Beyond the two men at the center of the documentary, the reason that the film is much more than a straight portrait of cops on the beat but instead the story of kindness and humanity is because director Jenifer McShane took three years to get to know Ernie and Joe and figure out the best way to show the wonderful things that they are doing. I was and still am in awe of the film that she has created.
Since South By Southwest I had been looking for a chance to meet Ernie and Joe and when the pair, along with Jenifer McShane came to New York to promote the theatrical release and the HBO screenings I knew I had my chance to talk to everyone involved in the film.
They say you should never meet your heroes but Ernie and Joe were way greater than I could ever have imagined. We talked and laughed and carried on for much longer than was planned simply because we got lost in conversation. I completely understood why the preceding interview had gone long, no one wanted the conversation to stop.
What follows is more or less the entire talk I had with Ernie and Joe and Jenifer on November 14th. There is some slight editing in that I removed some brief cross talk at the start, moved one part from the end to a better place and I edited our animated conversation about food in San Antonio not because it wasn't informative, rather because while the conversation sounds good on the audio it read very badly since everyone was talking over everyone else. I have tried to leave the transcription so that it sounds like you are listening in on a conversation of people just talking, which we were, instead of being a strict question and answer sort of interview
I want to thank Vince Johnson of David Magdael & Associates for setting this up, HBO for the use of their offices and mostly Ernie,Joe and Jenifer for not only making a wonderful film but taking the time to sit down and talk with me. You all were a jot and you have a standing invitation to go on a walking food tour of New York anytime.
The conversation picks up after brief introductions and some off topic talk as I ask about the endless cycle of festivals and interviews since the film premiered.
|Ernie, Joe and Jenifer|
Steve: You've just been doing this since South by Southwest.
Ernie: It's an opportunity to talk to people and start a conversation about the film, and get perspective.
Steve: Are you at least getting to see New York and the cities you're visiting?
Ernie: It's coming. [laughs] Yeah, it's coming. Saturday, I think we have a free day
Steve: It's just been crazy. Every time I look at festival you're there. You're there. [laughs]
Steve: Do you guys doing any work other than promoting the film?
Jenifer: Uh, yeah.
Ernie: I try not to.
Jenifer: Well, they're taking a whole lot of vacation days for, for this film.
Steve: That was one of the things I was going to ask you...How are doing the promotion on this? Because I know you guys have a day job, do you schedule your work Monday to Thursday and then do the film festivals on the weekend?
Ernie: We try to accommodate.
Jennifer: No, they've been great about taking time off.
Ernie: Yeah, we just use our own vacation, and luckily, we have it to use.
Steve: How does the police department feel about you guys doing all this?
Jenifer: It's a pretty positive story, so my hope is that they can appreciate the value in it, and the guys are taking their own time
Joe: I think we'll know for sure in the next few months, because 99 percent of them haven't seen it. So, because it's just been festival-ridden. Once it releases next week, and then it's streamable. Next year we're teaching in-service every Tuesday, so we'll see the entire department so I'll know what the feedback is. Which, again, to Jen's point, it, it I tell her, I'm like, "I'm still waiting for someone to come up after me and be like, 'I hate this.'"
Joe: Like, 'You guys suck.'" Because everyone is really, really, over-the-top positive. And in my cynical mind, I'm like, "Well, but these are festival goers." Like, "Who, who is really is miserable that goes to festivals?"
Steve: I think you'd be surprised.
Joe: Anyway, uh, but the...uh yeah, so we'll...I, I think we'll know more in the next couple months.
Jenifer: But the audience reaction at the festival has been...is been uniformly unbelievable.
Joe: Yeah. I'll say this, so, as far as SAPD goes, not too sure yet. Every other police agency we've met with, because wherever we've gone, there's been law enforcement invited, or show up, or we'll do a co-panel, absolutely phenomenal.From a law enforcement perspective, they are incredibly relieved that this story's being told. Uh, because one of the secondary beneficiaries, if we can call it that, is the humanizing within law enforcement. And so many people are seeing police officers as people for the first time in their life.
Joe: Which, you know it's like what do you...like that blows my mind. But this is a real thing for them.
Jenifer: Oh yeah.
