Stephen Maing shot a lot of B-roll for “Crime + Punishment” knowing that he’d never use it, though it became a necessity for any of the rest of what he shot to be seen at all. Crouching inside the backseats of cars to avoid detection or pointing his camera in the direction of a flat tire on the streets, Maing filled up many a hard drive with shots of pavement or car ceilings to elude detection by cops. But ironically, it had been members of the New York Police Department who had invited Maing to join them on their patrol in the first place, a group of officers known as the NYPD 12, who were intent on exposing the flaws in the police force’s unofficial mandate to pad crime statistics with arrests, often based on specious, if any, evidence or merit.
“Early on I realized because getting sustained access to law enforcement is a hard thing to maintain,” says Maing. “Not everybody when they’re under the greatest stress and duress of their lives wants a camera to follow them around all the time, it’s risky, and that helped me understand [the pressure they were under] because we were seeing the department push back quite a bit on other cops who had called out the department on certain issues.”
Maing’s remarkable persistence – and ability to hide – yields an extraordinary story of whistleblowers and systemic rot as he follows a class action suit filed by the 12 cops aimed at ending the quota, an outgrowth of then-NYPD police chief William Bratton’s “Broken Windows” policing strategy in which minority neighborhoods were targeted to pile up arrests. Although the directive isn’t on the record, the cops Maing tags along with record frank conversations with their supervisors that detail how the officers have been denied promotions based on their unwillingness to make such arrests without probable cause and shows the fallout from their resistance as certain officers are sent out to patrol parts of New York that might as well be in Siberia or encounter a different kind of no man’s land in finding themselves distrusted by fellow officers for going against the force publicly after having already lost the public’s trust, representing the force that has brought so much unwarranted fear into their communities. In the midst of all of this, the filmmaker accompanies a dogged private investigator Manny Gomez as he takes on the case of Pedro Hernandez, locked up on charges of criminal possession of a weapon despite no evidence to support it, illustrating the profound consequences of one terrible policy from top to bottom.
Not only is “Crime + Punishment” meticulous and thorough, but entirely gripping as you see the grace under pressure of officers such as Felicia Whitely and Edwin Raymond, who put their careers on the line for the very same reason they entered the NYPD – as a means of protecting the public, and in highlighting where the system has gone wrong, the film’s capacity to infuriate is matched by its ability to inspire in showing that the NYPD still has some of the bravest men and women among its ranks. Following the film’s premiere at Sundance where it won a Special Jury Prize for Social Impact, “Crime + Punishment” arrives today to stream on Hulu accompanied by a limited theatrical run across the country and while Maing was in Los Angeles, he spoke about the five years he poured into the project, piecing together a sprawling narrative where all the pieces fall into place just right and how he stayed focused throughout to keep his eye on the larger picture.
Where did your interest in the subject come from?
This is an issue that’s been playing out in New York City for many, many years and it was hitting a fevered pitch around 2012. During that time, my producing partner and I were making these shorts for The Nation and then later we were involved in a longer-form piece that was on CNN and ultimately, I felt like this is a story that’s never been heard from this perspective. We’re at this immovable place in the national dialogue around race and policing and we’re led to believe this is about anti-cop sentiment and generic pro-low enforcement rhetoric, but in actuality, what has been painfully missing from the conversation is this voice of active-duty law enforcement – in this case, minorities who understand deeply what policing can be and where it’s failing the community and rank-and-file officers too, creating discontent on both sides of the law enforcement divide. So there was just this sense that after my producing partner and I had done these past projects, which were commissioned, there was now this almost obligation as we understood what was missing from the conversation to create a project that would be like nothing we had seen before that would allow viewers to bear witness [with these] active-duty NYPD whistleblowers who are pushing back against the department.
Was Pedro, or someone in Pedro’s situation, always in mind as a parallel to the cops’ story?
No, and that emerged as I got deeper into the filming. I really felt like it’s one thing to understand a policy that cops are being pressured to satisfy monthly quotas and that corruption unfolds as a result when you have this numerical accounting system that’s trying to match officer productivity with crime stats, yet we were missing this idea of the collateral damage of who’s on the receiving end of this? What is it like to live through this burden of the quota? When we met the private investigator Manny Gomez, it was really clear that here was a guy who was going out and in his own way, canvasing these overpoliced minority communities and that became the entry point to be able to balance out the narrative.
[In general] I needed to find a narrative structure that allowed for a multitude of characters – not just one or a triptych or five, but a multitude of who could dovetail into [one] another, so there was this corroborating effect and at large, a kind of systemic view of the different precincts, the different stories, the different experiences, all connected around this central notion of what does it mean to have a harmful police policy that is centered around a quota. In this structure, I felt there’s not just power in numbers, but it’s much harder to dismantle a narrative, which is rooted in journalistic claims, [where there] are observations [of] many different officers pushing back against the department and against what these cops believe are harmful practices. If it was just one cop, the department would be much more inclined to say, “Well, he’s disgruntled” or “he’s not trustworthy because look at his disciplinary record,” any number of narratives to dismantle the claim. But as filming unfolded, the film led me to create around the stories was one that I think ultimately is going to be harder to dismiss wholesale.
One of the things I loved about the film was how you show geography – how conscious were you during filming of how the film would move across the city?
During the process of putting together sample reels trying to raise funding to be able to continue shooting, I was finding that early on there was this metaphor that got activated as I tried to string these very intimate, but disparate narratives [together]. There was a micro/macro perspective that was disorienting if you were trying to butt one story up directly against another, but I realized this is a project literally about all these different narratives that exist in different precincts, so we needed a kind of mapping device, something that would suggest oh, here is the view of the issue and here is the sense of place from high above where you have no access to the human stories unfolding below. Then each time we would introduce a new precinct, we would drop down to ground level and it would be intimate, up close, observational filming mode with these characters that presumably these viewers had not spent a lot of time with in the past to be reminded of this idea that this is a systemic view of criminal justice in New York. Introduce a new precinct, drop back down, see another officer or a family or private investigator doing his work.
Eric Garner’s death happens in the midst of your shoot, which speaks so much to the central issues in the film, and I imagine there’s the inclination to drop everything and follow that as a story – you obviously did do some coverage, but was it difficult to keep focus on the larger story?
Yeah, I followed a lot of different characters, some of which unfortunately didn’t make it into this film because of the limited amount of time you have to tell a certain kind of story. But the Eric Garner incident was obviously very tragic and a good example of how I filmed that situation much more in depth than is revealed in the film, [as well as] a very vital touchstone for demonstrating that what these officers were basically trying to avoid was the kind of situation where broken windows policing and quota-driven policing could turn deadly. When it happened in real life, it was something that really changed the course of the entire conversation in the city. A lot of people who follow these issues very closely see issues of policing in the NYPD as pre- and post-Garner, and we may do something with that material [we captured] at another time, but I realized in the editing process that it was really important that we were always coming back to a police narrative and that the offering of this film was getting to know whistleblower cops in a way that nobody has probably ever experienced and then to see the collateral damage of that as the story unfolds into increasingly new and different social spaces.