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Doc Stars of the Month: Ernie Stevens and Joe Smarro, 'Ernie & Joe: Crisis Cops'

By Tom White

Ernie Stevens and Joe Smarro, from Jennifer McShane's 'Ernie & Joe: Crisis Cops.' Courtesy of HBO

Though "Doc Star of the Month" has spotlit cops in the past (the NYPD's Sergeant Edwin Raymond of Stephen Maing's Crime + Punishment; Oakland Police Department Deputy Chief LeRonne Armstrong of Peter Nicks' The Force), this is the first time Documentary has showcased men in uniform who are breaking every conventional policing rule as part of the job.

Partners in fighting crime in the San Antonio Police Department Mental Health Unit, Ernie Stevens and Joe Smarro don't wear a uniform to work and are slow to draw a gun. The subjects of Jennifer McShane's mesmerizing (and SXSW Special Jury Prize-winning) Ernie & Joe: Crisis Cops, the macho duo are tasked to deal with folks in mental distress—from a schizophrenic man who refuses to leave a public building to a drug-addicted woman intent on leaping from a bridge. They do so not through any aggressive tactics but through far more radical means—by treating those suffering "perpetrators" with a potent mix of empathy and dignity. 

And because this counterintuitive method, far more thrilling to witness than any Cops-style takedown, actually works, Documentary is honored to highlight both Ernie and Joe as November's Doc Stars of the Month.

DOCUMENTARY: You’re both so notably at ease in front of the lens. Was this the result of Jennifer and her team's approach, or are you just naturally comfortable being trailed by a camera?

ERNIE STEVENS: Actually, we've had some media attention before. We've done some local stories. Byron Pitts from ABC News came out and did Nightline. And a lot of our training has been for films, for local media. It wasn't too uncomfortable having Jen come down; her crew were so amazing to work with. They made it very, very comfortable to just let us be ourselves. I think that was the essence of it.

JOE SMARRO: For me, I think it was just—it was really mostly Jen because the relationship was established before the recording even started. She also had a great [Austin-based] crew in E.J. [Enriquez] and Paul [Toohey]. It took Paul a little bit to come on board, but once he came on he never left. And so we actually developed a pretty good bond with him as well.

So anytime they showed up, whether I was at work or at home, or on-duty, off-duty, it was actually fun to be around them. We never had the feeling that there was any attempt to have this "gotcha" moment or [capture] something that was uncomfortable, or to paint us in any negative light. It was always about observing us, and just from Jen's mind like, "I really want to create or paint this beautiful picture of what you guys are doing because it could really help change other people’s mentality."

D: I'm embarrassed to admit that the film upended a lot of preconceived notions I had about straight white male cops. Perhaps it's "blue profiling," but when I see guys like yourselves I automatically assume you subscribe to a tough-on-crime approach, possess a lack of empathy. So how do you deal, or not deal, with the media representations—be it cellphone footage of police shootings or the Cops series?

JS: It's frustrating, to be sure, because what we've learned from being on the inside of law enforcement is that it's hard to blame anyone that's not in law enforcement for those viewpoints. You know what you know, you know what you read, you know what you see, you know what you watch. 

But being on the inside, it's frustrating because we know that what they’re capturing is the half of one percent of what’s actually happening in the day, in the week, in the month, in the career of a law enforcement officer. We focus so heavily on the minutiae of what’s actually happening. And I say this to the law enforcement community as well—we don't do a good enough job of promoting the successes and the things that we're doing on the positive side, to offset or influence what it is that people already believe, that they have their minds made up about. 

I think we too are, I guess, guilty of this as well in law enforcement because any time you see something happening...I use the example of that incident at Starbucks. An employee said, "Hey, can you guys leave this location? You’re making people nervous," to uniformed cops.

Then there was this big uproar, and a lot of law enforcement are rallying together saying, "We’re never gonna go to Starbucks again!" And I'm thinking, how hypocritical we are that we're going to boycott Starbucks because one employee at a Starbucks in Texas kicked out three cops! Now in Minnesota, and in Vegas, and in California, we're gonna revolt and refuse to go to any Starbucks?

