Music Credit: “NY” written and performed by Kosta T from the cd Soul Sand. Used courtesy of Free Music Archive.
Ernie Stevens: “No one calls us to give us good news. They call us because something bad is happening, so they are in a crisis. "Are you okay?" We used to have a saying in law enforcement, "Ask, tell make." I'm going to ask you to do it, I'm going to tell you to do it, and I'm going to make you do it. On average in a police academy in this country they spend sixty hours or more learning how to shoot a gun and they spend eight on mental health and communication. We need to shift that.”
Jo Reed: You just heard an excerpt from the award-winning documentary, Ernie and Joe, which was produced and directed by Jenifer McShane, and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.
Ernie and Joe follows two San Antonio police officers, Ernie Stevens and Joe Smarro, as they respond to mental health calls, not as enforcers, but as resources. Part of the San Antonio Police Department's ten-person mental health unit, Ernie and Joe are putting compassionate and practical policing practices into action without guns, without force, without uniforms. Ernie and Joe work to de-escalate situations and bring people to much-needed mental health services.
The film, Ernie and Joe, is a candid portrait of the two as they go about their work. It chronicles their daily encounters with people in crisis, and shows how their innovative approach to policing is having a dramatic effect on the way law enforcement responds to those with mental health challenges. But the film also explores who Ernie and Joe are and how they work together. We see them on the job and off the job, as partners and as friends. It’s a ride in the back of a police car that’s filled with banter as well as commitment. Ernie and Joe are charming, interesting people with a determination to make a difference. They are good compassionate guides to a tough subject. Ernie and Joe is produced and directed by Jenifer McShane, who I spoke with last month. Here’s our conversation.
Jo Reed: Let’s talk about the two main characters in the film, Ernie and Joe. Let’s take them one at a time. Tell me about Ernie.
Jenifer McShane: Ernie is a veteran officer. He’s been on the SAPD I think for, 23 years now, and he actually is one of the founding members of the mental health unit, and he finds himself having this aha moment when he meets the mother of a child with schizophrenia who talks to Ernie about her fear that someday the police are going to be called and he’ll end up being killed or shot, and it stuns Ernie to his core, and he starts thinking about ways to bring a mental health unit to his department. They had already started—He heard this woman speak as part of a CIT crisis intervention training, that he was participating in. He’s born and raised in Texas, you know, a real family guy, very involved in his church and I think really sees this work as, kind of, his life vocation now.
Jo Reed: And what does CIT stand for?
Jenifer McShane: Crisis Intervention Training.
Jo Reed: Okay, and then there’s Joe.
Jenifer McShane: Yes, then there’s Joe. So Joe is about 10 years younger than Ernie. He has had quite the life in the sense of some very difficult challenges in his childhood, then ends up joining in the military, in the Marines. Goes in as an 18 year-old and is sent to Afghanistan and Iraq, and that is pretty traumatic, as you can imagine, and then when he gets out, he makes his way to San Antonio, ends up joining the police force there. He's very funny. They both are very funny with each other. Joe is very funny, and is really on this journey for his own self-healing as well as the work he’s doing in the community.
Jo Reed: Tell me a little bit about the mental health unit of the San Antonio Police Department.
Jenifer McShane: San Antonio Police Department has been on the forefront of looking at these issues, and they have a stand-alone mental health unit within the police department and have trained their officers as well, but the key piece, I think, is that having this unit that deals with nothing but mental health issues, so they become kind of the de facto experts within their organization, so that there’s a lot of support for this discussion, and they’ve kind of normalized a lot of the terms and the thinking around this so that it becomes a part of the culture. People start thinking about mental health when they’re doing their jobs.
Jo Reed: The film has a very tough opening where we actually see somebody who’s shot by a police officer, somebody who has mental challenges. Their approach is just so different. Explain how Ernie and Joe deal with people who have mental health challenges.
