LANSING, Mich. (WLNS)– Each year, 2 million people with a mental illness are booked into jails, according to NAMI. For many citizens, a jail or hospital is the only option when there’s a mental health crisis, but law enforcement can help divert people from going to jail and instead into recovery faciltiies.


In San Antonio, Texas two officers became nationally known, for their work in the police department’s mental health unit. Their work eventually featured in an HBO documentary “Ernie and Joe: Crisis Cops”. The mental health unit at SAPD was first created back in 2008.

Ernie Stevens and Joe Smarro

Ernie Stevens and Joe Smarro believe getting someone the help they need is not only cost-efficient for the community, but the best outcome for the person struggling.

“If somebody has committed a misdemeanor offense, nonviolence offense and it’s a mental health crisis, why are we putting people in jail for their illness,” said Stevens. “To put them in jail, just to go through the booking process, of getting fingerprinted, magistrate, searched, put in a cell, that right there is about $3,500 here in San Antonio, to divert them away from jail and into treatment was $350.”

According to a five study from the Center for Health Care Services in San Antonio, diverting people away from jail and into treatment centers, saved $50 million for San Antonio.

“It’s just a better way to respond to the community as well,” said Stevens.

The documentary highlights that on average in a police academy in the United States, officers spend 60 hours or more learning how to shoot a gun and spend eight on mental health and communication.

“Every single year, an officer is going to encounter someone in a mental health crisis, so why aren’t we training them and better preparing them for what they’re doing to deal with more often, I understand that we have to prepare for our worst day that could happen but the reality of this job is were going to be doing citizen encounters every day and with people that are in an emotional crisis,” said Stevens.

So what’s the key to keeping someone from returning to jail or a hospital when they’re having a behavioral crisis? Stevens says follow-up. Making sure they have housing, food and essentials they need to survive. In the documentary, you see Stevens and Smarro do continuous follow-ups with those they’ve helped.


As for medical treatment, taking someone to the emergency room isn’t the best option either.

“I don’ think it should be put on a hospital system because it’s not the right system, that is an emergency room and that is to deal with emergencies move it in and out as fast as possible, you do that with mental health and you’re just going to create a worsening situation,” said Dr. Joel Robertson, the CEO of Robertson Health.

Robertson says mental illness comes down to brain chemistry and explains it as the “cards you’ve been dealt.”

“National Institute of Health says your genetics, your adverse childhood, and experiences and your environment will drive those certain moods, diseases, and behaviors. The environment is often the least significant in most mental health cases, it’s just the cards you’ve been dealt,” said Robertson.

In Lansing, Police Chief Daryl Green has also been outspoken on the issue of policing and mental health, saying his department is working on de-escalation techniques and crisis intervention.

Get Help

If you or someone you know is struggling, you can get mental health assistance by clicking here.

The number for the National for National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a national network of local crisis centers that provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They’re committed to improving crisis services and advancing suicide prevention by empowering individuals, advancing professional best practices, and building awareness.

Stevens encourages the public to educate themselves about mental health and learn more about what’s going on in their community with it.

You can also find help by clicking here.