Joe: And we've had some incredibly powerful moments, like with Bruce Franks, the St. Louis Superman, and just bridging some of these gaps, that, that are there. And, you know, we can't pretend they're not there. And so, I think as a secondary benefit to what the actual story is and the movie is, people are starting to see cops as people who maybe never would have otherwise.
Steve: My office for my day job is two doors down from the police liaison office for the courts. So, I see cops coming in all the time. And what what was one of the things I loved about the film is that while you're watching it, you're like, "Yes. This is the way guys are." You see that there is more than just the various YouTube videos of something terrible happening.
Steve: It's the way you guys really are...
Joe: The on-duty, the off-duty, the force, the family, the downs, the ups, yeah. It's normal. It's life.
Steve: I always hate to do this, but because not everyone reads every interview so I have to cover some questions everyone asks .. so, how did the film come about?
Jenifer: Um, well, my last film was about women in prison. I followed some women for about four and a half years who were inside Bedford Hills up at Westchester. And, during the making and researching of that film, it became very clear to me that so many people behind bars were there, in part, because of a mental health challenge, or a trauma, or some, somehow it was really related.
That film really couldn't address that issue. So, I learned about the work in San Antonio through an article that was written by, coincidentally, a woman I know, and I was just marveling at the piece. And she said, "Well, you want me to try to, you know, do an email intro for you guys?" And I'm like, "Great," 'cause she had seen my last film.
And I went out and said, "Can I drive along for a few days without my camera just to kinda get a sense of it?" And pretty quickly, I thought, "I have to tell this story." So, that's how it happened.
Steve: How did you shoot it? What sort of camera rig? I can't see you guys going through the...
Jenifer: It was a small...I intentionally kept it really small. There was only sound, camera and myself. Most of time our PA wasn't there anyway. We kept it very small. We used a nice kind of Sony, but it was compact enough, and we spent most of the time in the back of their car. It was lean.
But I think I wanted it to be that way. I really wanted the film to feel immersive, and to feel like you were kind of on this journey, kind of like a 90-minute ride along, in a sense. And I think we achieved that. I was worried it would feel claustrophobic, but I don't think it does. I think it just gives you a sense of their relationship and the banter that happens when you're in cars for long periods of time together with the same person.
Steve: How long did you shoot?
Jenifer: Three years. On and off, you know...
Ernie: Not Three years straight..
Steve: No, no, no. [laughs]I can't see you st-, you know, staying with these, these guys, you know, everybody for three years.
Jenifer: Yeah. [laughs] They would, they would go crazy.
Steve: "She's here again. Oh, no."
Jenifer: Exactly. I know, and Texas hospitality saved me. [laughs]
Steve: Do you guys always work in pairs?
Joe: Yes, always in pairs.
Jenifer: It is important.
Steve: Do you wait for back up or do you just go in?
Joe: From the unit or patrol?
Jenifer: Mental health.
Joe: From the mental health unit...we're doubled up in a car so we always have two in a car. Our patrol officers are single-person units. Um, but they always get dispatched two to a call.
Joe: So, they're always, there's always two, unless it's something very unique, like a missing person report. They'll send one officer. But from the mental health side, we always have two. If we're, like if I'm off, and Ernie's by himself, then, yeah, he'll still call another one of the units to come. We do very, very, very little by ourselves. Just because it's been successful that way, you know.
Steve: Here's an odd question for...it's just, it's because of where I work, and stuff. It's just something I was curious about. How does your work.... when you guys go to court is there any thing different than if you were a regular patrol guy?
Ernie: I don't go to court. unless I arrest someone. Mostly I go to civil court. So, our state hospital will hold commitment hearings on individuals that sometimes we have to hospitalize. So, I'll go for commitment hearings. I'll go for compelling medication hearings, uh, probable cause hearings , and work with, mental health court, to determine what's the best outcome for treatment for this individual.
'Cause, obviously, if we're going to court at this point, they're not stable. They're still very ill and need a little bit longer-term treatment, so I may have to go and testify as to my interaction for that individual at the time.
Steve: Do the, do the other officers call you guys to talk? With officer suicides on the rise, do you guys get a lot of calls from the other officers?
Ernie: Yes, to help them deal with a call and for themselves.