Jenifer McShane: Yeah. Well, I think they would—if they were here, they would tell you that the key to this is really how we’re training law enforcement. Because a lot of that training is fear-based, and also kind of sets up officers to feel like they’re stopping bank robbers every day, and the truth of it is the vast majority of the calls they go on, I hear again and again from officers, are people with some kind of emotional distress or some kind of mental health crisis. It’s—it’s so common. Because Ernie and Joe have been doing it so long and San Antonio has really put a priority on training, they can recognize what they’re seeing in front of them. It’s all about de-escalation. How can they take the temperature down, and they do that in a lot of ways, and I went on so many calls with them, and there were common denominators. They always use their first name. They find out the name—the first name of the person they’re helping. They’re not in uniform. Invariably the first thing they would say is, “You’re not in trouble. We’re here to help,” and a lot of it is just taking time, a lot of time, and that’s one of the reasons it’s difficult for a lot of police departments to do this well. You can’t be in a rush, and 911 calls tend to be, “Let’s get them going. In/out. Move it along”, and you can’t do that with this kind of mental health work, but when it’s done right, it really does work really well. And the other thing that I heard again and again from different officers, especially Ernie and Joe, but other officers as well, is that once the law enforcement officer is using this kind of training, they realize it works, and they feel better about the situation, the person—everyone can leave the situation, hopefully in one piece and in a better place and getting help. So it—it’s very different. I do think it’s the future of policing. I’m not exactly sure what it’s going to look like, but I think there’s really a trend in this direction, this kind of recognition that so many of the people who the police are being called to help are in some serious distress.
Jo Reed: Well, Ernie and Joe are also trainers in CIT, and in the film you show one training with first responders that I think Joe is doing, and he says, “If you get a call and it’s a woman who is outside her house, and her husband and children are asleep in the house and she calls and she says, “I’m sitting in a car with a gun in my hand and I’m thinking about blowing my brains out,” he said to the first responders, “What do you hear?” and they all say, “Gun,” and that’s what they hear, because that’s what they’re trained to hear.
Jenifer McShane: Exactly. Exactly.
Jo Reed: And I thought that was an amazingly pertinent moment that, kind of, sums up what you’re doing in this film very quickly.
Jenifer McShane: Exactly, I think—and I think we’re setting everybody up for disaster if we’re not preparing everybody in that situation. You know, the person in crisis obviously, can’t be—is not prepared. So the person responding has to have some preparation and some tools to deal with it, and I think that moment when they all say, “Gun,” and then also, in that same training, I think, Joe says to the audience of first responders, “How many here have ever told someone they’re scared or they’re afraid while on the job?” and silence, and I think that’s the other thing we need to be talking about is like, accessing your own emotions and your own fear, and I think that was important to—to bring that up as well.
Jo Reed: I completely agree. I completely agree. Now, how did you find out about Ernie and Joe?
Jenifer McShane: My last film was called, Mothers of Bedford, and it was about five women in a maximum-security prison who are participating in a parenting program. So the film was about parenting and being a mother and how to, kind of, navigate that and this extremely difficult situation, but what became very obvious and painfully obvious to me when I was researching that film, was the number of people behind bars who are there with either untreated mental illness or are there, in part, because of, kind of, traumatic situations didn’t get the help for their mental health challenges. So, the kind of connection between mental health, mental illness and jail time and prison time is so connected in this country, and I really-- it became very obvious to me when I was working on that last film. So when this work came to my attention, a mutual friend sent me a friend’s article about, kind of, the work, generally speaking, in San Antonio that was happening around this issue of mental health and jails and the whole civic view of it, and in that article, the mental health unit on the San Antonio Police Department was featured, and Ernie and Joe were in that article, and I was just fascinated by the idea of looking at this through the eyes of law enforcement. But initially, I just was fascinated in the—in the work, and I went out to ride along with them without a camera, initially, just to kind of get a sense of who they were and what the work was, and if it was what I thought it was, and pretty quickly I’d say, just literally a day or two, I thought, “I’ve got to tell this story,” and I also thought they were tremendous subjects or characters to tell the story through, and they have kind of a natural banter with each other. They’re easy to spend time with, because it’s a tough topic. You know, I just thought it would be an interesting way to tell the story, so I got very fortunate to find the topic that I felt was meaningful that I wanted to tell, and then to find such open characters or subjects who were willing to let me hang around far too long. <laughs>
Jo Reed: How did you get access?
