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‘Crime + Punishment’ examines continued use of arrest quotas by New York police

Minority officers blow the whistle on illegal practice in new documentary

Whistleblower stories are almost guaranteed to be compelling.

But when they’re about policing, they’re simultaneously enraging and disheartening. Crime + Punishment, directed by Stephen Maing, tells the story of the NYPD 12, a group of minority police officers who sued the New York Police Department for leaning on its officers to fulfill arrest quotas even after the state of New York made them illegal. The documentary, which won a special jury award for social impact at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, begins streaming Aug. 24 on Hulu.

In many ways, Crime + Punishment echoes what organizers and protesters have been screaming themselves hoarse over for years: Even when the law says arrest quotas are illegal, police departments employ them anyway. Police officers meet these quotas by making spurious arrests in communities of color where people lack the financial resources to fight them. And repeated hostile contact heightens the probability that someone black and unarmed like Eric Garner will end up dead for selling loosies on the corner.

Still, it’s jarring to see police officers make the same assertions, in uniform and on camera. It’s even more jarring to see a former police officer and federal agent, Manuel Gomez, working as a private investigator to prove what the NYPD is doing. And there’s a reason for that. The blue wall of silence isn’t an ordinary wall. It’s reinforced multiple times over, all the way up the NYPD chain of command.

Private investigator Manuel Gomez.

Mud Horse Pictures/Hulu

Crime + Punishment focuses on the effects that the department’s unofficial but continued use of stop-and-frisk and arrest quotas have on officers of color, especially in minority neighborhoods in the Bronx and Brooklyn. Audiences may recognize Edwin Raymond, the NYPD officer who was the subject of a 2016 New York Times Magazine profile about the same issues. Despite scoring in the top percentile of test takers for his sergeant’s exam, Raymond finds himself stuck, retaliation for airing the department’s dirty laundry to the Times.

Maing leaves no doubt that Raymond and his fellow officers in the NYPD 12 are fighting an honorable fight. They want to perform their jobs without retaliation from higher-ups and isolation from their fellow cops. They want to stop harassment of the black and brown communities where they live. And they want the department to function like a meritocracy instead of a patronage system when it comes to who gets promoted.

But the NYPD 12 also recognize how these police practices affect young black and brown men who are framed for crimes they didn’t commit, warehoused in dungeons like Rikers Island when they can’t afford bail, and how prosecutors use the threat of decades in prison to coerce innocent people into pleading guilty. Maing illustrates this final point with the story of Pedro Hernandez, a young New Yorker charged in a shooting he didn’t commit who ends up spending months in Rikers because his family can’t afford to free him.

Pedro Hernandez after 12 months of awaiting trial in Rikers Island.

Mud Horse Pictures/Hulu

Maing’s documentary doesn’t offer an answer to whether a system as vast and powerful as the NYPD can be reformed from the inside. But he illustrates just how difficult it is to try and how many disincentives face officers who challenge the status quo. In the form of arrests, police provide the bodies that serve as profit engines for private prisons.

But Maing also highlights an important fact: The NYPD isn’t just any police force; its tactics are imitated by other departments across the country. As an officer is talking to Maing, he draws a line between the NYPD’s revenue-producing arrest quotas and the implementation of a similar system in Ferguson, Missouri. If anything is going to improve about policing, and that’s a big if, Crime + Punishment suggests it’s got to start in New York.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She's based in Brooklyn.