Ernie & Joe

A Documentary by Jenifer McShane

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

Ernie and Joe are not your everyday policemen—the kind that any of us usually conjure when we imagine officers on the scene; they are part of the San Antonio Police Department’s (SAPD’s) highly progressive and successful Mental Health Unit, which was founded in 2008.  They respond to and engage with those in crisis—whether they are self-harming, threatening suicide, experiencing PTSD symptoms or homeless—and are trained to intervene without force, before and if any arrests are made.  On the job, they look differently, wearing plain clothes, concealing their weapons, and traveling in unmarked cars.  In the course of their police work, they act differently, too, emphasizing de-escalation, rapport-building, and empathy.

Ernie & Joe will follow these two skilled officers on the job as they negotiate—one unpredictable 911 call at a time—from squad car, to the scene, to follow-up care. Watching them help someone experiencing a psychiatric emergency, we will witness firsthand an innovative way to police, serve the mentally ill, and help families in need.  Very often the situations they confront are life and death, involving the weapons, violence and unpredictability that they confronted in their prior days on patrol. And yet, these two officers have come to see their public service in a whole other way.  “What I truly feel in my heart now,” says Joe after five years with the Mental Health Unit, “Is that mental health and crisis intervention is the future of police work in this country.”


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In the United States, it’s time for law enforcement to take a close look at its handling of encounters with the mentally ill. Alarmingly, one in four people shot by a police officer—25% of such shootings— has a serious mental illness.  For those lucky enough to dodge a police bullet, the numbers aren’t much better.  According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, a national organization committed to the fair and just treatment of the mentally ill, almost 25% of jail inmates and 15% of state prison inmates have a serious mental illness.  At this very moment—and this is a documented fact—more people suffering from mental illness are in jail or prison than are in state mental hospitals.  This is an issue in every community, jail and prison across the country, and it is in many cases inefficient, ineffective and inhumane.

These numbers reflect a very disturbing reality: with a failing mental health system so inadequate, police officers have increasingly become de facto first responders to people experiencing a mental health crisis, despite the fact that they are often grossly unprepared for the task.  According to a survey by the Police Executive Research Forum, a police research and policy non-profit, new recruits today typically receive 60 hours of training to learn how to handle a gun, but only eight hours of training to learn strategies for handling the mentally ill.  This survey is only bolstered by reports from police departments across the country that despite officers’ experiencing at least one mental-health crises a day, they have few effective tools for dealing with them.

Part buddy film, part social commentary, and vérité in its approach, Ernie & Joe will take the viewer on a personal journey, weaving together the experiences of these two officers with their daily encounters with people in crisis.  Ernie and Joe have engaging personalities, making it easy to spend time with them in their world.


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.