'Crime + Punishment': Film Review | Sundance 2018

Blue ruin.
1/19/2018

Stephen Maing's documentary about the NYPD's illegal policing quotas and other discriminatory practices gets the blood boiling.

Stephen Maing's unnerving documentary about the New York City Police Department's harmful, money-grubbing methods spans the years 2014 through late 2017, though the corruption it tackles head-on has long been a staple of an organization that purports to exercise Courtesy, Professionalism and Respect. It's been nearly half a century since Frank Serpico spotlighted the NYPD's crooked tendencies, and the intervening years only appear to have dimmed some of the more outwardly savage practices. Unscrupulous cops won't shoot and leave you for dead if you speak out against the department. They'll just make your life a living hell. New motto: Kill the spirit, if not the body.

Initially it seems as if we'll be following one officer, Sandy Gonzales, as he prepares to illuminate the NYPD's illegal quotas system, under which an officer can be retaliated against if they don't meet a certain number of summonses and arrests per month. (The more summonses and arrests, the more money that goes into the city's coffers.) In order to get to these numbers, officers are often dispatched to what are deemed high-crime areas, which skew African-American and Hispanic. Teenagers and 20-somethings are the primary targets and regularly have the arrests or citations dismissed in court, though a good number sit in jail waiting for a long-delayed reckoning. One of the quota system's primary victims was Staten Islander Eric Garner, who died after police put him in a chokehold — an incident that the film not only highlights as a local flashpoint, but a national one as well.   

This is a vicious, virulently racist cycle, and it has persisted through multiple administrations (the film covers much of the first term of Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio, when William Bratton, a Rudy Giuliani crony, became police commissioner). One lone officer can only do so much against such an entrenched bureaucracy, which allows these unlawful methods to persist as long as revenue is generated. So Crime + Punishment's scope quickly broadens to focus on the rise of the so-called NYPD12, a group of men and women in blue (of which Sandy Gonzales is one) who have refused to follow the departmental status quo and are willing to go public (via a class action lawsuit) to fight against it.

Maing (who acts as his own cinematographer) appears to have had unprecedented, fly-on-the-wall access to the group, and he compellingly details how their decision to speak truth to power has its soul-sapping consequences. For example, African-American Officer Edwin Raymond, whose name is at the top of the lawsuit, scored highly on the Sergeant's Exam, but is continually denied a promotion — not only for his stubborn refusal to meet quotas, but also his appearance (many a superior officer has given him demerits for his dreadlocked hair). Officer Felicia Whitely, meanwhile, is so agitated by her department's punitive efforts that she goes into early labor with her child, though her supervisors continue to insist that she's making up her symptoms. It's the small dehumanizations (and their constant accrual) that cut the deepest.

Bratton swans around the margins of the documentary like a shrewd villain, denying any wrongdoing and speaking gently about the NYPD's treatment of purported offenders through what is termed "broken windows" policing (basically a focus on minor crimes in an effort to prevent major ones). He's the humanizing face of the department's prejudicial processes, though Maing is careful to show that he's just one small mind among many. In one scene, one of the clearly drained NYPD12 officers has to be reminded that it is the very people who appear to be their enemies (be it de Blasio, Bratton or others) who could also effect change. The pushback just needs to be kept up, continually. What will kill real reform is inaction and silence.

Nowhere is this ethos more evident than in the story of Pedro Hernandez, a teenage victim of the quota policies. He was arrested eight times beginning in 2015, all on false charges, and would ultimately spend a year in Rikers Island awaiting trial for brandishing and firing a gun (an accusation he denies and of which he is ultimately proven innocent). Pedro's story is woven throughout the documentary, and it's a study not only in his persistence, but in that of his mother (who was forced to move her family out of their Bronx neighborhood because of the NYPD's harrassment) and of the private investigator, former rabble-rousing cop Manuel Gomez (a charismatic force of nature), who doggedly pursues the evidence that will exonerate Pedro.

The NYPD12's case remains caught in legal limbo; the film's premiere at Sundance on Jan.19 was timed to coincide with a decision from the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals on the status of the class-action suit. So the Pedro Hernandez thread provides a kind of counterpoint for how justice can be attained despite the prevailing Goliath-like winds.

 

 

Production companies: Mud Horse Pictures, Field of Vision, Sundance Documentary Institute
Director-producer-cinematographer-editor: Stephen Maing
Executive producer: Laura Poitras
Producers: Ross Tuttle, Eric Daniel Metzgar
Editors: Eric Daniel Metzgar, Stephen Maing
Music: Brendon Anderegg, Andrew Lafkas
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)
North American Sales: Submarine

114 minutes