We're doing the same thing that we complain about! I think there just has to be a point where we become willing to stop identifying people with what they do for a living and say, "Hey, this is a job." Just as you're a reporter, people are people. Identifying people with what it is they do for a living leads to these judgments created by—like you said, mainstream media oftentimes goes, "Let’s highlight this fraction of what it is they do."

And real quick, because it just comes to mind, one of the other negative parts about this is—we were talking about this earlier—is when you have shows like Cops and Live PD, the common public perception is that that's just happening all the time, every day, in every officer’s life. That's just not the case.

They don't realize that there are 30 film crews out there filming for months just to put together an episode. Not only that, but people who are wanting to get into this profession are coming into this job with a skewed mindset, thinking that policing involves all these incredible things, and it's simply not the case. We need to be aware of how we focus our efforts in recruiting videos, in my opinion. We also need to shift the focus on what the curriculum within the law enforcement training academies looks like. Because we need to undo a lot of what’s done out there as far as public perception goes.

ES: I'll add that I was your stereotypical cop for the first 12 years of my career. I was on tactical units—very go, go, go. Let's fight crime! Let's do what we gotta do to protect the community and not worry about how the community views us. It wasn't until I took the CIT [Crisis Intervention Team] training that I realized I wasn't going to change the world—but I could learn how to change myself. When that occurred I liked myself better as a police officer.

D: The film follows you two on duty with the groundbreaking SAPD Mental Health Unit —but you also work as regular beat cops. What's it like going back and forth between these two roles? Are they more similar than different? 

ES: I'm sure me and Joe might differ a little bit here on this. Just from my perspective, and I think the film captures it in a statement about when you put the uniform on, there’s a change that takes place—that's true for me. It doesn’t change so much my approach to how I do my job, but it changes my view of how I’m viewed doing my job.

In uniform I feel there’s judgment being put upon me. I can't walk into a restaurant and sit down and have dinner without people staring. I still show up with the willingness to try to connect with people, and offer whatever help I can in whatever limited capacity that may be. Where the community feels judged when police look at them, it's almost like, Well, it’s a common thread here because there's times when I feel judged, when people look at me. I think Joe has a little different perspective on this, but definitely I feel a change when in uniform.

JS: I'll be honest here: I haven't put on my uniform in over a year because I don't do those extra jobs anymore. I don't work overtime patrol. But I will tell you that for me, and this took time, nothing changes for me because, while Ernie's thing is true, it's all mindset, right? While people might be looking at me or judging me or thinking like, "Oh great!" or "Oh, I hate him!"—all that is irrelevant. Because what evidence I have, and I know that this is one of those things out there that again it's talked about and feared upon in law enforcement, but there are people out in the country and the world that just want to ambush and kill police officers because they're in uniform. 

I know it has happened. I know it will happen. But for me, I don't want to be morbid here, but the sooner you can truly identify with, accept and embrace and understand what death means, I think it changes everything in your purview. I don’t walk around afraid that someone's gonna ambush or kill me. I don't walk around worrying about what other people think or how they judge me. Honestly, when I'm in uniform, when I'm off-duty, when I'm on-duty, it’s just not something that changes the fabric of who I am. I try and stay unapologetically, authentically me all the time.

D: You have a military background, though. Does that play into your perspective?

JS: Well, I think it plays into giving me the credibility to say a lot of the things I say, because people will think of it as, "Oh wow, you were in the Marine Corps." Which is, let's just be honest, the best of the branches! 

I'm in a law enforcement agency that is in the seventh largest city in the nation, so it’s not a small department. There is real crime. The fact that I have been in combat in Iraq, Afghanistan, the fact that I'm in a large police department—it's almost atypical that someone would think the way I think. Because the world around me would reinforce the fact that if I wanted to live in this paranoid state, or have to stay on and constantly look at people and gauge threats and all this stuff, they would say, "Well, that’s normal, because you were in the military." I just choose not to live my life that way.

