In many respects, police forces operate in the same way as any criminal gang. They’re a social group with fierce internal codes, both formal and informal, for behavior and loyalty. They enjoy unique privileges and power because the rest of the community fears what the group can do to them.
The difference between the police and a gang is supposed to be that the police are public servants. They don’t operate for their own interests; they subsume themselves to the interests of the community. But in the last few years, America has realized this last crucial distinction often falls apart in practice.
Now we can add the new Hulu documentary Crime + Punishment to the growing mound of evidence.
The film’s subject is the “quota” system among New York City police precincts. Officers are pressured by supervisors to make a certain number of arrests on a regular basis. This leads to all kinds of damage: Random people, overwhelmingly young men of color, are rounded up on specious and often trumped up charges. Even when their charges are dismissed, they must still contend with paperwork, stress, court dates, and fees, their lives and families upended. Community trust is destroyed, as the police come to be seen as a harassing occupier, and morale among the officers themselves curdles into cynicism.
Quotas have been officially illegal in New York since 2010. But through a series of interviews and secret recordings, filmmaker Stephen Maing and his crew build a solid case that an informal quota system remains rampant. This is not just a matter of a few bad apple supervisors; rather, the pressure appears appears to be coming down from top city officials.
Maing’s primary subjects are the “NYPD 12,” a dozen officers, all men and women of color, who sued the city in 2016 to end the quotas. Their stories are windows into the isolation and human costs of being a whistleblower. Officer Edwin Raymond is left in limbo, denied promotion, and bluntly told that his superiors don’t like him because he’s an outspoken black man with dreadlocks. Officer Felicia Whitely is denied overtime, and saddled with an ad hoc schedule that makes it impossible to care for her daughters. Officer Sandy Gonzalez gets relegated to foot patrol in freezing weather, and then told by fellow cops that he’s violating uniform regulations because it’s not quite cold enough to justify a wool cap. Many of these officers are working class themselves, meaning the retaliation is a threat to their livelihoods as well as to their social and psychological well-being.
Maing also widens his lens to include private detective Manuel Gomez, a former cop himself. The documentary informs us that between 2007 and 2015, around 900,000 arrests were dismissed for lack of probable cause. Gomez is building his own case against the quota system by amassing evidence of that sheer volume. Crucially, even when arrests are dismissed, people still have to pay fees as they move through the process. The quotas are essentially a giant shakedown of New York’s poor and minority communities, contributing tens of millions to the city budget. “New York City is Ferguson on steroids,” as Raymond observes at one point.
Finally, Maing also follows Pedro Gomez, one of the victims sucked into the penal system by the quotas. We watch Pedro’s mother navigate worry, fear, grief, and byzantine legalities, while Gomez doggedly interviews locals from Pedro’s neighborhood to show he had nothing to do with the shooting of which he was accused. Crime + Punishment also notes the death of Eric Garner as collateral damage of the harassment the quotas incentivize.
Maing’s editing and cinematography are high quality, but also workmanlike. He avoids flash, trusting the power of his subject matter – the cops, the detective, and the victim – to carry his narrative. His use of hidden cameras and audio recorders, and his subjects’ willingness to go along, uncovers especially damning dialogue.
The film’s tone is angry, yes, but also shot through with sadness and exhaustion. Rather than a grand shadowy conspiracy, Crime + Punishment documents the far more banal mechanisms of real world power: blind obedience to authority, institutional cultures of indifference, and a thousand petty humiliations handed out to anyone on the inside who questions the way things are done. Former New York police commissioner William Bratton, on whose doorstep the film lays much of the blame, comes off as oily and banal. Isolated within their departments, the officers turn to one another for support, along with the smattering of activists groups and lawyers who are helping their lawsuit along. These encounters provide the flashes of energy and hope that break through the grind.
Ultimately, the film is a testament rather than an unveiling. The NYPD 12’s lawsuit would’ve happened regardless, and despite some disappointing setbacks, it’s ongoing. Bratton has resigned and at least some minor changes have occurred. But as Raymond observes, the only thing that can ultimately protect the whistleblowers and their cause is public awareness. New York City’s higher ups are just waiting for the day when the story fades from public consciousness, and they can push the officers out completely while no one is watching.
Crime + Punishment is one more piece of the effort to prevent that day from ever arriving.