“New York City is Ferguson on steroids,” says NYPD officer Edwin Raymond in the final third of Stephen Maing’s documentary Crime + Punishment. “This is where it started,” the man continues. Raymond’s sober, concise observation about the breadth of systemic racism is a useful reminder that police bias against racial minorities persists in cities known for their liberalism and diversity. It also serves to underline that the drama at the center of the film, an exposé of a specific controversy unfolding in New York City’s police department, is part of a larger story playing out across the United States, in which cops routinely and unjustly victimize minority communities.
Raymond is a member of the NYPD 12, a whistleblower group that in 2016 came forward to expose pervasive racial bias and unlawful arrests and summons quotas within the NYPD. Maing’s film, which started shooting two years before the 12 officers began their legal fight, offers a bounty of evidence that the NYPD continued imposing quotas well after a 2010 law prohibiting the practice. Hidden cameras and mics, along with detailed testimony from nine of the 12 whistleblowers, help Maing and his crew to assemble the seemingly irrefutable case that police departments routinely target Latino and black communities in order to inflate arrest numbers, and that they retaliate against officers who insist on obeying both the law and their conscience.
Crime + Punishment is a detailed look of the mechanisms of what Raymond refers to as “colorblind racism,” a vivid illustration of how racism is perpetrated through the structure of nominally egalitarian institutions. Its argument is presented not only through the testimony of its subjects, but also through the rhetoric of its images, which remind us without commentary that “broken windows” policing costs lives, as in the case of Eric Garner, and that valuing communities over numbers might well save lives, as in the scene that Maing captures of NYPD 12 member Derick Waller deescalating a conflict at a bodega. Implicitly, the film also touches on the way that the diversity of contemporary police forces acts as a cover for racist practices: Its opening sequence, captured at the 2014 Police Academy graduation, highlights the number of nonwhite faces listening attentively as Commissioner William Bratton, a white man, delivers a lecture on “reclaiming our streets.”
For all its judicious presentation of evidence, Crime + Punishment isn’t a cold piece of investigative journalism. It also discovers in its subjects a charismatic cast of characters. Particularly memorable is Manny Gomez, a crusading private detective who embodies a familiar archetype out of film noir: the hard-nosed detective with a heart of gold. The film emphasizes Gomez’s unassuming decency, following him onto the streets as he gives Latino teens legal advice, into his apartment as he irons his shirts while conferring with a jailed client over the phone, and into his favorite bakery as he treats the filmmakers to what he claims is the best pastry in New York.
Through Gomez, the film introduces us to Pedro Hernandez, a 17-year-old awaiting trial for attempted murder, a charge for which the prosecution has virtually no evidence except Hernandez’s record of dismissed arrests. Hernandez’s story is the vital flipside to that of the NYPD 12. Cops braving the stress of professional ostracization is one thing, but the real stakes of police abuse are the time and opportunities it steals from the oppressed. In conjoining Hernandez’s plight with that of the 12 officers, the film begs the question: How can we prevent policing that destroys lives when the much-ballyhooed “good cops” are consistently punished for speaking up? Crime + Punishment is an incisive interrogation of an entire system, one that’s lost none of its urgency in the time since the death of Eric Garner.