With a population of over eight million people, New York City also boasts the biggest police force in the country. Over 36,000 men and women wield badges in the city, and though crime has gone down overall, the most impoverished communities with the highest minority populations and crime rates continually feel the weight and pressure of the police on their backs.
In Crime + Punishment, director Stephen Maing tries to get to the root of the issue by going straight to the source. The film follows twelve minority police officers who have been reprimanded for not fulfilling quotas (obtaining a certain number of summonses and arrests each month) that further disenfranchise people of color. Quotas and mandates like these were supposedly outlawed by the NYPD back in 2010. Maing opens the film in 2014 and follows these officers who have been coined the "NYPD 12" through 2017. What the police reveal and what Maing discovers should enrage us all.
To compile evidence against the police department, the NYPD 12 use hidden cameras and recording devices in their various precincts from The Bronx to Brooklyn to prove that quotas are still very much in use. As a collective, they decide to file a lawsuit against the NYPD for discriminatory practices. The bottom line is this, $900 million dollars of NYC’s budget comes directly from the police force. Since those dollars are made on the backs of brown bodies, the money is generated by whatever means necessary.
Examining all angles, Maing leaves no stone unturned. Along with the police officers who have chosen to risk everything but speaking out, he follows the young Black and Latino men who are constantly harassed and arrested. We're also introduced to private investigator Manny Gomez, a former cop with a massive personality who is determined to be an advocate for the young people who are continually swept up into the broken judicial system.
One of Gomez’s clients is 17-year-old Pedro Hernandez and his devastated mother, Jessica Perez. Hernandez was falsely arrested for attempted murder and imprisoned on Riker’s Island—it was a scenario that rang eerily close to the tragic story of Kalief Browder. Using these various threads, Maing unravels the racism and impropriety in the police force and court system, laying it all out in the open.
Though I wasn’t surprised, the racism in the police department is unnerving. One of the NYPD 12, Edwin Raymond, a young Black man scored in the top tier percentile on his sergeant’s exam, and yet, he’s continually denied a promotion. On tape, he gets his Sergeant to admit that his failure to meet quotas, as well as his appearance, ( being Black with long dreadlocks) has made him unfit to rise through the ranks. Threats and low-level assignments at the workplace are only the beginning of the NYPD 12’s worries. More than one of them begin to feel the stresses of the job manifest in their overall health and well-being.
Crime + Punishment doesn’t put police corruption on the map, but it does fill in the gaps, mapping out the gang culture of police departments around this country. It also looks inward towards the police themselves to try and figure out how to change and shift things. It’s unclear at this point if an entire system can be overhauled and corrected -- it certainly won't happen overnight. However, what Crime + Punishment does reveal is that when you begin to view people as numbers and quotes to be filled, everyone involved becomes monstrous. That in itself is a massive reason why our police departments continue to fail us. There is also a massive lack of trust. Though the NYPD 12 chose to speak out, the fact of the matter is, they are still very much seen as the enemy in minority communities.
We’ve grieved for Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Mike Brown and countless others and yet, police departments across the country, in spite of investigations and overhauls, have made little to no changes. Maing doesn’t seek to offer any solutions; instead, he does something that we often fail to do in our embattled society, he gives these particular officers and the people that they police their humanity back.
Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival, Jan. 20, 2018.
Aramide A Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her Master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami