Wednesday, January 1, 2020
Documentary Watch: Ernie and Joe - Crisis Cops (2019)
Format: HBO Streaming
A while back our own PaulT - who does many things in the film and TV industry - worked on a documentary called Ernie & Joe: Crisis Cops (2019). I believe he was a/ the sound mixer on the film, which - in documentary land - is no small feat. Especially when you're talking police situations, moving cars, and open classrooms. So, hats off to Paul.
The movie is currently streaming on HBO, and, if you get a chance, give it some time. The movie follows two police officers from the San Antonio Police Department's Mental Health Unit at work and in their lives.
Full disclosure, my brother is a lead prosecutor for mental health cases here in Travis County - which is where Austin, TX is located, about 90 minutes up the road from San Antonio. My brother talks a bit about his work, and while I've been impressed with him at every point in his career, I know how much satisfaction he's gotten out of working on the other side of the equation from officers portrayed in Ernie & Joe. But a basic understanding of his work doesn't mean I knew anything about how any of the mental health system works in conjunction with law enforcement, or how police think of their jobs.
The film opens first with real footage of a police interaction gone wrong, and then a startling statistic - 1 in 5 Americans are diagnosed with some sort of mental health issue. The doc then follows members of a very small unit of the SAPD, which has been tasked with responding to cases of mental crisis in need of intervention. Whether you're talking suicidal paranoiacs standing on a bridge over a freeway, or those suffering from schizophrenia hearing voices which are making them act out - its likely the officers of this unit would be the folks to respond. And we see some of that, live and in color. And, yeah, it's frightening. But it's also amazing to see the difference two plainclothes cops can make - speaking calmly and honestly with these people rather than coming in with a 9mm locked and loaded, barking orders.
Without direct comment - the movie examines the tactics police have adopted over the past few decades, and how that doesn't work with people experiencing a mental health crisis. Even as a veteran cop, Ernie just happened to take the training and immediately clicked to how important this could be and re-dedicated his career to better policing and helping both the public and those they were called in to deal with.
I'll leave you to see how the work is meaningful for Joe, and to see these cops, who are - at their core - very much like every cop you ever talked to - but who really just needed a pivot in their thinking and training to go from arrests to saving life after life and give people a second chance. There is a case or three where you get to see the work the officers do, and their optimism even in the face of hard experience, and genuine care that they've incorporated into the work is astonishing. And watching all of it unspool, I have to believe, must be wildly frustrating from encounter to encounter.
I found the movie surprisingly moving for a lot of reasons I don't want to spoil (which is an odd thing to say about a doc, I guess), but sometimes it's easy to forget the baggage so many people are carrying around out there. Many of us don't have to deal with people in crisis very often - and most especially we aren't called to assist those with clinical and overwhelming issues.
It's easy to get down on police, and it's not very often cops make the news for doing something *right*. It's a genuine inspiration to see officers taking on this burden and providing a guide for fellow officers. I know this sort of training is growing across the country, and there are good cops out there who will do their best in very difficult situations.
A terrific film, a fascinating subject and subjects, and one that feels right to start a new year on the right foot.