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.