Math and humanity aren’t fundamentally at odds. In fact, numbers and human beings have forged some useful partnerships over the years. Humanity and our friendly integer friends have built cities together, gone to the moon together, and have consistently bid the correct amount on Double Jeopardy together.
Sometimes, however, our relationship with numbers becomes toxic. Hulu’s NYPD corruption documentary Crime + Punishment is in a sense the story of that relationship going haywire and the statistics crushing us under their fascistic numerical boots.
In 2010 New York legislators banned the practice of arrest quotas – requiring NYPD cops to “keep their numbers up” by arresting citizens for a variety of infractions. Just because quotas were banned, however, doesn’t mean they went away.
The numbers involved were simply too large to enact any meaningful change. The New York Police Department is the largest in the nation, with other 36,000 officers spread over 77 precincts. All those precincts have ever known are the numbers. The numbers have been the only marker of success for centuries, dating back to 1845 when officers were paid by serving warrants, and other municipal and legal tasks.
The numbers were never going to go down without a fight. Hulu’s new documentary Crime + Punishment tells the story of that fight. Crime + Punishment comes from Brooklyn-based filmmaker Stephen Maing and follows a group of police whistleblowers known as the “NYPD 12” from 2014 through 2017 as they file a class action suit against the city and fight to make the public aware of the NYPD’s quota system.
Maing and his cameras follow Sergeant Edwin Raymond, and Officers Felicia Whitely, Sandy Gonzalez, Pedro Serrano, Derick Waller, Kareem Abdullah, Ritchie Baez, Julio Diaz, and Adhyl Polanco as they file their lawsuit, secretly record department meetings, and run public campaigns for police reform. The documentary also follows ex-NYPD officer and current private investigator Manuel “Manny” Gomez as he works to exonerate a teen on Riker’s Island wrongfully accused of a crime.
The amount of access that Maing gets and the amount of “dirt” he uncovers is fairly staggering. Of the documentary’s nearly two-hour runtime the first hour or so features plenty of surreptitious audio and video recordings of NYPD meetings in which officers are chastised for not hitting their numbers.
At one point, fast-rising and Officer, soon-to-be Sergeant, Edwin Raymond tells an interviewer that NYPD is able to bypass the laws banning quotas by speaking obliquely and encouraging officers to patrol low-income neighborhoods. Based on the audio evidence uncovered in the documentary, however, the department’s quota system is often even more explicit than that. On several occasions superiors simply tell officers that they need to “get (they) numbers up.”
Still, despite all the compelling, at-times jaw-dropping undercover recordings, Crime + Punishment never feels like it fully comes close to capturing the breadth and scale of police corruption. The subjects involved talk about it, and some base-level statistics are offered but the story mostly remains confined to the handful of precincts that the NYPD 12 come from.
That’s not that unexpected as not only can deep, systemic corruption and dysfunction can be hard to accurately depict, it’s also fairly boring to depict. That’s how system corruption and dysfunction usually takes hold anyway. It becomes so entrenched, so huge, so matter-of-fact that it can never properly be excised. The numbers simply become too big to process. In a way Crime + Punishment stages its own battleground between numbers and humanity. The movie can’t properly depict the sheer numbers involved in this institutional corruption, so it opts to depict the human instead.
Crime + Punishment works better as a sort of hero’s journey for 12 brave whistleblowers than it does as an effective take down of corrupt police practicing. Again, Crime + Punishment doesn’t forgive police malpractice it just doesn’t know what to do beyond the secret recordings. The movie’s 2-hour running time can’t properly convey the enormity of it. So it narrows its focus to the NYPD 12 (or at least the 9 of the 12 who are interviewed).
The officers are NYPD 12 are intensely, remarkably human. They are unmistakably working class, with each one admitting in interviews that they’re terrified of the repercussions of their class action lawsuit as it could jeopardize their already tenuous financial security.
We watch as Raymond is told by a superior that he will never be promoted because he is black, has dreads, and “speaks up.” We watch as Waller talks about community policing and then smoothly defuses a fight at a bodega that could have easily led to further violence if the wrong cop was involved. And we watch as no fewer than three of the officers involved in the class action suit seek medical attention from the sheer stress they’re under.
The most intriguing “character” isn’t even part of the NYPD 12. Private Investigator Manny Gomez isn’t from the East Bronx so much as cast from it like Stormbreaker in the forge on Nidavellir. His is a commanding presence and he even commandeers the camera from Maing early on so the director can try a lobster roll pastry. Crime + Punishment is at its best when it focuses on the relatively simple story of this one good man seeking to right a wrong.
Crime + Punishment is a good film. It won the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Social Impact Filmmaking at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Hulu quickly gobbled it up and plans to debut it on its servers and in theaters on August 24. Despite how good a film it is, though, Crime + Punishment may have been ever better as something else. Something longer – a TV show, a web series, or just a 55-hour monologue presenting all the victims of New York’s corrupt police practices.
But I get it. Movies make money. 55-hour monologues don’t. And our attention spans have eroded to the point where 2 hours is long enough to begin with. Numbers have beaten us once again.