Yeah, so, that's my whole role now is I am, I am the wellness and resiliency officer for SAP. And I would say 90 percent of the officers don't even know it exists yet, because it's still very new. Uh, but we're gearing it up for next year when we do an in-service training, every Tuesday, so I'll see the entire department. And it's a big thing that I'm going to be pushing/promoting.
But even right now, without people knowing about it, I've got, like, maybe 10 or 12 officers that are at different stages of just like, "Hey I need a text buddy, to, like, work through some stuff." Or, "Can you get me into therapy?" Or, "I need to go into inpatient." Or, "I accidentally maybe, smoked some weed, and I'm in trouble." All the way to, "I'm drinking 35 beers a day." Like, "I need help."
Um, so there's a wide spectrum of people that I'm helping. But it's gonna get busier and busier, which I'm good with, because I'm hoping to bring on a couple of more, eventually, to where we can have a wellness unit as a branch of the mental health unit which solely focuses on internal mental health department.
Jenifer: What I found interesting was when I was following them, it was interesting to see the shift a little bit, that this program, the mental health unit was really formed to deal with the community at large, but it became pretty evident to them that they were starting to get more and more people coming within the organization.
So, it kind of, it became a two-fold approach, not just for the community, but for themselves. And we mention that in the film, that they're more likely to die at their own hand -- officers, law enforcement -- than, uh, in the line of duty.
Steve: There's been a couple, recently, and it just s rocked everybody, so...
Jenifer: Yeah, yeah, yeah, ...
Steve: If you want business, I'm sure, once everybody sees the film, you're going to get a lot of calls.
Steve: Um, how is, has anybody who you've helped, who's in the film, have they seen the film?
Jenifer: Actually, no. Uh, the woman on the bridge, uh, Kendra, has been offered to watch it, and kind of got cold feet two different times, so I've decided, um, that's OK. You know, maybe she doesn't need to see it right now. She knows she can. I spoke to her counselor, who we see in the film, and said I could always send a private link for her to watch, maybe, with her counselor if she ever wants to.
But you know what? Maybe she doesn't need to see it. Maybe the fact that she shared her story is enough, and, um, but she certainly can, and knows she can, but I think it's a lot. It' a lot for anybody. Forget about your worst, potentially your worst day, to kind of see it on screen. So, she knows about it, but hasn't actually seen it, as far as I know.
And most everybody else, um, is either blurred for privacy reasons.
Steve: I was gonna ask, how, how did that affect what you, what ended up in the movie? What affected what you could show and what you couldn't?
Jenifer: Yeah, if I had any doubt, I blurred. So, you know, if I couldn't find them, or I didn't feel like they were in a position to sign a release. Like, Kendra, I felt understood completely what we were doing, and so, I was fine with using her release, because I felt like she really understood, and want, actually wanted me to, which was kind of surprising.
And when I was first thinking about this film, I was hoping to follow someone, kind of, through treatment, and that, I became obvious, very quickly, that wasn't going to work, because of HIPPA, and it's just, was just too hard to kind of manage that.
Um, so I kept it more on the law enforcement side. But I was always conscious of not to get in the way of their rapport building, because that's basically what they're doing. And, you know, having me front and center with a crew, would just have ruined that. So, I always stayed a very respectful and far distance away.
Steve: When she went out with you, did you tell her that , "You can't film this. You can't..."
Steve: Or you just, uh, she just was...
Jenifer: No, I was just there.
Ernie: Yeah, she was just there. And she's, I mean, she's done this before. I mean, she's a professional, so, you know, we, we were kind of at her beck and call of what, you know, needed to be done, but it never became an issue for us.
Joe: Yeah, I mean, it...She took the lead on it, so if people were like, "What are you doing?" Or, "Why are the cameras here?" She was very good about backing off. Um, if they wouldn't sign releases or wouldn't cooperate, she wouldn't use it.
So, um, no. We didn't dictate any of that. There were maybe a couple of times where, um, 'cause she would always be like in a chase car, and her crew would be crammed in the back of our cage car, which was just hilarious in itself, ...
Jenifer: Because one is over six foot and one is not. It was a very funny visual.
