Ernie & Joe

A Documentary by Jenifer McShane

Joe Smarro, right, and Ernie Stevens of the San Antonio Police Department’s Mental Health unit.

A feature-length documentary film, Ernie & Joe follows two police officers with the San Antonio Texas Police Department who are diverting thousands of people away from jail and into mental health treatment, one 911 call at a time. In the process, they are redefining not only policing and its mandate to “keep people safe,” but transforming the ways in which law enforcement agencies across the U.S. approach and help those who suffer from a mental health diagnosis.

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Part of the secret to their success is that Ernie and Joe are a tight team and each other’s steadfast cover, five days a week, 10 hours a day. Ernie, 45-years old and a devout Christian, black belt and family man is Joe’s mentor and the more reserved of the two. A patrol officer for 13 years, he admits that prior to his mental health training—which he did for the sole purpose of getting a weekend off— “Dealing with a mentally unstable consumer was my biggest fear.” Having been transformed by that training, the strategies he learned, and the impact they had, he went on to lobby for and found the Mental Health Unit; today, he’s now a nationally respected pro at what he does and a teacher, too—to new cadets, to the SAPD’s reluctant old guard, and to visiting departments across the U.S.

Joe, 10 years Ernie’s junior, is onto his second marriage, a former Marine, and suffers from PTSD as a result of childhood sexual abuse and two military deployments in Iraq. Having traveled his own mental health journey from trauma and depression to where he is today, he’s perhaps the more emotionally accessible of the pair. “I think I can help people, because I’ve been on the other side,” he told me. “When someone is suffering and says to me, ‘You have no idea what this is like,’ I can tell them, ‘Actually, ‘I do.’” Ultimately, Ernie and Joe’s different but complementary personalities are a reflection of the SAPD’s larger story: imperfect as it may be, it takes partnership.

Ultimately, Ernie and Joe and their fellow Mental Health officers are able to divert their consumers from jail, because there is a network of health services ready to take them in. Through scenes of those in need more often than not finding help in San Antonio’s system, we will reveal a larger and possibly adoptable model for cities and law enforcement across the country. If this city—of 1.8 million citizens and with one of the largest veteran (and PTSD) populations nationwide—can do it, so can Charleston, Pensacola, Tacoma, and others.
I am thrilled and a little bit humbled to report that I have full access to and signed releases from Ernie and Joe. I have also been granted full access to the SAPD and preliminary access to many of San Antonio’s mental facilities; since privacy issues may arise while filming in medical contexts, we have agreed to seek permission on a case-by-case basis and only with patient/doctor consent.


JENIFER MCSHANE: Director is an independent filmmaker committed to using film to bridge understanding in situations where structural, organizational, cultural or religious divisions typically keep people apart. She spent nearly five years visiting the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility to make her most recent documentary, Mothers of Bedford (Hot Docs Film Festival, 2011), which reveals the impact of incarceration on jailed mothers and their children. Winner of the 2013 Director’s Award at the Social Justice Film Festival, selected by the U.S. Department’s 2014 American Film Showcase to tour internationally, and broadcast on PBS stations nationwide as part of the America ReFramed documentary series, it has gone on to promote thoughtful dialogue about the importance of family connections—despite jail— through community and campus screenings nationwide. Jenifer’s first film, A Leap of Faith (Sundance Film Festival, 1996), which follows a group of parents in Belfast, Northern Ireland as they open an integrated school for Catholic and Protestant children was narrated by Liam Neeson, broadcast on PBS, and screened broadly on European television. Jenifer began her career in the CBS News Election Unit, has directed numerous segments for the Sesame Workshop, and is former U.S. Executive Director of the Irish non-profit Co-operation Ireland.

TOBY SHIMIN: Editor will once again reunite with McShane on Ernie & Joe, following their fruitful collaborations on Mothers of Bedford and Leap of Faith. Shimin began her film career as a sound editor, and switched to picture editing in 1988 when she cut The Children’s Storefront, which was nominated for an Academy Award. Since then, she has cut numerous films that have premiered at Sundance, including Martha and Ethel (1994), Out of the Past (1998, Audience Award), Miss America (2002), Everything’s Cool (2007), Buck (2011, Audience Award) and How to Dance in Ohio (2015), premiered on HBO. She has edited several projects for PBS, including Aids Warriors, Seabiscuit, for which she received an Emmy nomination, Reporting America at Work, and Little White Lie. She also edited Three of Hearts: A Post-Modern Family (Toronto Film Festival, 2004), Indian Point (Tribeca Film Festival, 2015), Man Without a Mask for the New Yorker Presents series. Most recently, Shimin completed 32 Pills: My Sister’s Suicide (Hot Docs Film Festival, 2017), a wrenching exploration of mental illness and suicide. Toby is a principal of Dovetail Films and co-curator of the Garrison, New York-based film screening series, Depot Docs.

ANDREA MEDITCH: Executive Producer
Andrea is an Emmy-winning creative and executive producer, whose films have won and been nominated for Oscars, and premiered at such major festivals as Sundance, Tribeca and Toronto. In 2017, in addition to The Cage Fighter, she is premiering The Sensitives at Tribeca. Previous films have included Dangerous Acts, Man On Wire, BUCK, Encounters at the End of the World, Grizzly Man, In the Shadow of the Moon, The Killer Within, Doubletime and The Flight That Fought Back. She regularly conducts master classes on story development, creative producing, pitch training, and the basics of international financing and release strategies. Before starting Back Allie Entertainment, Andrea held executive and creative positions at Discovery, including building the first iteration of Discovery Films. She also created a model for a new center for creative non-fiction storytelling at Michigan State University. Andrea is a mentor for the Sundance Producer Labs, as well as an advisor to the Points North non-fiction storyteller retreat and the Hot Docs Forum and has served as a juror for numerous festivals, including Sundance, AFI Docs and Tribeca.