We’re not short on events and bulletins worth getting pissed over in 2018, but let’s not use that as an excuse to exclude further events and bulletins from pissing us off, too. Take documentary filmmaker Stephen Maing’s latest feature, “Crime + Punishment,” an up-close and confrontational exposé of bureaucratic corruption in the New York City Police Department; you probably don’t need reminding of America’s problem with law enforcement overstepping the bounds of their authority, but Maing reminds you anyways because frankly, you can never have too many reminders that police in the U.S. habitually exceed the limits of the laws they’re meant to uphold. You should, however, try out a few yoga breathing exercises before watching.
“Crime + Punishment” begins broadly as a story about lies and distortions, establishing from the start that “quotas for arrests and summonses have been banned in New York since 2010.” That’s not the distorted part. That’s the truth. The distortion enters via Sandy Gonzales, an officer in the NYPD who tells Maing in a phone conversation that his superiors are retaliating against him for failing to meet arrest quotas they’re not even legally allowed to impose. Maing’s call with Gonzales breaks the seal on policing tactics that shouldn’t even exist, that we shouldn’t even need to talk about in the first place, and yet here we are, staring down the barrel of observable proof of police wrongdoing.
Only a minute and change into the movie, Gonzales is already figuratively throwing his hands in the air. “I don’t know. To hell with this,” he tells Maing. It’s a wonder that we’re able to hang on for the remaining hour and fifty minutes, because there’s enough flimflam and skullduggery caught on camera here, hidden or otherwise, to induce skyrocketing blood pressure in even mild mannered moviegoers. “Crime + Punishment” starts with Gonzales and expands its perspective to include a host of people fighting against NYPD trespasses against civil rights: Manuel Gomez, an ex-soldier, ex-cop turned private investigator who spends most of his arc in the movie trying to free Pedro Hernandez, a young man wrongly convicted to fulfill an arrest quota, from prison; Jessica Perez, Pedro’s mother; Edwin Raymond, a young black officer on the force who repeatedly tries for a promotion and is repeatedly denied (on account of his low numbers and, surprise surprise, his race); and Felicia Whitely, another officer, newly single and raising her daughters on her own while buckling under the pressure of her job.
Raymond, Whitely, and Gonzales comprise a quarter of the NYPD 12, a group of minority officers in the NYPD who sued both the city and the department in 2016 over these forced racial quotas. Other members of the group — Adhyl Polanco, Pedro Serrano, Derick Waller, Ritchie Baez, Julio Diaz, and Kareem Abdullah — appear in the film as well, but Maing’s focus settles primarily on the first three along with Abdullah. We’re given greater access to their lives, to Raymond’s struggles to rise in the ranks and his eventual transformation into the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, to Whitely’s attempts at balancing parenthood with her career as the case progresses, to Gonzales’ health woes after being singled out by a commanding officer in front of his peers. You half expect Gonzales’ heart to explode at any given moment he’s on screen. (It’s miraculous that it doesn’t, given what he and his fellow 12 are put through over the course of the movie.)
Maing uses the hyperspecificity of his narrative anchors to touch on broader subjects couched within the documentary’s overarching framework. The film transitions from protest scenes where minority activists censure minority officers keeping the peace for serving in the NYPD, to scenes of the 12 talking in private about Eric Garner, who died in 2014 after being approached by a plainclothes officer and ending up in a fatal chokehold. “Crime + Punishment” could have invoked Garner’s killing without connecting the dots to quotas, but then again there’s power in hearing the link articulated aloud; civilian casualties are ultimate consequence of enforced quotas. Putting innocent people in jail just to keep up numbers is bad enough. Putting them in the ground is infinitely worse, especially when there’s no accountability for their deaths.
“Crime + Punishment” gives ex-NYPD commissioner William Bratton a platform to defend his policies, but the platform looks an awful lot like a gallows with enough rope to hang him. The film isn’t biased. It lets Bratton speak his piece. It’s just that Bratton’s piece involves dismissing claims about quotas as “bullshit” despite evidence to the contrary. “Crime + Punishment” isn’t the kind of movie you watch without getting angry, but it’s moments like these that are most infuriating, moments where authority’s blatant disregard for concerns about propriety and public welfare are impossible to ignore; the buttressing corroborative details littered throughout the movie, as captured on hidden cameras by Maing’s collaborators, cast the NYPD’s misconduct into harsh light. There’s no room to deny the iniquities.
Incidentally, that’s what makes “Crime + Punishment” such an upsetting experience. Maing shot the film over the course of several years, and in 2018 we’re burdened by knowledge that things are indeed as bad now as they were back in 2014. The film concludes with a series of happy-ish endings — Pedro, for instance, is freed, and Raymond finally earns his promotion — but we know too well that the gross injustices Maing so successfully snares persist. His conclusion, a series of overhead shots of New York lit up by flashing cop cars and solemnly watched over by precinct stations, is very nearly debilitating by consequence. “Crime + Punishment” is peppered with cityscape images, of course. They feel like a love letter to New York wrapped up in the film’s driving purpose. But the longer Maing lets these pictures linger, the more they suggest prayers hanging over the streets. In that sense, “Crime + Punishment” isn’t without hope, but it anchors that hope to the unflattering realities of American policing. [B+]