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In "Ernie & Joe," cops help the suicidal or mentally ill without criminalizing them

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Jenifer McShane’s insightful, enlightening documentary, “Ernie & Joe: Crisis Cops,” premiering on HBO Nov. 19, allows viewers to ride along with the title San Antonio police officers. But this documentary is no feature-length episode of “Cops.” Rather, it shows how these valued employees of the SAPD’s mental health division help suicidal and dangerous citizens get the treatment the need without criminalizing them. What is more, Ernie and Joe both train fellow officers, cadets, and community members about their intervention practices — listening and explaining their fears — to resolve crises.

The impact of these tactics has been beneficial, and episodes in “Ernie & Joe” show the efficacy of their approach, especially dealing with suicidal individuals. While McShane shows that sometimes things do not work out — there is a powerful description of a jumper — the importance of this work cannot be denied. In fact, the film shows how the unit is expanding its outreach.

McShane and the film’s subjects, chatted with Salon about the documentary, and the SAPD’s efforts to deal with mental health issues in ways that engage compassion and empathy.

How did you learn about Ernie and Joe and their work?
McShane: I read an article that a mutual friend sent me about the innovative work happening in San Antonio about mental health and jail diversion, and the mental health unit on the SAPD was mentioned throughout the article as one of the pieces of the puzzle that was so important. My previous film was about five women in prison, and as I was making and researching that film, I saw a clear connection between mental health and who is behind bars. That resonated with me.

I went to visit without my camera to observe and get a better understanding of this work — what it was, and if it would make a film. I drove around with Ernie and Joe and I knew I wanted to focus on one set of partners. Out of the 10 in the unit, they were logical ones for many reasons.

How did you gain their trust and the access to make this documentary?
McShane: That first visit driving around without a camera was helpful. There were no distractions. I was able to watch, and listen,........

© Salon