Superb Documentary Shows Us How Police Officers Can Defuse A Mental Health Crisis: Available Now In Your Community

(10-12-20) Ernie & Joe: Crisis Cops, a powerful documentary created for HBO, is now being made available for group screenings. If you belong to a chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Health, Mental Health America, or other mental health organizations or you are involved in police/judicial training and have not yet seen this film, you need too!

This superb documentary follows Ernie Stevens and Joe Smarro, two officers in the San Antonio, Texas, police department’s mental health unit, as they defuse potentially violent encounters with individuals in the midst of a mental health crisis and direct them into treatment instead of jail.

At a time when police violence, especially against individuals with mental illnesses, is making national headlines, it’s important to show that compassionate officers are working on our streets and effective diversion programs can be implemented.

Crisis Intervention Team training (the Memphis Model) is the most common de-escalation tool used in law enforcement. San Antonio trains all of its officers in its own crisis de-escalation training program, which differs slightly from the Memphis Model. All 2,191 officers on the force go through its CIT style training. At the time the film was made, there were 10 officers assigned to the department’s mental health team. Now, there are 20. The unit acts as in house experts in training officers and community first responders as well as being on-call to their fellow officers.

In an email, the film’s director, Jenifer McShane, told me: “An interesting by-product of making mental health training a priority within the department is that officer wellness is now a stronger focus and more officers are willing to approach the mental health officers with their own mental health struggles and seek treatment.” This is important because nationally in 2019, 228 current or former officers died by suicide, compared with 172 in 2018, setting a new high record.

As of last year, the University of Memphis Crisis Intervention Team Center reported 2,700 CIT programs were being offered in the United States. By comparison, there are 17,000 local and state law enforcement agencies.  Hopefully this powerful documentary will encourage those departments without de-escalation training to begin such training. As the film points out most police departments spend 60 hours in their academies on teaching officers how to use a gun but only 8 hours on mental health training. Yet, ninety-five percent of police officers go through their career without firing their weapon. Everyone of them who works on the streets deals with an individual in a mental health crisis.

Last week, I warned that cuts in law enforcement budgets and shifting responsibility away from police for responding to mental health calls is resulting in less urgency and funding for CIT training. While I believe moving responsibility from individuals in a mental health crisis away from the police back to mental health providers is a good step when practicable (many such calls don’t require police involvement), reducing de-escalation training is dangerous.

“The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department has begun scaling back its commitment to robust CIT training this year,” Mark Gale, Criminal Justice Chair for Greater LA NAMI, and Britteny Weissman, CEO of Greater LA NAMI, warned in a recent letter. “In past years, the number of patrol CIT classes has ranged between 16 and 25 annually. Only six have been scheduled for patrol deputies in 2020 and only four are planned for 2021. These are dramatic reductions in training!”

Director and Producer McShane’s nonfiction Ernie & Joe documentary shows us how two officers are saving lives by handling each crisis calmly rather than with force. As the New York Times noted in a review of the documentary:

A scene with the crudest cinematography — taken from a dashboard camera — is the film’s most compelling. Ernie and Joe, on one of their late-night shifts, find a drug-addicted woman threatening to jump to her death, but manage to talk her down. The humanity that comes across in this and other interactions with troubled people — they communicate with them as equals, rather than barking orders as authority figures — is impressive.

McShane and her documentary team are using their film as a teaching tool by distributing it to law enforcement and public safety agencies, mayors, attorneys general and other city officials, hospitals, social services, and mental health organizations to encourage conversations about the culture of policing, training, and how police departments and communities can be better prepared to respond non-violently to people in crisis.

Screenings can feature the full 95-minute film or a 25-minute version that works well for shorter events, conferences or trainings, according to the Ernie and Joe: National Audience Engagement Campaign website page. In some incidents, Ernie Stevens and Joe Smarro are available to participate in post-screening discussions and audience Q&A’s.

San Antonio was one of the first cities that I visited in 2006 after my book, CRAZY: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness, was published and that community has consistently been a national leader in launching de-escalation and diversion programs. Fairfax County Sheriff Stacey Kincaid took a delegation from my home county there when researching best practices for jail diversion. She was one of a long line of public officials to trek to San Antonio seeking advice.

In its 2015 national study, Overlooked In The Undercounted, the Treatment Advocacy Center noted that Americans with severe mental illnesses generate one in ten 911 calls to the police and that one in three persons taken to hospital emergency rooms in psychiatric crisis are taken there by the police. From the report:

By all accounts – official and unofficial – a minimum of 1 in 4 fatal police encounters ends the life of an individual with severe mental illness. At this rate, the risk of being killed during a police incident is 16 times greater for individuals with untreated mental illness than for other civilians approached or stopped by officers. Where official government data regarding police shootings and mental illness have been analyzed – in one U.S. city and several other Western countries – the findings indicate that mental health disorders are a factor in as many as 1 in 2 fatal law enforcement encounters.

A study that examined the effectiveness of CIT programs buttressed the fatal police encounter findings.

Approximately 1,000 people in the United States were fatally shot by police officers during 2018, and people with mental illness were involved in approximately 25 percent of those fatalities. 

Ernie and Joe shows us a better way for law enforcement to handle emergencies without violence by taking viewers with these two exemplary officers on the streets. This month, NAMI groups in Tennessee, Wisconsin and Iowa will be showing the documentary. You can read a schedule of screenings here and how to host a showing here. 

Do it!

This film has the potential to help save the lives of someone whom we love. We need to support its showing and its example of how compassion, de-escalation and diversion programs work.

Subjects Ernie Stevens and Joe Smarro with Austin-based crew E.J. Enríquez and Paul Toohey

ERNIE & JOE is an intimate portrait of two Texas police officers who are helping change the way police respond to mental health calls.  The film takes audiences on a personal journey, weaving together their experiences during their daily encounters with people in crisis.  These two officers are not your everyday cops. They are part of the San Antonio Police Department’s  Mental Health Unit.


About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.