You know how the saying goes: When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And for police officers, it often seems like their greatest tool — perhaps their only tool — is a gun. So what happens when the problem at hand is a person in crisis, in pain, scared and confused? A person who is mentally ill?
Is that a problem that looks like a nail, or is it a situation that can be resolved without pulling a firearm and escalating?
Jenifer McShane’s immersive documentary Ernie & Joe finds a hopeful answer to that question by following the officers of San Antonio Police Department’s Mental Health Unit. What started as an experiment has become something of an institution, and their mission is simple: Stop treating mentally ill offenders like criminals, and start treating them like patients. They primarily respond to calls where someone is in distress — attempted suicide, hallucinations, delusions, PTSD. Sometimes drug abuse is a factor; other times the person is just having a singularly bad day. Sometimes they are, in fact, a danger to others — but the guiding principle is that these people don’t need to be subdued, they need help. The officers may carry guns, but the primary tools in their arsenals are patience and empathy. And that empathy has had a transformative impact not only on the community they are sworn to serve and protect but on the police department itself.
Officer Ernie Stevens was one of the founding members of the Mental Health Unit, and his partner, Joe Smarro, joined shortly after. They patrol in plain clothes and unmarked cars to appear less threatening, and they take all the time they need to forge connections, earn trust, and make the people in their care feel comfortable. They listen. The officers stay with them as they take them to one of several clinics specializing in mental health in the city. They give out their personal numbers, offer to stay in touch. They even make house calls to check in every few weeks to make sure the people they’ve helped are still getting the care they need. It’s a level of genuine care that doubles as prevention against future crises. But taking several hours to resolve a situation that could be handled by force in a matter of minutes may seem counterintuitive to the way law enforcement typically operates, and it’s been a hard sell to cops who don’t necessarily buy in to this touchy-feely approach.
One of the most eye-opening data points revealed in the documentary is that, on average, police cadets receive 60 hours of gun training, but only 8 hours in communication skill and crisis intervention. Thanks to the example set by Ernie, Joe, and their colleagues, San Antonio is now instituting a mandatory 40 hours of crisis intervention training to cadets, but that isn’t necessarily the norm across the country. Still, the Mental Health Unit does more than just offer hands-on training scenarios with actors pretending to be in crisis, or workshop communication skills. They also bring in people who are suffering from mental illness and let the other officers in the police department ask questions. What is immediately apparent is that most cops are ignorant to what being in distress feels like, and learning tactics is only one piece of the puzzle. What it’s like hearing voices, or seeing things, and how real that is to the person experiencing it — until that makes sense to you, you won’t know how to address it.
But empathy relies on the ability to understand the feelings of another, and what the documentary also illustrates is just how much cops share in common with the people they encounter in distress. One key to the approach that Ernie and Joe utilize in their response is to embrace their fear as part of their empathy — because being a cop is scary. Wearing a uniform is like wearing a target. Not being able to prevent a suicide, or watching your colleague get shot — those are things you never forget, and the weight of the job wears on you. Joe himself is a Marine veteran who was diagnosed with PTSD, and also a victim of childhood physical and sexual abuse, and he uses his experiences to relate to the people he is trying to help on the job. But fear isn’t something cops like to admit, because being scared is so close to being weak. So they cope in other ways. Another statistic I wasn’t expecting to learn was that cops are three times more likely to commit suicide than be killed in the line of duty. When we talk about cops using force to solve problems, it’s worth remembering that force is the thing they are trained most extensively to use — and they use it against themselves as well.
There is a harrowing scene where they are facing a woman named Kendra, who is preparing to jump off a bridge in the middle of the night. She’s on drugs, and hearing voices, and is screaming “I don’t trust you!” and “You guys never help!” She’s been through the system, and it didn’t work, and here she is at the end of her rope. The first order of business is convincing her to climb down off the ledge so the immediate danger is averted, and to do that they have to calm her fears. Ernie sits down on the curb and settles in. Joe offers to shake her hand, to prove he isn’t going to trick her and grab her. But the thing that might make the biggest impact is when they tell her they’re scared too — of heights, and afraid for her. We’re all afraid here tonight, but we can work through it together. Even if you can’t trust anyone else, there are two people here you can believe in. In the end, they successfully escort Kendra for treatment, and the documentary follows her progress as Ernie and Joe check in with her over the following months.
In another scene, Ernie offers an example during a training session. There was a woman standing in her driveway with a gun to her head, and in her other hand she was holding the phone she used to call for help. The cops who arrived at the scene heard one thing: “gun.” That is the detail that influenced their approach, but Ernie focused on another aspect: “help.” The woman doesn’t want to hurt anyone, but if you come at a person holding a gun by force then it’s almost certain that someone will get shot (probably the woman, in this case, but it can go wrong in so many ways). So he calls her and tells her he’d like to walk over but he’s afraid because she has a weapon. Can she put it down so they can talk?
McShane and her crew followed Ernie and Joe for two years, riding along on patrols and also delving into their personal lives, to create a portrait of how this form of radical empathy can work in practice. During the time they were with the SAPD, there was a shooting that injured two officers, while another hung himself in the PD garage. The Mental Health Unit made themselves available to talk to their fellow officers as they processed the events, proving that their work wasn’t just with the community — change comes from within. The story of the revolution happening within the SAPD has been told before: The Atlantic and other news outlets have written about the progress there, and Joe himself was invited to give a TED Talk:
But no story or lecture can replace the power of witnessing this empathy in action, and Ernie & Joe is a moving, important testament to the impact that this unique approach can make on a community. One in five Americans have been diagnosed with one form of mental health issue, so this is hardly a small problem. And for all those Americans, and the rest of us who may just find ourselves in a moment of desperation, I can only hope we are fortunate enough to meet officers like Ernie and Joe in our times of need.
Ernie & Joe screened at the 2019 SXSW Film Conference.