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Police departments offered free access to award-winning film on handling the mentally ill

Police departments offered free access to award-winning film on handling the mentally ill
Posted at 5:00 PM, Jul 02, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-03 00:09:13-04

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — A police officer's job can quickly become more difficult when dealing with someone who's suffering from a mental health crisis.

It's a common occurrence in the Coastal Bend and throughout the country, and it's a situation that can end badly.

The San Antonio Police Department created a special Mental Health unit in 2008 that took a different approach to handling the mentally ill.

In 2019, those efforts were featured in the Emmy Award winning HBO documentary "Ernie and Joe: Crisis Cops" that's now available for free screenings to police departments nationwide.

"This is a better approach for law enforcement," one of the film's namesakes, former member of the S.A.P.D. Mental Health Unit Ernest Stevens said. "What I saw, just being on the unit for 12 years, I never had one use-of-force (incident). And that’s dealing with individuals on their most psychotic or most desperate day sometimes."

Stevens credits that to the unit's emphasis on empathy, deescalation, and active listening when communicating with a mentally ill individual.

He hopes law enforcement agencies will take advantage of the free screenings in which he participates by hosting a post-film question and answer session.

“(I've) been bombarded," Stevens said referring to the number of requests for presentations he's received. "On average I do two to three presentations a week for departments."

The film has screened in several Texas cities but none in the Coastal Bend so far.

With the Independence Day weekend beginning, the Corpus Christi Police Department was too busy for an interview on this subject Friday.

Through emails, a C.C.P.D. spokesperson said that the film is not part of their training curriculum, but he would notify the department's crisis intervention officer about the free screening offer.

The documentary is the result of three years of filming including capturing footage during ride alongs with Stevens and his partner.

The film's director committed to the project after observing the two officers' interaction with a man who was having homicidal thoughts about the manager of the group home where he lived.

The lines of communication froze when the man thought he'd have to ride in the back of the officers' unmarked patrol car.

Instead, Stevens hopped in the back and let the man ride in the front with his partner instead.

"He’s a patient," Stevens said. "He’s not under arrest. If that’s how he wants to go, then let’s take him that way. And (the film's director) said, ‘OK, I think there’s a story here, because this is not normal police procedure.”