For me—and I tell officers this when I'm training them—I say, if you show up and they're like "Screw you, I hate you, f-you!", don't get frustrated by the fact that they're saying that. Think about what bad experience they had that's making them do that. Be the person that's gonna change their mind. I welcome someone saying, "Screw the cops." I ask, "Why? What happened?" Then I say, "Hey look, I agree that was terrible, but I guarantee I'm gonna do this for you today, or I'm gonna treat you this way today. I'm gonna give you respect." It's having to just really educate people that one of us isn’t all of us.

D: Are there any scenes that you prefer weren't in the final film—or scenes that ended up on the cutting room floor that you wish hadn't?

ES: I know Joe wanted the golf scene in there—where he beats me on the final putt. I'm so glad that didn’t make it. 

Really, I'm 100 percent satisfied. Jen's not telling me about law, so why would I tell her about film? I think the overall product speaks for itself. The response we've had from the communities that have seen it—it's made me a better person just from listening to what people think about the film.

JS:  I would ditto that statement. Watching it was really, really powerful. There are two different cuts of me, 13 seconds, and it's an interview at my home. But I remember doing that interview and it was three hours long. I remember when I saw the film I couldn't remember what I’d said in the interview, to be honest with you. There was just a clip of it, but it was an important clip, and it made sense to the story.

And so, I have not one time questioned Jen on what she's done in her work. I honestly couldn't even tell you what's on the cutting room floor. I am perfectly happy as it is.

D: What worries or concerns did you initially have about appearing in the film, and what are your hopes for the doc now that it'll be seen nationwide?

ES: The hope for me—and I think we hit on it a little bit—is that people will see the humanity of police officers and understand that we're more than just the uniform that we wear. We have families, we have problems, we have ups and downs, just like anybody else.

I hope that this film starts conversations within communities and police departments about this type of approach to mental health. I've seen it. I've been there when it didn't work, and I've been there when it does work now. It's remarkable when you can get a group of people to come together with a common goal, and focus and present it to a community—and then watch the change that takes place, watch the connection that takes place between a community and their police department. The positive responses have just been remarkable.

JS: For me, three things are coming up. One is the hope that it would at least shift the public's perception of law enforcement. I know that we are two white guys from Texas that are cops, but maybe it could create some pause to think that maybe there’s something more out there. The second thing that's coming up is, just because of the response that's happened from these festivals that we've been doing, and the amount of emotion that has been coming out of it— especially from 50- or 60-year-old men crying. I hope that as a community we would accept fully that we can absolutely take our masks off and ask for help when we need it. Here you have men doing it in a patriarchal profession like law enforcement—so if they can do it, why not me?

And then the third thing is, from the law enforcement perspective, I hope we see cops finally accepting and embracing that suicide should never be an option—not just because we’re police officers but because we're people. I know that it's scary for sure because agencies are not completely onboard across the nation when it comes to how we handle an officer who's in crisis. And I know that there are some agencies that exist where you get benched, you get sidelined. You get your gun taken away, you get put out—or you could even get removed from the department just for asking for help. So there’s a lot of fear associated with, "I know I’m struggling, but I can’t say anything. So what do I do with this information?"

There's just a slow, or rapid, implosion—from going from not having a good outlet to adopting these maladaptive coping strategies like drinking more, abusing substances. Ultimately we take our lives, and it's because we never felt like we could have a voice that would be listened to. So I’m hoping that the film will be a catalyst for addressing that as well.

Ernie & Joe: Crisis Cops, an IDA Enterprise Documentary Fund grantee, premieres November 19 on HBO and streams on HBO Go and HBO Now through November.

Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer, and a contributing editor at both Filmmaker magazine and Documentary magazine. She's served as the director of programming at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival, and has written for Salon, Bitch, The Rumpus and Hammer to Nail.