The new documentary Ernie & Joe: Crisis Cops opens with police body cam footage of a man getting gunned down in the doorway of his own house.
Why was the man shot? Because he was holding a screwdriver and he apparently didn’t drop it quickly enough. Why were the police there in the first place? They had been called by the man’s mother, who warned the police that her son was schizophrenic and that he was hearing voices. When the cops shoot him, the man’s mother can be heard screaming in the background, begging the cops not to kill her son. But kill him, they did. He died for the crime of holding a screw driver while having mental health crisis.
Unfortunately, that’s a scenario the seems to be happening more and more frequently in the United States. The police are trained to quickly take control of dangerous situations, to show no emotion, and to bark out orders. How many times do we hear it whenever someone is gunned down for not immediately dropping whatever they were holding their hands? “If he had just done what the police said, he’d still be alive.” We hear that a lot but what if, like the man holding that screwdriver, you’re already hearing voices before the police start screaming at you to show them your hands. What if you’re already disorientated and not sure what’s real and what’s not? What then?
Unfortunately, it’s rare that the police are trained on how to deal with someone suffering from mental issues. Ernie Stevens and Joe Smarro are two cops in San Antonio who are trying to change that. As members of the SAPD’s mental health unit, Ernie and Joe are advocates for changing the way that the police deal with the most vulnerable members of society. As they explain at one of their training sessions, the police academy will spend days teaching recruits how to draw and fire their weapon without devoting one minute to discussing how to deal with someone who might be hearing voices or who might be suicidal. Ernie and Joe argue for compassion over brute force. (Unfortunately, while some cops are seen nodding along with Ernie and Joe’s lessons, several others are seen smirking and rolling their eyes.)
Shot in the style of cinéma vérité, the film follows Ernie and Joe as they deal with cases and attempt to teach their fellow cops that brute force is not always the solution. At one point, we watch them deal with someone who is threatening to jump off an overpass. We also listen as Joe, a former Marne, discusses seeing a child blown up in Iraq and how he is still haunted by PTSD. Ernie, meanwhile, is a family man who goes to church every Sunday and who is looking forward to soon retiring from police work. The film follows them as they talk, joke, and occasionally bicker like an old married couple. It’s a good, if somewhat low-key, documentary. One watches it and hopes that other police departments will learn from San Anotnio’s success.
As I watched the film, I found myself thinking about Vanessa Marquez. Vanessa was a former actress and a longtime member of the #TCMParty on twitter. Vanessa was always very open about her own health struggles. 14 months ago, the police showed up at Vanessa’s house in South Pasadena, California. They say they were doing a welfare check. They say that Vanessa was in obvious mental distress and that Vanessa resisted their attempts to force her to go to the hospital to be checked out. The police say that Vanessa pointed a BB gun at them. Unfortunately, we only know what the police said happened but Vanessa is not her to tell her side of the story. She was shot and killed. At the time, it was big news but, as always happens, the media eventually moved on to something else. After all this time, we still don’t know what really happened the day that Vanessa Marquez was killed in her own home. We probably never will.
Watching the documentary, I found myself wondering what would have happened if it had been Ernie and Joe or, at the very least, a cop with a similar outlook and compassion who showed up at her house on that day. Would Vanessa still be with us, watching movies on TCM and tweeting about her experiences in Hollywood? No one can say for sure but I think she would be.
Hopefully, this documentary will serve as a wake up call for some people. One need not lose their compassion just because they put on a uniform. In fact, it’s essential that they don’t.
This classic song from the early 1980s was inspired by a great deal of emotional trauma.
At the start of 1982, The Pretenders consisted of vocalist and rhythm guitarist Chrissie Hynde, lead guitarist and vocalist James Honeyman-Scott, bassist and vocalist Pete Farndon, and drummer and vocalist Martin Chambers. On June 14th, 1982, Farndon was fired from the band as a result of his drug problems. Two days later, Honeyman-Scott would die of a cocaine-induced heart attack while at his girlfriend’s apartment.