Jenifer McShane: I have to say, it was easier than the prison. <laughs> Yeah, they were great to deal with, the whole department. I have absolutely no complaints. They were very open about access, and I think they know that they’re doing things really well. They were ahead of the curve on this and they still are. There’s so many places that aren’t even thinking about this training, forget about doing it at—to the extent that San Antonio does. So, I think when you know you’re doing something well, I think there’s just less fear about shining a light on it.
Jo Reed: What about getting access to the extent that you did to both Ernie and Joe? It isn’t just trailing around with them in the car. You’re in their homes. You see their families.
Jenifer McShane: I know, we had—it’s funny, someone asked us—We were at a film festival. I hadn’t seem them in a little bit, and we were reunited down in Arkansas at Hot Springs Film Festival, and somebody asked that question, and of course, in their usual “make fun of Jen” mode, they said, “Well, you know, she just came home with us and she wouldn’t leave.”
Jenifer McShane: And, you know, in Texas hospitality they’re so open and inviting, but the truth of it is, I think that we—we developed a very good rapport, and there was some real trust. You know, they’re very open about saying they were not quite sure what I was really doing. I mean, they—I told them, but, you know, when someone’s following you for that many times, I mean, it was two and a half years, and--
Jo Reed: Is that how long you were filming?
Jenifer McShane: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, not every day, I meant, but I’d come back again and again over two and a half, almost three years, and, you know after a certain amount of time, you don’t remember everything that you’ve shared and every interview. So there was just a lot of trust. So I was very fortunate in that regard that they understood what I was trying to do, and that made them very willing. They—they really were amazing, ‘cause I—it’s hard for me to even think of a time where they were saying, “Nah, it’s not a great night.” Like, they really were terrific about just letting me be there. You know, I—I guess I find stories that are unexpectedly hopeful to be really intriguing to me. You know, the situations, you know, like my last film in a prison, how do you make parenting even possible? Like, how do you try to be a good mother from prison? But it can be very hopeful and it can be very healing, and so I had this kind of similar sense with this. This is not expected. We don’t expect, kind of, human connection and empathy in these situations during a 911 call, and when you see it, it’s incredibly life-affirming, and hopeful, and—and so I think they sensed what my goals were in the sense of just really wanting to observe and illuminate an unusual situation that I think other communities can learn from. I’d love this film to be an inspirational tool. I don’t want it to be a how-to—this is how you have to make your city better or community better or your police department better, but more about human connection, and how can we foster that, and how can we take what we have and take it to the next level and make it better, and I think, you know, there’s no more important time to be thinking about those things than now.
Jo Reed: Well, I want to go in two directions at once, and I’m going to start first with more of the bread and butter question, and that is, what about getting permissions from the people who are—are being helped, who are the ones that Ernie and Joe are reaching out to?
Jenifer McShane: I was very concerned about that at a lot of levels from day one. First of all, like, most importantly to me was that Ernie and Joe and their colleagues in the mental health unit, there were ten at the time, are all really good, and Ernie and Joe are—are really masterful at de-escalating and building rapport, and, you know, it’s hard to think of a better way to ruin that than to show up with a large camera and get in the way. So from a practical standpoint, I always tried to stay a very respectful distance. I really was trying to observe from a distance for safety and for respect.
Jo Reed: And was it just you and the camera? Were you the camera person, or did you have a camera person, too?
Jenifer McShane: No, I had a terrific cinematographer, E. J. Enriquez, and Paul Toohey did sound, but because we were always in awkward spots and it was hard—it would have been very hard, I think, to get the lay of the land and be shooting at the same time, and they did a tremendous job. So we always stayed far back, and then if I felt the person wasn’t in their right mind to really understand what I was doing, I blurred.
Jo Reed: You blurred their faces so they couldn’t be recognized.
