Training day: Documentary provides perspective on police mental health response

Ernie and Joe: Crisis Cops” is a 95-minute HBO documentary about two members of the San Antonio Police Department’s Mental Health Unit (MHU). The film explores the experiences of these two Texas police officers who use de-escalation techniques to resolve mental health calls. The film aims to spark dialogue about the culture of policing and better prepare cops to respond to people in crisis, according to the documentary’s filmmakers

Police agencies may register for unlimited free streaming access to the documentary. A 25-minute version is also available. Register here using code EJCC-POLICE1. Suggested questions for your shift, squad or department to discuss after viewing the documentary are listed at the end of this article.

Viewers will see actual encounters between Ernie Stevens and Joe Smarro with persons in distress. All the narrative of the video is done by the partners. Ernie is the most senior officer and a charter member of the unit. Joe is the younger. Although the unit has grown in numbers, it is clear from the in-car computer that the list of mental health-related requests rolls along in the list of pending calls. Their numbers are too high for the specialized unit to respond to all of them, validating the growing narrative of mental health issues growing beyond law enforcement’s capacity to handle them. The special unit is only able to handle far fewer than even 10% of the crisis calls that come in.

As the list of pending calls shows the label of mental health on the roster, the narration explains that “mental health” was not even a call category with dispatch until the formation of the MHU. Categories of disturbance, suicidal subject, family disputes, or other labels covered the event.

The importance of the right approach

Ernie and Joe are shown conducting training with both law enforcement and other professionals who encounter persons in mental health crisis. Using guest speakers who deal with mental health issues, the crisis cops help others understand the role of the MHU, as well as provide insight on working with persons in crisis toward a peaceful conclusion of a contact. MHU officers also do follow-up contacts to help ensure that their subjects’ referrals and available services are being accessed. Not all long-term hopes for those they intercede with are met, but the success stories are motivational.

Ernie and Joe acknowledge that there is skepticism among police officers for their philosophy of interacting with disturbed persons. They work in plain clothes in an unmarked car, although they are clear about identifying themselves as police officers. Officers watching the film will shudder as they see traditional officer safety tactics set aside. Although in one scenario where a weapon was reported to be possibly involved, they call for uniform back up, don their ballistic vests and expose their sidearms, their approach and demeanor to those they are hoping to help is intentionally not an attitude of aggression.

The importance of personal purpose

The documentary provides some insight into the lives of Joe, an Iraq combat veteran with a PTSD diagnosis, and Ernie, the father of a teenager.

Both officers work overtime in uniformed assignments in addition to their full-time assignment to MHU. Joe is portrayed as going through a divorce, using painting to deal with the stresses of life and the job. Ernie seems more content as he enjoys his work, working to continue his education with an eye toward retirement and a new career as a teacher.

The importance of these personal insights is that it shows that developing skills for dealing with persons in distress does not require perfection in one’s own life.

The importance of police training

The team notes that officers traditionally had 60 hours of firearms training in the academy with just an eight-hour block on crisis intervention. By the time of the filming of the documentary that training has been increased to 40 hours, much of which is taught by MHU members. They hope that the insights into mental health crises can be applied to reducing police suicides and increasing peer support within the agency.

The importance of time

They emphasize that time is an essential component of peaceful outcomes – “as long as it takes” – even while calls are stacked up. After all, other officers stay out of service for as long as it takes to work a crash or book a suspect. Knowing when to allow a subject some control and responsibility for their decisions rather than using persuasion rather than coercion, allowing appropriate and meaningful presence and physical contact, being honest about one’s own fear and concerns, and allowing the officer most comfortable with the situation to take the lead are all demonstrated in the movie.

The importance of discussion

Whether the short or long version is part of a training day, the documentary is a worthy springboard for discussion, reframing, critique and a new perspective on dealing with mental health crisis calls. As the national conversation on mental health and law enforcement’s role in responding to crises continues, no police agency can escape taking some action to report to their constituents how they are dealing with these issues. This viewing may be a great first step.

After watching “Ernie and Joe: Crisis Cops,” use the following questions to start a discussion about the documentary and police mental health response:

  • How do responders address officer safety tactics in the context of establishing trust in close contact with a subject?
  • It is not unusual for persons encountering the police to have extreme emotional responses. What are some signs of a person having a mental health crisis along with the stress of a police encounter?
  • How does the pressure of calls pending affect devoting time to effective intervention in a mental health crisis?
  • How can you use your personal experiences to help you relate to persons in crisis?
  • What might be your long-term process in dealing with a failed suicide intervention?
  • Many special assignments are on a rotational basis to balance experience with getting a break from the unique stresses of undercover work, working child abuse cases, or working in a mental health unit? What are the pros and cons of rotating assignments?
  • What strategies did you see the officers in the film using to keep their personal lives and mental health in balance?
  • What efforts can agencies engage in to help officers maintain resilience and recovery from trauma?
  • How confident are you that most of your colleagues are highly competent in dealing with mental health crises?
  • The environment of police-citizen encounters is very important. In what ways can an officer control the environment?
  • How important is being in plain clothes for mental health response units? What is the role of uniformed backup for these officers?

Click here to register your agency to stream “Ernie and Joe: Crisis Cops” for free unlimited streaming through May 2022 using code EJCC-POLICE1.

Watch Joe Smarro’s TEDxSan Antonio’s talk “I See You” on officer mental wellness:

Mental health outreach resources from Police1

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