Joe: Yeah, but I would, as the driver, you know, I would always think about, like, "How do you want me to position this so you can get the best shot?" And then sometimes it would just shoot from in the car, across the street, with the window down, and it looks like they're right there with us, but they're in a safe space.
Again, we just, from a safety standpoint, we thought, "Hey, well, we know when, um, this isn't maybe a good one for you to walk into with us. Let's go clear, and then if it's good, we'll bring you in." There was good communication the whole time through.
Jenifer: Yeah, there were a couple of times, actually, where they went in first, and then said it was the time for you to come in like with Diana.
Jenifer: I went on many more calls than I used, because the film can't be four hours long.
Steve: Well, especially if you're shooting for three years.
Steve: Did you guys have input into what, what ended up on screen?
Ernie: None, and, and we had no idea what to expect. And when she said, "Hey, I'm done."
Joe: It was terrifying.
Ernie: "Are you all ready to watch it?" Um, we still had no idea. I, I had no clue...
Jenifer: Yeah, I, I don't know who was more nervous, me or them when I was...
Ernie: She was, yeah. She stood up behind us the whole time.
Jenifer: I did. I was a nervous wreck.
Ernie: And I'm like, "Sit down." And she's like, "Nope. Nope."
Jennifer: [laughs] I couldn't sit down. I couldn't relax...I was...
Joe: She screened it at my house, and Ernie came over, and, she had like a link that we pulled up on the TV, and, she was sitting behind us.
Jenifer: [laughs] And they were like, "Let's do..."
Joe: And she was like, "This is not the final copy," like and, "The color's not right."
Jenifer: It's not color corrected. [laughs]
Joe: And the sound wasn't done yet...
Ernie: Her anxiousness was making me anxious. But it was, it was a bizarre experience, too, seeing yourself for that long on a thing. And like, it was, it was, I mean, it was...It's been a great experience.
But, no. We had no idea what she was gonna include, 'cause there was a lot of things. You know, I mean, there was, like, funny moments that were, I thought, hilarious. And I was like, "That has to make the film."
Joe: Um, what do I know? And then, there were moments where it was like incredibly, um, just vulnerable. Uh, you know, going through the divorce, and like just my house being emptied out. And they, and they got film of me in the house after the wife left with the kids. And like, the rooms were empty, and they didn't use that, which I'm grateful for it, too, because it was, it was rough. You know, so when I didn't see it, I was like, "OK." Um, but if she had used it, I guarantee, knowing Jennifer, it would have like made sense, and it would have tied into something or a point. Um, it's 'cause there's nothing in the film. So, three years, 300 hours of footage, you, you can't create in your mind what this is gonna look like. And so, what her and Toby, and, her team did to make it like actually make sense, and like have a beginning, and an arch, and an end is like bravo.
Joe: You know, I, when my wife, like on the regular, we're like fascinated, like, "Jen is bad ass."
Joe: I mean, she was incredible. I mean just, it's amazing what she was able to do with all the footage she had. There's so many points from it, too, right? Just not about me, not just about Ernie, not just about the SAPD, but about, like, holistic humanity and what is possible between two people. It's amazing.
Jenifer: It was funny that when I first showed, when I first showed it them, they were like, "Come sit." They were on Joe's couch. They were like, "Come sit on the couch." I'm like, "No. Fine, I'm fine here." I was so afraid to watch their faces that they're like, "What."
Steve: Do you always have that reaction when you show somebody the film?
Jenifer: Uh, no, I'm always a little nervous when I show it. Just, I don't know. It's just butterflies. But, when it's the subjects, yes. Like the women... I had a very similar reaction with the women in my last film. They all loved it, and one of them, I had to like get permission to get inside the prison to show it to them and all.
But, yeah. I'm always relieved. I always feel like that's the best praise. Like I want, I want critics to love it. I'd love it to win awards. But if the people in the film feel like I authentically did a good job of telling their story, then, then I feel like I did a good job.
Steve: What do your families think about it?
Ernie: My wife loves it. She knows, that before there was, you know, any media attention, or anything we were, we were grinding this out. My phone would be on all night. I'd have to get up in the middle of the night and go back to work, and she's like, "Wow, all this hard work. You know, it's, it's actually going to be showing what, what you actually do."
