A documentary feature about such matters as a police department’s arrest quotas or statistical goals — and the systemic problems they spawn — might feel redundant in this post-Black Lives Matter world. But filmmaker Stephen Maing has successfully found a new and engaging vantage point in his new documentary Crime + Punishment, which follows the story of the “NYPD 12.”
“The public thinks they know and understand what’s happening with police tensions in this nation. And yet here was an opportunity to do something that hadn’t been done before–introduce a voice that had never been heard,” says Maing.
Crime + Punishment takes viewers back to 2014, at a time when tensions over high-profile police killings were reaching a peak. The film follows twelve New York City active duty police officers as they attempt to bring a class action lawsuit against their own bosses. In that suit, the officers alleged that their superiors had put pressure on them to make arrests according to an unlawful quote system, and had meted out retaliatory punishments when those officers refused.
So at the same time that an overabundance of videos depicting police violence against black and brown bodies were cropping up and going viral across the internet, these twelve officers of color were banding together in an effort to reform policing in New York, and beyond.
While the state of New York officially outlawed quota-based policing in 2010, by 2014 it had become abundantly clear that the unproductive practice, whether unofficial or not, was still very much a part of police culture and practices.
“In 2014 everyone thought everything was going to change. It was supposed to be a big reform year. And then the cell phone recorded videos started coming out depicting these terrible things and it became clear that was not the case,” says Maing.
The true success of Maing’s film is the way it provides viewers with a total picture of the domino effect that mandatory arrest quotas can have. Early on in the film we are introduced to private investigator Manny Gomez, a former police officer, who investigates potentially falsified arrests. Over the course of the film Gomez works tirelessly to help clear the name of Pedro Hernandez, a teen from the Bronx who was arrested and sent to Rikers Island on charges of attempted murder — despite a staggering amount of exculpatory evidence.
Hernandez, like many people of color living in New York City, was the frequent target of police arrests. Most of the time, in typical fashion, the charges against Hernandez would end up getting thrown out. It’s a cycle that many viewers won’t find very surprising. The real magic of Maing’s film is in the startlingly way he humanizes the police caught up in the “NYPD 12” suit.
In Maing’s film, the NYPD 12 are depicted as simultaneously policing their own communities while being policed themselves. We witness the sleepless nights, the health concerns from the high tension — one cop went into preterm labor at five months pregnant because of the stress — reduced morale, and mounting fears as the retaliation to which they are subjected to increases. Throughout it all, none of them waver in their demand for justice.
“Working with [the NYPD 12] was harrowing, inspiring, and an honor, and maybe one of the greatest experiences of my life,” says Maing.
This film, though done without the consent of the NYPD, is not anti-police. Neither is the NYPD 12’s class action suit. That’s something Maing hopes that his film will convey.
“This is not an antagonistic, anti-police film. This is not born out of the most extreme platforms of the police reform movement. This is actually a narrative about active duty cops who believe that the mission of policing could be more noble. That they could actually have an impact on communities if they were allowed to do the work that they believed they would be doing when they joined the force,” Maing says.
“That’s a really profound thought,” he adds, “that cops could be doing something much different than what they are asked to do. That could have a great impact on people’s lives but also restore so much respect to the uniform.”
Crime + Punishment isn’t seeking to disparage the police. Rather, it is confronting the institutions within policing that are refusing to change and adapt.
“Right now in NY there has been a lot of acknowledgement of some of the problems but not an acknowledgement of the fundamental structures that are in place preventing real change in policing,” says Maing.
Viewers, Maing insist, will see this in his movie. That said, Maing knows that a mere acknowledgement of these institutional dilemmas only goes so far.
“Powerful institutions will go as far as even acknowledging some of the deepest and most sensitive aspects of issues that are plaguing citizens in communities, and that’s a very tricky terrain. The acknowledgement [without real action] feels satisfactory,” says Maing.
For instance, while the NYPD is adamant they do not mandate numerical goals, they do not have an independent investigative body that ensures this practice is followed — something that could have assisted in the case of Pedro Hernandez.
“It’s not sanctioned by the department. A story like this, that is of very urgent public interest, we had to do this at all costs,” says Maing.
By the end of the film neither the NYPD 12’s lawsuit nor the various stains it has left on policing culture can be said to be resolved — it’s perhaps too much to ask for matters this consequential to be wrapped up so tidily. Nevertheless, the movie shines an important light on an issue in the hopes that it may enable a just resolution.
Crime + Punishment is available to stream on Hulu now.