Do you remember what happened in Ferguson, Missouri after Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a white police officer on August 9th five years ago? The city erupted in a wave of protests, which significantly escalated after the Grand Jury decided not to indict Officer Wilson in November of that same year.
In the aftermath of Brown’s shooting, former Attorney General Eric Holder, who at the time was heading the Justice Department, ordered two separate investigations to be conducted in Ferguson, one on officer Wilson and one on the Ferguson Police Department. Although the findings did not support filing criminal charges against officer Wilson, what emerged in the final report was that Ferguson Police Officials regularly engaged in practices and behaviors that violated the U.S. Constitution and federal law.
In the words of Attorney General Holder, “this investigation found a community that was deeply polarized; a community where deep distrust and hostility often characterized interactions between police and area residents. A community where local authorities consistently approached law enforcement not as a means for protecting public safety, but as a way to generate revenue.”
This is exactly what Crime + Punishment is about: what happens when numbers become more important that public safety. Except the focus is New York City not Ferguson, Missouri. The documentary zooms in on the police department of the Big Apple, the same city that attracts millions of tourists each year and is, in theory, a bastion of progressive change. It is a brilliant work of investigative journalism by director and producer Stephen Maing, whose commitment to the story took him four years to complete the film.
The documentary, whose title is inspired by Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 19th century novel, is centered around 12 courageous cops, mostly Latino and African Americans, who refuse to make false arrests just to drive up the numbers and get a good performance review. These whistle blower cops are shunned and retaliated against by their own peers but they feel a moral imperative to stick together and fight systemic corruption. With the help of a private investigator, they file a class action law suit against the NYPD.
Mind you, this is not fiction. This is what is really going on in the New York City Police Department. It is about a practice that has been exported not just to Ferguson but to many other cities across the United States and which partially explains why the U.S. has the highest mass incarceration rates in the world. This is a practice that profiteers off the most vulnerable citizens in our communities by locking them up.
In the documentary, you meet Pedro, a young man who is arrested under false allegations and ends up spending one year in Rikers Island awaiting trial because his family cannot afford bail. Sadly, his case is not an exception under the covert quota system that drives so many unlawful summons. Eventually, his family manages to raise $100,000 for his bail so he can get out of jail and at trial his case is dismissed. Not surprisingly, he receives no compensation for doing time and putting his life on hold for one year.
Aesthetically speaking, I was moved by the aerial shots of Manhattan at the crack of dawn and of the police precincts during different seasons of the year. Director Maing nailed these shots because they combine a feeling of peace with the earie premonition that something is profoundly wrong. These shots are in direct contrast with those captured by hidden cameras, which are up close, blurry and shaky.
What is also great about Crime+Punishment, is that the viewer gets a glimpse of the many practices that contribute to creating a flawed criminal justice system. These include plea deals, money bail and multiple incentives that put revenue generation ahead of public safety. You also witness the politicization of the criminal justice narrative, one that stigmatizes communities of color as people living in crime infested neighborhoods and justifies the public officials’ “tough on crime” stand. It is a narrative driven by fear.
I am not going to tell you what happens to the class action suit filed by the NYPD 12 because you need to see this film for yourself. It premieres at the IFC center in NYC August 24 and is available through Hulu. The bottom line is that no systemic changes have been made in how the NYPD conducts its business. This type of pervasive corruption is a tough nut to crack. It requires admission of wrongdoing while holding high profile politicians and senior officials accountable.
The 12 brave NYPD cops are not giving this fight up and neither should you, which is why this documentary is a must see. Only by keeping the spotlight on this issue long enough, can concerned citizens put pressure on mayor Bill de Blasio, law enforcement officials and other key decision-makers. Finding excuses to lock people up to generate revenue is a crime. Incarceration destroys lives and has a huge toll on families and communities.