And, and so, she's, she is very appreciative of it, 'cause she's been a part of this process from the very beginning.
Joe: Yeah, my, uh, so, my wife now loves it. Again, super fan of Jennifer. Um, my mother, which was...I was most nervous about.
Jennifer: Me, too, actually.
Joe: Yeah, just because of, you know, what's said in there about her. But she...I mean, she was a weeping mess watching it, because I think she was proud, and also like, "Ah, shit, I really messed that up."
And I think she had this, you know, roller coaster of emotions, but, um, really, really appreciative of it. And she's actually coming down on Sunday, 'cause we live like four hours north of here, and so she's gonna come down on Sunday just to hang out. But she loves it.
My sister is like also obsessed with it. Um, one of my kids has seen it, and, you know, he's 11, or 12, so he's just like, "Yeah, cool, Dad." So, you can't impress kids, but...
Ernie: ...you know. Um, yeah, so I'm excited for, uh, my daughter, who's 20 now, I'm, I'm excited for her to see it, because she hasn't seen it yet.
Joe: Gosh, she's 20 now?
Jenifer: Wow, that's awesome.
Steve: Do you guys sleep?
Ernie: I sleep a lot better now. Yeah, it was there in the film, and, and, because, again, I was working six days a week, uh, doubles on Friday. 'Cause we were, we were doing five eights back then. And so, I was working Monday through Friday, 8 AM to 4 PM, and then I would go to work Friday night 10 PM to 6 AM, and then I would work Saturday night, 10 PM to 6 AM, have off Sunday. And so sleep was terrible. Um, but now, we're on four tens, so I work Monday through Thursday. I'm off Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and I don't do any side jobs. So, I don't do any overtime with the department. So, I really enjoy my three days off now. And I try and leave work early, as early as possible every day.
Joe: It must be nice. I'm still working the overtime, but just not the overnights. You know, I've picked up overtime on Saturdays and Mondays working mental health, so.
Steve: Do you still answer the phone, like, every time it rings at night, or can you sleep through the night?
Joe: So now we actually have an on call schedule.
Jenifer: Ah, I didn't realize you did that.
Joe: ...it, it rotates now that the unit's big enough. You're told when you're going to be on call. You don't really have a choice.
Ernie: So, he got shammed with the Thanksgiving.
Jenifer: [sympathetically] Oh. Oh, great.
Joe: So, coming up...so that'll be fun.
Jenifer: When a whole lot of families who don't get along are together.
Ernie: I had it two weeks ago, and, um, I had it right when the "Joker" came out, so we got called out several times for possible school shooters. You know, someone had seen the film. So, as soon as I would lay down, the phone would go off, and, "We have a potential school shooter. Come on in." And it was always, "I saw the Joker, and I'm tired of getting bullied at school." "OK." So, um, it rotates. About every three weeks to a month, you get put on call for a week.
Joe: Yeah. No, sleep quality is not there. I s-, I'm in bed a lot. But, yeah, I, but that's just a life thing...
Steve: How long have you guys been partners?
Ernie: I think since...
Ernie: ...2013 or '14.
Joe: Yeah, s-, six years, maybe.
Steve: And you guys knew each other before that, or that was just...?
Ernie: Nah, I had no clue this guy even existed. You know, he just pops up one day in the parking lot. I'm like, who is this guy, man?
Joe: Yeah, I didn't...I mean, I knew him from when I went through the CIT training as one of the instructors, but that was it. So, and then when I came on the unit I still didn't know him because he was partners with another guy. We were on the same unit, but we didn't really work together.
And then when we finally convinced them to start a daylight team, 'cause we were all overnight, and we finally convinced them to,'cause we were doing so many meetings and outreach stuff with the community. And we said, "Hey, we need to have a daylight team."
And his partner didn't want to do it, and my partner didn't want to do it. So, I was like, "I want to do it." Like, "I would love to go to daylight." And he's like, "I'll go." And then that's when we became partners.
Jenifer: And when I met them, they were like naturally just... They kind of...
Ernie: ...loved and hated each other.
Steve: Yeah, 'cause it's like, even watching you in the movie, just even watching you here, it's just, it's like, oh yeah, you've been together for years and years, and years...there's a rapport there...that is way beyond five years.
