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San Antonio ‘Crisis Cops’ Deliver NYPD Lessons on Dealing with Mentally Ill

San Antonio police officers Ernie Stevens, left, and Joe Smarro
San Antonio police officers, Ernie Stevens, left, and Joe Smarro respond to somone having a mental health crisis.
Photo: Matthew Busch/Courtesy of HBO

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When veteran cops Joe Smarro and Ernie Stevens respond to a potentially volatile 911 call involving a person experiencing a mental health crisis, they’re usually not wearing the uniform of the San Antonio Police Department.

Bullet-proof vests and prominent display of weapons “are an intimidating look,” Smarro said. “It’s hard to show up like that physically and out of your mouth say we’re here to do community policing.”

Smarro and Stevens are on the vanguard of a growing effort to improve how cops interact with people dealing with mental illness. It’s a fraught and potentially explosive dynamic that the NYPD, the nation’s biggest police department, is actively trying to address following a string of fatal shootings by officers.

“Ernie and Joe: Crisis Cops,” a documentary premiering on HBO Tuesday night, will bring the San Antonio Police Department’s innovative approach into national view.

Smarro and Stevens are part of a 10-person team of cops specially trained to interact with people who struggle with psychiatric disorders — and are assigned to handle only those types of emergency calls.

Their mission: to listen carefully, de-escalate the situation and avoid steering the subject of the call into the criminal justice system, which historically has been ill-equipped to deal with the mentally ill.

Last week, the film’s director — Sunnyside, Queens native Jenifer McShane — and the two San Antonio cops screened “Ernie & Joe” for the NYPD’s Wellness Unit. The unit is a key part of the ThriveNYC effort by Mayor Bill de Blasio and his wife, Chirlane McCray, to better serve those facing mental health issues.

The screening generated “very frank and some emotional questions” from the NYPD participants, said Vince Johnson, a spokesperson for the film. A second screening is planned for later this week.

Oregon Blazed Trail

The film shows the two Texas officers driving from call to call in plainclothes and badges as incidents pop up on their patrol car dispatch screen. “Ernie & Joe” highlights a policing approach the NYPD aspires to but has stopped short of fully embracing, as it scrambles to keep up with a huge surge in 911 mental health-related calls.

Only uniformed cops and EMTs currently respond to such calls in New York. In the last five years, 15 people experiencing mental health crises have been killed by police during these often-precarious interactions.

Among the reforms de Blasio announced last month is to have “co-response teams” — consisting of two uniformed cops and a mental health clinician — respond to 911 mental health calls. A test run is slated to begin soon in two precincts that generate hundreds of such calls annually.

San Antonio police officers Ernie Stevens and Joe Smarro
San Antonio police officers Ernie Stevens, left, and Joe Smarro at Hudson Yards in New York.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams wanted de Blasio to go much further: He’s called for a separate dispatch system that only handles mental health calls.

Williams has cited the protocol used in two adjoining Oregon cities, Eugene and Springfield, where only emergency medical technicians and mental health clinicians answer mental health calls. They can seek help from police, if necessary, but rarely do so, officials say.

‘A Smarter Police Department’

San Antonio’s program began in 2005. Smarro and Stevens concede that some of their colleagues initially balked at the strategy, dismissing it as “hugs for thugs.”

“We had officers with 20 plus years come to the training and say, ‘I would rather retire than take this type of training because we’re not social workers,’” said Stevens, 48.

But, he added, speaking as he would to a skeptical colleague: “You’re still a communicator. You need to learn good communication skills, learn good de-escalation skills. It’s not to replace what you have been taught. It’s to supplement what you’re taught, to raise your skill set to meet the needs of the community that you’re serving.

“It’s not about being a kinder, gentler police department. It’s about being a smarter police department.”

Both Stevens and Smarro believe every cop should receive crisis intervention training so all police on the scene tackle an incident the same way. The NYPD had said it planned to train all uniformed staff beginning in 2015 — but as of March 2019, less than one-third had been trained.

“If I get a call for an EDP [emotionally disturbed person] out on a bridge, I can’t say, ‘No thanks, give me the next one.’” Smarro, 38, said. “We don’t have a choice about what we respond to, so why do we have a choice about what training we receive?”

911 Dispatchers Are Key

The Texas cops also point out the need for improved communication from 911 dispatchers — an issue that arose last year with the fatal police shooting of Saheed Vassell, a 34-year-old bipolar man whom cops dispatched to the scene mistakenly believed wielded a gun.

In that case, Vassell was walking up and down a Brooklyn street pointing a piece of pipe at random pedestrians. Passersby who called 911 said they thought the hunk of metal was a gun, but weren’t sure. The 911 call was relayed to the cops as a “firearms job.”

San Antonio has struggled with similar issues. Smarro recalls an incident where a distraught woman came out of her house with a gun and was pointing it at her head. A huge law enforcement contingent showed up with long guns and a battering ram.

“All they hear is ‘Gun!’,” Smarro recalled, noting that when he and Stevens arrived, they intervened and convinced the woman to put down her weapon.

Now San Antonio trains 911 dispatchers to gather more details from callers requesting assistance for potential mental health incidents.

“That can absolutely be a force reducer if the officers are showing up at the scene with good information,” Smarro said. “Before we were doing the training for them, we would get these random vague calls, they’d say ‘unknown intox,’ ‘unknown weapons.’ Now we’re getting these calls where dispatchers are writing up half-page notes … so we know what we’re showing up for.”

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