Jenifer McShane: Right, exactly. If—if I was in doubt about it, I would blur. So you’ll see there’s lots of blurs. You know, so it was very much a case-by-case situation based on their individual story. There was a very dramatic call in the middle of the film that involved dashcam footage that I wanted to get, and the City of San Antonio would only release it to the woman involved which I actually think is a great idea. I mean, I don’t think they should be handing it out to anybody, so it encouraged a really good conversation with me and this woman about using it, and to my surprise, it was actually a very emotional conversation. I remember very clearly being quite moved that she was so certain that she wanted me to use it, and I, you know, this is like probably the worst night of her life, and she said, “People don’t understand how I ended up in that situation, and I think you should use it, and, you know, obviously, I wanted to use it, but I was quite taken aback by how much she wanted me to use it, and then what—what happened was then we ended up following her after that dramatic event where she first meets Ernie and Joe. By that time, she had gotten help, and I felt she was clearly okay and understood exactly what I was doing. I felt okay with her agreeing to participate. So it varied depending on the situation, but it was something I was very conscious of, like, from day one.
Jo Reed: As you said, that kind of policing is really about developing a relationship, developing a rapport and while Joe and Ernie both deal with everyone who comes their way, Joe, as the veteran, is more focused on veterans who find themselves in—in this kind of predicament, and Ernie tended to deal with the younger people, because it was too close to the bone for Joe.
Jenifer McShane: And I loved how they had this kind of unspoken—which happens. That’s the other thing I really wanted to follow, partners who have worked together for a long time.
Jo Reed: That was so interesting.
Jenifer McShane: Because you get a sense of that relationship, friendship. There was a lot of, kind of, humor in the car I think which was a great way for themselves to debrief and de-escalate, but also, they kind of knew what each other’s strengths were. Ernie jokes that, you know, in the beginning of the film they introduce themselves and Joe talks about how he’s a former Marine, and Ernie introduces himself, says he’s a former Cub Scout.
Jo Reed: I thought that was so funny.
Jenifer McShane: Because he, you know, didn’t have any military experience. So they—they’re very good at knowing which call the one should, kind of, take the lead on versus the other, and also what I liked, you know, when I was first trying to get this film supported, I was saying it was like a buddy cop film with a strong social commentary, because I wanted that buddy situation because I think we don’t spend a lot of time showing positive male friendships that are—that are emotional, where they talk about their emotions and here these two were kind of helping each other in different ways. You know, Joe is younger, so, you know, initially you think Ernie is the one who is kind of, maybe more in a guiding role, but then you realize there are things that Ernie has learned from Joe, many things that he’s learned from Joe. So I thought that was great to have them be a little different and supportive of each other in ways that I don’t think we see enough of, especially with male characters.
Jo Reed: Male friendship is something that is very rarely caught on film or—or in books, for that matter.
Jenifer McShane: Yeah, exactly.
Jo Reed: You know, you start off with the vision in your head, but then sometimes, often, as you’re shooting and as life is unfolding in front of you, the vision in your head has to shift sometimes. Did that happen with you in this film?
Jenifer McShane: Definitely. When I started, honestly, I did not see the mental wellness piece of the officers themselves being as pivotal to the story as it is. That became very clear pretty quickly. A couple months in, Ernie and Joe were telling me about officer suicides that were happening on their department, and the fact that this CIT training in the mental health unit was very much started to help the community at large, but what they were finding, kind of a byproduct of this, was they were having more and more family members coming to them confidentially or other officers coming to them confidentially, and saying, “I’m having very scary thoughts, terrible depression,” whatever the case may be, and I think because there’s a mental health unit that is a stand-alone unit that has some priority in terms of, well, resources or at least commitment from the Chief McManus who is really instrumental in a lot of this. You know, I think it suddenly made it a little more acceptable for people to talk about it and share, and so they’ve really started to look inward and I think a lot of police departments are in that boat now. I mean, NYPD has, I think had 10 in the last few months, officer suicides. So it’s a huge problem, a much, much bigger problem, and the numbers—stats have gone up even higher since I finished the film, which was only in March. So—so that, I would say, is something that wasn’t crystalized in my mind when I was thinking about the project, the idea that their own wellness is—is a really important piece of this puzzle.
Jo Reed: You spent two and a half years shooting. I mean, obviously not every day. How long did you spend editing?
Jenifer McShane: Probably close to a year. Probably 10, 11 months of editing.
Jo Reed: That process must have been so painful.