Jenifer: Well, it's all that time. I think it's all about time. There's...that's a lot of time side by side that most people...
Ernie: In a car.
Jenifer: ...in a car that most people...And I really wanted to bring that out in the film. I wanted it to be about, kind of friendship as well as well . Because I think that's important in our lives.
Joe: Yeah, and even at the end of the day, our day didn't end together. Usually, it's like, "Hey, where are you going to go for dinner?" Um, "Hey, if you haul ass, I'll meet you at the golf course." You know? So, there were times that we were together and, and working extra jobs. We carpooled together to work, work in the same car at work, carpool home from work. And then on Fridays, we would go work overtime in uniform at the same place. And we would be in separate cars, but making all the same calls.
Ernie: And following each other around.
Joe: So, I mean it was just, it was obsessive.
Jennifer: So, it was a natural...The title was obvious to me. [laughs]
Jenifer: Yeah, that's something that did make the film, the most hilarious golf game you've ever seen in your life.
Ernie: Oh my God.
Steve: But it is going on the DVD as an extra?
Jenifer: It should. I was gonna say I need to talk to them...
Steve: Or as an on line "HBO Extra"
Jenifer . I mean, I've already talked to them about that, absolutely hysterical. I mean, we were, I don't golf, and we were howling, like...
Steve: So, so, who's a better golfer?
Ernie: I'll, I'll go ahead and give him this one.
Joe ... he does beat me at times, but just, overall, I probably have a better score more consistently. I've played longer and, uh, I've played more. Uh, he quits like every couple years for a couple years...
Joe ...and I never quit. So, I just, I play year-round as much as I possibly can. Um, and he'll be like have a bad game or three in a row, and he's like, "I'm done with this game. I'm wasting my time, my money...
Jenifer: My husband's like that, too. [laughs]
Joe: I'm like, "See you in three years."
Jenifer: Yeah. [laughs] With there, and there was also a subtext. There's a little bit of a subtext about food. Um, because that, you know, that's the markers of their day, like lunch.
And so far, while we were filming, part of it as when we were filming, Ernie was vegan, and so then we had a lot of great vegan stuff. And it just didn't get in the film, so...
Steve: What's the best place you guys eat, regularly? Just out of curiosity...
Joe: Well, some, just, just fun fact. So, one of the things we did, because we're together so much, we said we got a composite journal. And every page was a letter of the alphabet. And every day, we wrote down a lunch spot restaurant, but we could never repeat in a year...except for Jimmy John's.
Ernie: We let the app pick it. We just hit a app button. And it would tell us where to go.
Joe: It was food roulette...
Jenifer: Oh my God. How is that not in the film? [laughs]
Joe: We found some great spots that way.
Joe: But the only place we could repeat was Jimmy John's, just because it was freaky fast. And so, if we were in a hurry, we'd go pick up a sandwich and, and eat it, but everything else, we never would eat it for a whole year.
Jenifer: Oh my God. That would have been awesome in the film.
Joe: Yeah, I mean, we found this, uh, one, uh, Mexican place, called Cascabel which is like authentic, authentic, like hole in the wall...good.in someone's house, but it's amazing. food.
Ernie: They serve cactus.
Steve: You think you could like do that for like two years?
Ernie: Hell, yeah.
Ernie: Let it roll. Are you challenging us? Steve, come on now.
Jenifer: I know. That would be fun to do in this city.
Ernie: Oh, I would love to do it here...
Jenifer: I'd to get them up to Arthur Avenue, but there's not time. You know, the Italian district up in the Bronx, it's like walking back, 1950s.
Ernie: Oh yeah. I'd love to do that.
Jenifer: It's like a bread shop, a cheese shop, a sausage shop.
Steve: ...go to some good spaces around Little Italy, actually some of the better places...
Ernie: Ah, man.
Steve: ...are outside of Little Italy.
Jenifer: Yeah, exactly. You got to come back and just do food, when we don't have to film.
Ernie: Oh, I would love, I would love to do that.
Steve: You probably could do some of the walking...
Jenifer: Walking tours, yeah. The Tenement Museum does a great food walking tour.
ERNIE AND JOE: CRISIS COPS is now on HBO and it's family of networks and streaming services