Rise, Resist

Lauren O’Neill-Butler on Stephen Maing’s Crime + Punishment (2018)

Stephen Maing, Crime + Punishment, 2018, color, sound, 112 minutes.

DIRECTOR STEPHEN MAING might just be the next Laura Poitras. Poitras produced his previous short film, The Surrender (2015), on State Department intelligence analyst Stephen Kim’s prosecution under the Espionage Act, and she is the executive producer of his latest inflammatory feature, Crime + Punishment, an account of racist policing in New York and its ripple effects in Ferguson and beyond. The film focuses on two intertwined stories: the NYPD 12, a group of Latinx and black cops who stood up against racial profiling and filed a class-action lawsuit against the city, and a private investigator named Manuel Gomez working to free an innocent teenager who had been held for more than a year on Rikers Island after being profiled.

Like Poitras (and Foucault, though he’s much more pessimistic), Maing is an expansive, systems and structures thinker. The big question here is: What does it mean to be a public servant and an active citizen pursuing political agency? Also like Poitras, Maing speaks directly to the whistle-blowers and remains on call for them, which we see from the beginning of the film. It opens in 2014, against a sweeping nightscape shot of downtown Manhattan. A voice is heard. It is Sandy Gonzalez, one of the NYPD 12, telling Maing over the phone that he’s experiencing retaliation for not meeting his quotas, not enough arrests. Moments later, Maing presents shaky footage of Gonzalez working foot patrol in the middle of the winter and being written up by a superior simply for wearing a hat.

The unsurprising, cruel fact that drives the film is that despite the ban on quota-based policing in 2010, the practice continues under different names (“performance objectives”) and continues to target poor and disadvantaged communities of color for “collars,” or arrests on low-level charges usually dismissed in court. Between 2007 and 2015, there were nine hundred thousand such cases in New York. The increase in these cases is due, in part, to the decline of stop-and-frisk tactics. When numbers began tapering off around 2013, after a famous trial, it wasn’t exactly true that the NYPD was reforming. Rather, as Maing noted in a recent interview: “In fact, what cops were seeing, what the community was feeling, was that those productivity goals—the ‘quota’—were being diverted elsewhere. The pressure was still being put on the community in the form of vehicular stops and other warrantless search situations, truancy even. The school safety officers saw an uptick in activity. It had morphed. It had not changed substantively. That was the impetus for these officers to want to share their stories, to go all in, essentially.”

But watching Gonzalez and others join the NYPD 12 provides only fleeting moments of pleasure. The film concentrates on their disheartening accounts of retribution, as displayed in the furtive recording Edwin Raymond plays of his supervisor commenting on his dreadlocks and his overall appearance as the reason he’s not being promoted. (He eventually was, after a New York Times Magazine cover story exposing the truth about quotas.) Later in the film, Raymond nails it when speaking about the de Blasio administration: “What’s the point of things like affordable housing, universal pre-K, if in twelve years that four-year-old will be swept up into a quota system?”

The aforementioned incarcerated teenager, Pedro Hernandez, is a case in point. Held in pretrial detention for assault with a bail set at $250,000, he was ultimately cleared of all charges last September, thanks, in part, to Gomez, who we see combing the streets for possible witnesses for Hernandez’s case. At times, Crime + Punishment veers toward stylish crime drama. There’s really no need to have the camera follow Gomez around the Bronx in his corvette. But renegade vigilante he’s not: After Gomez leaves Hernandez’s trial, he’s off to help another disadvantaged kid.

While the NYPD 12’s lawsuit was partially and shamefully dismissed, it led to another class-action lawsuit about quotas that was extremely effective, with a $75 million settlement last year. The police department has also begun a “no quota” training for officers, even as it maintains there were no quotas to begin with (go figure). In the wake of the film’s release, Maing said that while many of the still-working officers of the NYPD 12 have continued to experience “some form of retaliation on the job,” he also noted that they’ve spoken of moments where their colleagues have “quietly come up to them in the locker room, or off the job, expressing great gratitude and support and well wishes that this can actually shift things for all of them.”

A sense of collegial union, which might be the only way forward if it leads to coalition building, brings to mind The Collapse of American Criminal Justice (2011) by legal scholar William J. Stuntz, another systems thinker. He offers some illumination in these darks times by looking, somewhat romantically, back to northern American cities in the Gilded Age, roughly from the 1870s to 1900. It was an era when, he claims, “violence was not controlled chiefly through criminal punishment.” Though he recognizes that back then, “policing was more brutal, more corrupt, and lazier,” he also says that “those tempted to commit serious crimes could be reasonably confident that they would get a fair shake, which probably made the temptation less powerful.” These days, there is no fair shake, so Stuntz prescribes a reform between the citizen and the law.

It’s the basic idea of using social capital and soft power. Officers who motivate trust in their communities and who trust one another may more effectively encourage crime reporting and other forms of collaboration. We see this happen near the end of the film, when one of the NYPD 12, Derick Waller, gently and genteelly convinces an incensed man screaming outside a Crown Heights bodega, cursing its owner to the high heavens and threatening a fight, to just walk away. Instead of yet another collar or any other form of unnecessarily harsh punishment—let’s remember Saheed Vassell—Waller tells him with determined care, “It’s over.” Of course, for that man, it’s probably not over. But if there were more compassionate cops like Waller, and more standing up against corruption, it might be.

Crime + Punishment is streaming on Hulu and playing in select theaters across the US.