Film Review: Crime + Punishment

Documentary offers a well-intentioned but disjointed chronicle of the whistleblowers known as the NYPD 12.
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At nearly 36,000 strong, the New York Police Department is the nation’s largest police force and a powerful weapon in the prevention of crime and the protection of citizens and property. But accounts abound of that weapon being used improperly against innocent citizens, particularly from communities who feel unfairly targeted by the NYPD. In the enlightening, but somewhat diffuse, documentary Crime + Punishment, it’s members of the police force themselves who are speaking up about these abuses of power, and about how their attempts to right the ship resulted in their own harassment, ostracism and punishment by their department supervisors.

The film—directed, shot and co-edited by Stephen Maing—presents the case of the NYPD 12, a dozen officers, all black or Latino, who signed onto a lawsuit against the department alleging they were penalized by superiors for not fulfilling a prescribed monthly quota of arrests and/or summonses. Of course, as the film reports, the department officially banned quotas in 2010. As the film also reports, apparently 900,000 arrests and summons issued since then were later dismissed.

In other words, thousands of those who were arrested or issued a summons for breaking the law, who now have a criminal record, who were jailed or otherwise detained, may have been doing nothing wrong. But, as shown in the film, they fell victim to a practice that the department uses, allegedly, to beef up revenues for the city and make the NYPD appear to be more effective in their primary mission to “protect citizens from crime.” Crime + Punishment points out another statistic in this rubric—that blacks and Latinos are arrested and summonsed in NYC at a rate five times greater than whites—to illustrate how inordinately minority communities suffer the blows of cops determined to tally up arrests.

In the words of one officer among the NYPD 12, Edwin Raymond, “Law enforcement uses black bodies to generate revenue.” It’s a game of catch-and-release bent towards ensnaring minority males in any charges that might stick, regardless of what damage a baseless criminal record might cause to a young life. As an example, the film offers one young Latino man in the Bronx who’s been arrested six or seven times, and each time all charges were dismissed. So, why was he arrested over and over? Perhaps just to fulfill some precinct’s quota of arrests that month.

The numbers are compelling, and so are the personal stories of Raymond and his comrades of the 12 who objected to being sent out on patrol expressly for the purpose of finding any minute cause to bring down the hammer on whomever they could hit. Maing’s access to the 12 is impressive, as are his methods of capturing their individual journeys, including collaborating with a few of them to secretly record their supervisors advising, imploring or threatening them to increase their arrest and summons numbers.

However, there’s a sense, as the film moves lackadaisically among secret recordings, first-person interviews, patrol ride-alongs and needlessly protracted aerial establishing shots of the city, that Maing might have had so much swell material on hand that cutting a concise, urgent telling of this tale proved to be too difficult. The movie twists and turns in several directions at once, diluting the urgency as it jumps between Raymond, his fellow whistleblowers, and Manny Gomez, an ex-NYPD officer, now a private detective, determined to expose the fact that the department still demands quotas, even though they’re essentially illegal.

Gomez’s pursuit of justice for a jailed client adds procedural suspense that’s lacking elsewhere in the storytelling. His investigation alone might easily have formed the spine of a more focused rendering of this important story. In fact, Officer Raymond’s resistance, or that of Felicia Whitely, the only female member of the 12, also might have made for a more purposeful standalone episode. Instead, the film feels overstuffed and yet under-prosecuted in the case it’s making on behalf of the 12. The whistleblowers of the NYPD 12 definitelydeserve acomprehensive chronicle of their struggle for justice, as their struggle affects so many. Crime + Punishment speaks well on their behalf, but not emphatically enough to close the case.