In the opening scene of Crime + Punishment, a new documentary on Hulu, we hear a recorded telephone conversation between Officer Sandy Gonzalez, who has been with the New York Police Department for 12 years, and the filmmaker Stephen Maing. Against a glowing shot of Manhattan at dawn, their words are transcribed. “They’re retaliating against me because of my numbers,” Gonzalez says. “I would have to massively write summonses and arrest people to come up with the number close to the number that they want to come up with. The goal.”
Gonzalez has, in other words, failed to meet his quota. As punishment, Gonzalez is put on “foot tour” by his boss. Yanked from his squad car, he has to stand on a street corner in the cold and fog. In covertly-recorded footage, we see a fellow cop come up to him and demand that he remove his hat, because the temperature isn’t quite low enough. Gonzalez concedes, then shivers.
This is petty. It’s also illegal. Quotas in New York policing have been banned since 2010. A cop is not allowed to arrest people or issue summons in order to meet a predetermined goal, nor can he be punished for failing to meet an informal quota. But Gonzalez knows that it doesn’t work that way, and as Crime + Punishment plays out we see solid evidence to back him up. We see him join forces with 11 other police officers, all minority cops, who are now known collectively as the NYPD 12. Their mission is simple: Blow the whistle on quotas, then try to do something about it.
The taped conversation with Gonzalez is from 2014, at the start of a two-year journey of trying to hold the NYPD to account through a lawsuit. The case hit a roadblock when a judge ruled that the NYPD’s internal complaint system was sufficient to handle these complaints. But their case did pave the way for last summer’s enormous class action lawsuit that allotted payments to New Yorkers who had suffered from the police’s wanton approach to arrests.
Maing’s documentary indicts former NYPD Commissioner William Bratton, and alleges that quota-fixing goes all the way up to the mayor’s office. But by focusing on individual cops and their personal struggles, Maing has also made a moving film about human beings trapped between systems.
The most affecting story in Crime + Punishment is not about cops at all. Jessica Perez is a pretty woman with a voice cracked through with crying. Her son Pedro Hernandez, 18, is the central victim in the film. In September 2015, a 15-year-old boy was shot in the ankle outside a Bronx supermarket. Hernandez was arrested and his bail was set at an unmanageable $250,000. He spent a year on Rikers Island before going to trial.
When we first meet Jessica, she shows the camera a sheaf of papers, all of which record dismissed charges against Pedro. He has been continually arrested without cause, she says. These people are following her children. Jessica connects with a private investigator named Manuel Gomez, a Bronx-based ex-cop who specializes in bringing lawsuits against the police. The police do not like him at all.
Gomez finds five witnesses who say that Hernandez was not at the scene of the crime. There appears to be no evidence against him. Gomez speaks to the victim of the shooting, who describes how a cop tried to threaten him into naming Hernandez. We see Hernandez as he is brought out to the courtroom, his hands swaddled in mitts. The prosecution is “not ready” and the hearing is adjourned. Hernandez turns to smile encouragingly at his weeping mom as he’s led back to jail. He refuses a plea deal and eventually goes to trial—all charges are dismissed.
There’s no doubt that this was a miscarriage of justice, of a kind which disproportionately affects young men of color throughout New York’s five boroughs. But there’s the systemic view and the individual view. By taking the audience right up to the face of a mother on the phone with her son in Rikers, asking what kind of underwear he wants her to send him, Maing shows us the visceral effect that these policies are having on human beings.
Hernandez’s case attracted attention in the press at the time, as did the professional travails of Raymond Edwin, one of the NYPD 12, who was the subject of a 2016 feature in The New York Times Magazine. In the film, we hear tape that Edwin recorded of a supervisor explaining why Edwin has received such low assessment numbers despite his good policing. “You’re a young black man with dreads, very smart,” the superior says. “Your words is loud.” In other words, Edwin is drawing a lot of attention to himself. He explains that the assessors used these exact words to address him: “Fuck this dude.” But he doesn’t quit. Instead, he seeks a promotion to sergeant.
Edwin’s predicament deepens the movie’s discourse on race. As a conscious black man, Edwin is furious about the way that the NYPD generates revenue off the victimization of young black men. “This is the time when you have to be able to show your face and you have to be able to speak the truth,” he says.
Crime + Punishment is a special film not only because it tells intimate stories, but because it marries the perspective of the arrested person with that of the people whose jobs it is to do the arresting. That marriage is not without its tension. When the NYPD 12 meet with activists from Make the Road and the Nation of Islam, for example, they realize that there are people in the community who want nothing to do with the police, period. What kind of alliance can a whistleblowing cop who wants to stay a cop form with groups whose hardline stance is that cops are evil?
There are no easy answers to those questions. And there is no satisfying conclusion to Maing’s film. Throughout the movie, the courts fail. Hernandez is put in Rikers because prosecutors don’t care about providing a speedy trial. The NYPD 12 don’t get the verdict they were looking for. No independent body for overseeing the NYPD’s activity is established. If the movie has a still point inside it—an unassailable conclusion—it’s that justice and the law are not the same thing.