SUMMARY: For over a decade police officers Ernie Stevens and Joe Smarro have been part of the San Antonio Police Department’s Mental Health Unit. In thousands of interactions with people in various states of mental health crisis they have used force only one time.
Stevens and Smarro say that part of the mental health care mess has been caused by the deinstitutionalization of mental health facilities across the country in addition to the lack of funding for community support centers. As a result, the police have become the de facto first responders to mental health issues despite not having any training on dealing with mental health issues. Due to this fact the duo believe that the way the academy trains police officers, the way police departments recruit, how the police present themselves to the community, and the mental health of police officers all need to be reformed.
Stevens and Smarro’s approach is a refreshing change from pointing out problems and theorizing what might work to actually making change in their communities. Their approach is not easy, or perfect, but it is better than the setup most city police forces use to handle people with mental health issues.
When you are done listening to the podcast, watch Ernie and Joe: Crisis Cops to see them in action.
KEY QUOTE: “We know that most people don’t think or believe that police officers should be dealing with people who are suffering from mental-health crises. And while at face value I believe that myself—just because you’re someone living with a mental illness doesn’t mean you should have to interact with law enforcement—we also know that there’s a huge lack of community-support services that are able or willing to deal with this situation we’re facing. And so for us as police officers, to get training, to realize that we are the de facto first responders, when it comes to all of these societal issues, whether it’s mental health or homelessness or whatever it is, we have to be better equipped.”
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