Jenifer McShane: It was, it—but it was also wonderful. I have—I’m fortunate to have a really terrific collaborative relationship with my editor, Toby Shimin. She just is amazing. She’s absolutely amazing, but—so I enjoyed it immensely because it was such a just great, creative process in terms of trying to figure out what works and how to spread the story out in a way where the pacing made sense. These characters kind of evolve. You know, you don’t know their whole backstory the moment you meet them and so it was great, but it was painful, because we had about 300 hours of footage and a lot of great stories, and we had to just really keep our focus on what really was the takeaway.
Jo Reed: And they’re so charming together.
Jenifer McShane: Yeah. Exactly.
Jo Reed: I could see, “Oh, no! No, that’s another good story. I know it has nothing to do with the story I’m telling, but they’re so good!”
Jenifer McShane: Exactly. Exactly. In fact, we were joking, we said, we really—Joe was saying we should do a blooper reel ‘cause there—it was a lot of wonderful humor which, both Toby and I thought was really important to keep in, because I think there’s this sense that, you know, a film that’s about an important topic or a serious topic or a sad topic, has to be somber, and I—I think the humor, the charming bits of banter and the humor within kind of helps the viewer sit with the, you know, the heavier stuff, and you get a better sense of who they are. So yes, there was lots more humor that we could have kept in and we—we had to pull a lot of that out. And also, there were some stories, calls that we went on that were very meaningful to me, but just didn’t—I just didn’t have the time or the space—same reason why I focused on two officers and not ten, to really get people to connect with what they’re watching. I felt like we had to kind of try to keep it smaller, and that wasn’t always easy. I mean, we were always going back and forth about what to include, but—it was a wonderful process, but it was a challenge, for sure. And, you know, you were talking about that first opening shot, the very difficult news clip--
Jo Reed: And that’s the clip of the police shooting of a man with mental challenges.
Jenifer McShane: Exactly. Exactly, and I wasn’t sure at first whether to start with that, because this film is more hopeful. It’s more solution based, but then, late in the game it became very clear to me that without that opening most of the audience doesn’t understand why this kind of newer policing, the policing that’s happening with Ernie and Joe and their colleagues, is so important. Like—I think a lot of people just don’t realize how quickly things can go poorly.
Jo Reed: Yeah.
Jenifer McShane: Yeah, and it happens a lot, a lot, and it’s very hard to find statistics on it, but, you know, as I was making the film I was always tracking stories, and they were all over the place, like these unbelievably sad stories of people who, you know, a parent called for help with their child and the SWAT team shows up. So we ended up deciding to include it, because I felt like you just need that kind of wakeup call in the beginning to say, “Okay, the next 90 minutes is important, because this can happen.”
Jo Reed: Did Ernie and Joe see an earlier cut of it? Were they involved at all or they saw the finished product?
Jenifer McShane: They saw the finished product. They had a lot of faith, I have to say. I showed it to them, like, the night before “South by” when we premiered, and they, I think, were hugely relieved, because they could tell that it was done with empathy and especially Joe, because of—he was so open about some of his past trauma, and he felt that that was handled really sensitively which I’m—I’m very relieved that’s how he felt. I mean, that’s what I was hoping to do, so I was relieved.
Jo Reed: Okay, so you have shot the film. You’ve edited the film. You’ve scored the film, and now you have the happy task of distributing the film, which is like a whole new ballgame.
Jenifer McShane: Exactly.
Jo Reed: So tell me the process of—of how it worked for Ernie and Joe, ‘cause a lot of people don’t get, you know, the film isn’t over when it’s over.
Jenifer McShane: Right, Exactly.
Jo Reed: The work isn’t.
Jenifer McShane: Not at all. <laughs> Yeah, it is quite a consuming task. I mean, it’s all-consuming between like, fundraising and grant writing and then the shooting and then the cutting and the scoring, as you say, and then the archival and getting permission to use what you use, and I mean, it’s just nonstop, but I have to say in the case of Ernie and Joe, we were extremely fortunate in the fact that HBO saw the film at South by Southwest, where we premiered, and was very interested and—and loved it, and so we have been acquired by HBO, so it’s kind of the incredibly wonderful way to end the process by knowing it has a home.
Jo Reed: Really, and what a home.
Jenifer McShane: A home where it will be seen, which is great.
Jo Reed: Yeah. How important, Jenifer, are film festivals for independent documentary films?
