A new kind of officer bravery in ‘Crime + Punishment’

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Stephen Maing/Courtesy

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“Crime + Punishment,” a Sundance “social impact” award-winning documentary directed by Stephen Maing, follows the “NYPD 12” as the officers try to bring a class-action lawsuit against the continuation of unfair quota practices in the NYPD. Although quotas, a system under which officers are forced to rack up a certain amount of arrests per year, are now illegal, hidden camera and audio recordings, as well as the testimony of a dozen officers, featured in the movie show that the practice is still alive and well.

The documentary begins and ends with official NYPD ceremonies, the camera panning to show the hundreds of faces buttoned up in official NYPD uniforms with hats to match. When faced so directly with the huge numbers of cops sworn in from each class at the police academy, the idea of just 12 officers coming forward against the quota practice seems all the more delicate.

Moreover, events like this prop up the NYPD as an institution of such stoic respect on the outside, but Maing quickly begins to pick away at this blue shield with intimate portrayals of those on the inside.

Maing was able to get involved with the NYPD 12 before they were even the NYPD 12 and, as such, was able to paint a very intimate picture of the officers on their road to a lawsuit in terms of hushed cafe conversations and close-up passenger seat drives.

The documentary features former cops and current cops who have been working for the NYPD for 10 and 12 years. “Crime + Punishment” takes on a hard job in its attempt to get the audience to sympathize with the macho and gruff cops who make up the NYPD 12. Maing accomplishes this most acutely with Felicia Whitely, one of the only female cops featured in the documentary. Maing shows Whitely helping her oldest daughter get ready for prom and through Whitely’s pregnancy, from being forced to return to work to just days after the delivery of her child. Whitely exemplifies the vulnerability involved in pursuing the lawsuit, with a focus on family that shows just what the whistleblowers have to lose.

Although clips from the Police Commissioner William Bratton and those supporting the NYPD are spliced in, the documentary spends the large majority of its time focusing on the officers and activists supporting them. The other part of the narrative is headed by Manuel “Manny” Gomez, a private investigator, working to free those who have been unfairly prosecuted by the NYPD.

The NYPD 12 were exclusively Black and Latino cops who came forward, and Maing paralleled their narratives with Gomez’s defense of Pedro Hernandez, who had been repeatedly arrested with Gomez’s arrests frequently dismissed for lack of evidence.

Among the most delicate subjects of the movie are the contradictions that Maing seeks to depict — most specifically between the cops trying to speak out and the racial groups the NYPD has historically antagonized, even when the cops themselves are members of these marginalized communities. These contradictions can be seen during the meeting between the NYPD 12 and community members in Harlem near the end of the movie. While the 12 seek community support, activists Adilka Pimentel, Rukia Lumumba and Tamika Mallory make it quite clear that no matter what, they are still cops, and the distrust between cops and minority communities is going to be a difficult wound to mend. Mallory even says some people refused to come to the meeting because they would never work with cops.

The most shocking aspect of the documentary is the openness. In candor, yes, but also visually. There are no officers who sit in shadowed rooms and speak through a voice modulator; instead, they speak openly in cafes, in community meetings and on TV. As Edwin Raymond said in the final moments of the film, “There is no room for anonymity. There is no room for silence. We are just way beyond that.”

“Crime + Punishment” was not neat or uplifting and, as happens often in real life, did not tie everything together in a tidy bow. Ultimately, the NYPD 12 did not need money or power, but they needed to be heard. And an award-winning documentary is the perfect way to be just that.

Contact Kate Tinney at [email protected]. Tweet her at @katetinney.