevens adds, “My name is Ernie Stevens. I’ve been on the SAPD going on 22 years. Prior to that I was a Cub Scout. Oorah!”
“I think there’s this tendency to assume that serious documentaries about serious issues have to be totally serious and somber. And actually I think sometimes you can go through these emotional journeys a little easier if there’s levity,” McShane observes. “The film is also about friendship and people working together, and that whole relationship.”
McShane continues, “I liked the idea that the audience could have a little relief…Also when they laugh about the Cub Scout line [that shows] they’ve connected to the characters. They are really engaged with these two human beings, which I love.”
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