Earlier this year — not long after Stephen Maing’s documentary “Crime+Punishment” won a special jury award for “social impact” at the Sundance Film Festival — the New York Police Department instituted mandatory “no quota” training for all its officers. The background and meaning of that policy is laid out in Mr. Maing’s meticulous and dismaying film, which also illuminates some of the deep, perhaps intractable problems of policing in New York City and beyond.
Not long ago, members of the force were expected to meet monthly quotas for arrests and summonses. Though the practice was outlawed in 2010, Mr. Maing amasses evidence and testimony that it persisted. He focuses on a group of officers — known as the N.Y.P.D. 12 — who said in a lawsuit that they had been pressured to meet illegal quotas and punished when they refused to comply. Supervisors are recorded threatening reprisals against the officers, some of whom are then disciplined for trivial infractions, given undesirable assignments and blocked when they seek promotion.
“Crime+Punishment” follows these officers, who are mostly Latino and African-American, as they go public with their case, holding news conferences and sitting for television interviews. One of them, Edwin Raymond, was profiled in a cover story in The New York Times Magazine. The importance of the suit goes beyond the officers’ treatment by the departmental hierarchy. Quotas, to Mr. Raymond and his colleagues, are a symptom and a cause of the dysfunctional, antagonistic relationship between the police and the public, especially young, nonwhite men.
The story of the N.Y.P.D. 12 unfolds alongside another case, in which Manuel Gomez, a private investigator with an impressive military and law enforcement background, tries to exonerate Pedro Hernandez, a young man charged with a shooting and held on Rikers Island. With meticulous care over a period of several years, Mr. Maing illuminates how abusive policing, the cash bail system, political paralysis and other factors combine to form a web of injustice that often ensnares the innocent.
The lawsuit and Mr. Hernandez’s case proceed against a backdrop of higher-profile public events like the killing of Eric Garner, the scandals that thinned the upper ranks of the police and the release of the United States Justice Department’s Ferguson Report, which highlighted the way that city in Missouri used fines and penalties as a source of revenue and made its police into armed tax collectors preying mostly on nonwhite citizens. “Crime+Punishment” advances a thorough critique of American law enforcement not by generalizing or speechifying, but by digging into particular lives and circumstances, allowing affected individuals to speak for themselves.
The result is a powerful and suspenseful film, part detective story and part courtroom drama, fueled by a potent mix of curiosity and indignation and full of memorable characters speaking in the lively idioms and varied accents of New York. Mr. Maing brings viewers into the daily lives of police officers, some of them veterans with decades of service behind them, who are willing to risk their careers for what they believe is right. They face fear, frustration and agonizing uncertainty as the case proceeds.
If “Crime+Punishment” were a scripted feature rather than a documentary, it would have a neater, and perhaps more unequivocally hopeful ending. You can extract a degree of optimism. Sometimes justice prevails. Sometimes politicians and judges listen. But never automatically, through the impersonal workings of the system. This film is about the work, risk and sacrifice — the combination of stubbornness, courage and decency — required to make the ideal of equal justice under the law anything close to a reality.
Crime + Punishment
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 52 minutes.