Ernie & Joe: Crisis Cops (Jenifer McShane, 2019) 4 out of 4 stars.
Jenifer McShane’s new documentary Ernie & Joe: Crisis Cops begins with the statistic that 1 in 5 Americans has a mental-health diagnosis. Then – bam! – we cut to footage of police shooting a man, clearly in distress, armed only with a screwdriver. Surely, there must be another way to handle those in need. There is no question that the police kill innocent people – many of them of color – all the time, but this film trains its cinematic lens specifically on the issue of how law enforcement can better train its employees to handle situations involving those with active mental illnesses. If you bring a gun to a fight, you just might use it. Let’s try empathy, first.
The film takes place in San Antonio, Texas, where two police officers, partners Ernie Stevens and Joe Smarro, lead an effort to do just that. We learn about their respective backstories, which for Joe involves military service (and attendant PTSD) and abuse, and why they each think it so important to focus on this issue, and follow them in the field, seeing how they operate. All San Antonio cadets are now required to take 40 hours of Crisis Intervention Team (or CIT) training, thanks in part to the actions of good folks like our two protagonists. Their work is amazing, though it involves tremendous commitment, and the toll, particularly on Joe, who gets divorced during the movie, is high.
But the emotional and physical cost is no deterrent to these men, who seem to thrive on making a difference. McShane (Mothers of Bedford) throws us right into the middle of some pretty fraught situations, the most moving of which is, perhaps, when Ernie and Joe talk a young woman, Kendra, off the ledge of a highway overpass. We watch the dashboard camera footage in awe, so gentle and capable are they in their work. Better yet, they follow up, meeting with her, and others like her whom they helped in the past, just to stay in touch, show they care, and make sure no further intervention is needed. If it is, they are there.
Not every story is one of success – and mental illness is still routinely stigmatized, leading people, or their families, to refuse help – but Ernie and Joe do their best, which is often enough, if just to offer a sympathetic face. At one point, we watch as Joe gives a TEDx talk entitled “I See You,” in which he talks about the importance of listening and humanizing everyone around us. It’s a message we all need to hear, every day, and thanks to this wonderful, heartfelt and beautiful movie, we can see it, too.
Ernie & Joe: Crisis Cops premieres on HBO November 19, 2019.