His typical buddy cop movie often relies on the tension between incompatible (initially loathing) partners to navigate certain action comedy requirements and dispatch thugs with flying fists, guns blazing, and profanity. Besides the jokes, “Ernie & Joe: Crisis Cops” is definitely not that kind of movie.
For one thing, it’s a documentary. And if there were ever serious problems between Ernie Stevens and Joe Smarro, members of the San Antonio Police Department’s groundbreaking mental health unit, they have long since moved into the kind of relationship that would be the envy of many marriages. These undercover Texas lawmakers strive to avoid conflict by practicing compassion and courage while attending to the anguished souls they encounter in this specialized beat.
Director Jennifer McShane offers a well-observed character study of two ordinary men at work, and silent advocacy work that uses the powerful negative space we don’t see – violence – to argue for a calmer and gentler approach to how law enforcement and society at large must deal with people with mental illness.
Physically and emotionally, the two cops may be brothers, but they carry very different stories. Joe is a Marine Corps veterinarian in his 30s with PTSD and five children of three different women. A decade older, Ernie is a family man who relaxes by helping his daughter with her homework, practicing martial arts, and reading the Bible.
Following the two men, while handling cases, training other rescuers and working overtime on uniform shifts, McShane implements a simple travel approach. When Ernie and Joe respond to a disturbed person threatening to jump off a viaduct, we notice that they approach with open arms, brandishing kindness and empathy, their guns safely guarded. It’s as if Dr. Phil kidnapped the reality show “Cops.”
In partnership with local mental health organizations, the SAPD program is a work in progress and a surprising improvement over the numerous violent results we see in the news, which “Ernie & Joe: Crisis Cops” skillfully illustrates. Moving on its humanity and strong on its pragmatism, the documentary seems an essential sight, especially for decision makers with the power to stage similar initiatives.
“Ernie & Joe: Crisis Cops”
Runtime: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Playing: Starts November 15 at the Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica; available November 19 at HBO