Jenifer McShane: I think they’re very important, actually, for lots of reasons. In some cases, it’s to hopefully get the attention of someone who can distribute it, but I also think it’s wonderful to connect with live audiences and the film, and I found that with Mothers of Bedford, and I also definitely have experienced it with Ernie and Joe. As I mentioned, we were just at a festival. I was in Indianapolis at Heartland and then Hot Springs, and we’ve done many, many festivals and just the audience reaction has been really quite stunning in its intensity and its beauty in terms of, I mean, Hot Springs, multiple men in their I’d say, 50s to 60s, came up in tears. One introduced himself as a suicide survivor. Another one told us about his mother on a bridge many, many, many years ago when there was no Ernie and Joe to call, and that’s how he lost his mom, and this is a man in his 60s now, you know?
Jo Reed: Oh, my goodness.
Jenifer McShane: And you know, just, people being so open, and I think they’re taking a beautiful cue from the film about “let’s try to be a little more transparent. Let’s try to be a little more honest about how hard this is for so many people”, and I liken it to people my grandparents’ and older age where they didn’t use the word “cancer.” You know, I remember my grandfather saying something about the “C” word or something, and not really understanding, and they were talking about cancer, and now, I’m a breast cancer survivor and my family rode in a bike ride to, kind of, celebrate survivorship and raise funds for Smilow here in New Haven near where I live. You know, now it’s celebrated, this idea of surviving and fighting it, and we’re not there yet with mental health, but I feel like maybe we’re kind of on the path to that, and I think this film gives people permission to talk about it and to feel it and to think about how do we—how do we make this better? I say this almost at every Q&A, but the film on paper is about mental health and policing, and it is about those things. That’s what the film’s about, but I think at its core it’s about human connection. That’s the heart of the film. How are we connecting with each other? How do we do that in a better way? How do we do that in a meaningful way that helps keep people safe and loved and protected, and festivals really allow you to have that engagement, in my case I’m very lucky. People are—a lot of people will be seeing it on HBO, but it’s hard to replace that connection of someone coming up and grabbing Joe’s hands and just talking to them. Several times people have come up and said, “Only my parents know about my mental illness,” and they’ll share it with Ernie and Joe. It’s been a wonderful opportunity for that. So I think personally, I just find festivals are great from that standpoint, but I also think they’re just great for any film in terms of connecting with your audience, figuring out who responds to your film and who doesn’t, getting the word out to other filmmakers, and—and meeting other filmmakers.
Jo Reed: And I was about to say, meeting other filmmakers, too.
Jenifer McShane: Meeting other filmmakers is fantastic. That’s wonderful. I’d say, that’s probably one of the best things, is—is meeting other filmmakers and then meeting your audience and figuring out who is responding and why.
Jo Reed: Well Jenifer, thank you so much. I thought it was a really, really good film.
Jenifer McShane: Well, I’m really glad you appreciated the film. It really means a lot to me.
Jo Reed: Thanks, Jenifer.
Jenifer McShane: Thanks so much, Josephine.
Jo Reed: That’s producer and director Jenifer McShane. We were talking about her award-winning documentary, Ernie and Joe. Ernie and Joe can be seen on HBO, and you can get more information about the film at ernieandjoethefilm.com
You’ve been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Subscribe to Art Works—it will make us happy, and it will make us even happier if you leave us a favorable rating on Apple because it really helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
Documentary filmmaker Jenifer McShane’s new film Ernie and Joe puts the viewer in the car of two police officers who are part of the San Antonio Police Department’s ten-person mental health unit. As partners they respond to to 911 calls involving people in emotional distress not as enforcers but as resources working to de-escalate situations and lead people to much needed mental health services. McShane spent three years, on and off, riding with Ernie and Joe--chronicling their work and their partnership. In this episode of the podcast, McShane talks about riding along in the police car and filming the titular duo as they worked patiently and compassionately with people who were despondent, despairing, or violent; and, she talks about Ernie and Joe themselves, their relationship and the ongoing banter that allows them to decompress. We also discuss how she filmed Ernie and Joe without compromising their work, and the emotional reception the film has received at festivals across the country. Ernie and Joe has been picked by HBO where it is now streaming.