At the time of Honeyman-Scott’s death, he and Hynde were working on the song that would eventually become Back on the Chain Gang. At the time, the song was envisioned as being about Hynde’s turbulent relationship with Ray Davies of the Kinks. After Honeyman-Scott’s death, the song took on a different meaning and, instead, became about Hynde’s struggle to keep the band going even after losing two of her best friends. (Farndon, himself, would die of a drug overdose in 1983.) Hynde, who was three months pregnant when the song was first recorded, dedicated Back on the Chain Gang to Honeyman-Scott’s memory. Back on the Chain Gang went on to become The Pretenders’s biggest hit in the United States, where it was adapted as an anthem by people who probably did not know the emotional story behind the song’s composition.
The video, which was put into heavy rotation during the early days of MTV, features the two surviving original members of The Pretenders. Chrisse Hynde sings while Martin Chambers plays one of many office workers who, upon arriving at work, are briefly transformed into slaves using pickaxes to excavate ruins in the desert.
In general, I usually don’t get much out of watching documentaries about drug addiction. There’s a few reasons for this:
1. Drug addicts are depressing to watch.
2. Drug addicts are boring to listen to.
3. Since everyone knows that drug addiction is a bad thing and that there’s usually only two possible endings to a drug addict’s story — death or detox — it’s not like the majority of drug addiction documentaries have anything new or surprising to tell us.
4. I always find myself wondering about just how much the film crew is enabling the addicts that they’re following around. There’s always a feeling that the documentary crew is more concerned with putting addicts on display as opposed to actually getting them the help that they need. It’s hard not to feel that the point of many of these documentaries (and reality shows) is to invite the viewers to gawk and say, “My life may be messed up but at least I’m not passed out in the parking lot of Burger King with a syringe hanging out of my arm.”
Taking all that in mind, I do have to say that I found the new documentary, American Relapse, to be a disturbing and thought-provoking look at not only drug addiction but also the way that the rehab industry has become a big business in South Florida. Frankie Holmes and Allie Severino are two former addicts who now work as — well, they’re referred to as being “Junkie Hunters,” though Allie objects to the term. A junkie hunter is someone who searches the streets, befriends drug addicts, and eventually takes them to rehab. Frankie and Allie both say that they’re in the business because they want to help people and save lives. At the same time, they also admit that their industry is full of people who don’t care about the addicts that they’re claiming to help. Instead, they’re simply looking for addicts who have good health insurance so that the rehab centers can make money off of treating them and the hunters can make money off of finding them.
As American Relapse demonstrates, there’s a lot of money to be made in rehab. The simple act of giving someone a drug test can bring in a few hundred dollars, assuming that the person being tested has insurance. For a rehab center to make money, there has to be addicts and every time that a formerly sober person relapses, that means even more money. It leads to a viscous cycle, one where people will help but only so much.
The film alternates between scenes explaining how the rehab industry works and scenes of Frankie and Allie working the streets and searching for addicts. Frankie spends his time trying to get Conor into rehab. Allie spends most of her time searching for a missing friend of her’s while also trying to help a homeless couple. Adam Jasinski, who won Big Brother 9 and later went to prison for using his winnings to stet up a drug distribution network, shows up for a few minutes and acts like a dick. Unfortunately, there are no happy endings. By the end of the documentary, some people have died. Others have vanished. One of the “junkie hunters” has relapsed.
It’s certainly not a happy documentary. It’s also a bit too long as well. 105 minutes is a long time to spend watching people who aren’t going anywhere. (Then again, if you consider that Allie and Frankie spend their entire day doing just that, perhaps 105 minutes is not too much to ask.) Like a lot of recent documentaries, the film occasionally tries to shake things up by inserting animation and clips from old educational films and the results are a bit mixed. This documentary works best when it sticks to a cinéma vérité style. Still, it’s a thought-provoking if rather depressing look at lives of intense desperation.
I always enjoy a good car video.
Here’s the trailer for Spies in Disguise, an upcoming animated film that’s going to be released on Christmas! So, who knows? If you’re spending the holidays with the family, you may end up having to watch this. That said, this movie might be kind of fun. Will Smith getting turned into pigeon definitely has potential.
Here’s the trailer!