An Interview With “Crime + Punishment” Director Stephen Maing

“There are a lot of questions that have to be asked.”

Filmmaker Stephen Maing’s new documentary, Crime + Punishment, follows the story of the NYPD 12, a group of a dozen New York City police officers pushing back against their department’s unofficial but very real quota-based arrest system, which disproportionately targets low income residents and people of color. Crime + Punishment, currently streaming on Hulu, is a film about policing, racism, and community neglect, yes, but it’s also a meditation on work and labor, and what people do when they find themselves part of a professional system they don’t morally or ethically believe in. The following interview has been condensed and edited.

What do you think Crime + Punishment is about? How you would describe it, kind of more generally and more conceptually?

On the most simplistic level, I felt like because we are so inundated by stories about policing, and everybody kind of has a certain personal relationship to the issue, and that's informed by social media, being inundated with content about certain kinds of policing stories and narratives, that I just wanted to create a very observational firsthand look at this thing that everybody thinks they know, [and] not just put a human face on it, but put a kind of a framing to the story that would allow people to kind of live through their relationship to contemporary policing in a totally shocking and new way.

The film became a lot about just how people deal with this question of how do I do the right thing, and how individuals kind of cope with adversity and trauma, and the cycles of trauma, that they may find themselves in or subjected to.

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Did you find that there was a large gulf between what the characters in the film believed the job of a New York City police officer to be, and what they then found themselves confronted with?

That's a really good question, and it's interesting, because, depending on I think the kind of individual you are, you would sort of have a very different response to what was fundamentally this kind of disconnect between the idealism of how the NYPD sees itself and trains its officers, and puts forth in the public-facing view, and the very practical, almost horrifically pragmatic reality on the ground that officers are kind of exposed to as soon as they leave the academy and wind up placed in whatever precinct they wind up in.

For an officer, I think, who might be more cynical, might have less of a relationship to the issues of race and perhaps never had to kind of encounter any kind of discrimination in their lives, they might see some of that kind of like disconnect as just part of the job. Just, you know, nobody said that this was going to be an easy job kind of rhetoric, which would then maybe create allowances for things like aggressive, numbers-based policing, where, right out of the gate they're being asked to go out and, you know, or pressured to go out and get certain numbers of quotas of arrests.

Whereas somebody like Edwin Raymond, who not only had a very kind of personal relationship to his identity as the son of Haitian immigrants [but was] a student of history [and] well versed in critical race theory…he could immediately identify, as a rookie, that this disconnect was actually a fundamental flaw in the department's policies itself. If there was room for this kind of articulation of the policing mission that went very much against what he thought he had been trained to do within this sort of rhetoric of protecting and serving, it was something that I think for someone like Edwin that just was immediately alarming.

Did any of your subjects talk about the psychic toll of being good at a job that they actually realized that they didn't believe in, or that the administrators of which they didn't respect because of policies like quotas?

These are men and women who joined the force not having any illusions that this was an easy culture, or an easy environment to necessarily work in. I think they went in knowing that, having lived through firsthand this kind of dichotomy of their own communities being ravished by crime, the scourge of the crack epidemic, or poverty within the Bronx and Brooklyn neighborhoods that they grew up in. You know, they certainly went in knowing what the low water mark of law enforcement looked and felt like. I think even with that knowledge, they went in believing that while they could do differently, they could be the best that the NYPD could offer, and that they I think set out to do that. You know, they all chose this job. They didn't wind up as cops. They all very much had a passion to be police officers, because they wanted to do good by the community. They wanted to make this city safer and improve the relationships between their own communities and police, and thought that they could do that. I think they definitely felt betrayed, because these were all officers that the department should have celebrated and advanced to the highest of positions within their commands, in the precincts and their commands.

And yet, they basically were treated like the most lowly of, the worst of the pack that, you know, needed the most disciplining. Their earning power has been cut radically. I mean, you could almost estimate almost by half, with the kind of overtime that the highest earning cops who play by the rules can achieve. So I think they definitely felt a great betrayal. And some, since the filming has ended, who didn't reach retirement age, just quit because they couldn't take it anymore.

Mud Horse Pictures
Mud Horse Pictures

In what way would you describe the film as being a film about American labor? Or would you even describe it that way?

I think this idea of labor, or labor theory, is one that is kind of like an interesting way of framing how the department maybe misappropriates its workplace management. The department considers crime reduction as a commodity, right? Lowering crime, in all cities, or creating the sort of like successful rhetoric around crime reduction, allows mayors to be reelected, and then by way of that, chiefs and commissioners to keep their positions, and people all up and down the chain of command to basically celebrate in the job that they're doing.

Now how you get there isn't really the question, because that crime reduction should not come at the cost of community harm. So there's this kind of overemphasis on crime reduction, right? Because this is the commodity that the department wants to be able to tout, and that the mayor needs to be able to say that at the end of the day he had lowered crime rates.

It is a numerically-based accounting system for essentially a public institution that is supposed to be based on a social contract between law enforcement and the public — not cops and their precinct commanders who then have to answer to chiefs and the commissioner. But law enforcement in the public is fundamentally broken, because now cops are under pressure to basically meet certain productivity goals

When you take productivity expectations that you might have at any other kind of like industry or sales or retail or real estate, or whatever, and you put that on policing, the first thing that goes out the door is officer discretion, and that's something that we've seen play out, not surprisingly, throughout the nation.

So there are a lot of questions that have to be asked that are not just about the culture of policing, or the individual's sort of implicit biases that some may bring to these engagements with minorities. What we're trying to demonstrate in the film is that when you have a policy that is built around over-aggressive policing in minority neighborhoods, that is going to impact all your personnel. Because nobody wants to lose their job. I mean essentially you tend to not fault somebody for finding themselves in a tough situation, where they either are going to lose vacation days, or lose overtime, not be able to pay for their mortgage, not going to be able to keep up with their bills and debts, or they can go and do what might start off with just like, well, you know, fudge a traffic violation here or there.

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No, no. Did you hear from other officers from within NYPD, or in other police departments around the country, after the film came out?

It's been astounding how many cops have come up to us from within NYPD, quietly, and just said, "Thank you so much for sharing your story. Thank you so much for making this film. This really spoke to me, and I've struggled with a lot of what was in this film." People also, on the festival tour, have come up after screenings and said, you know, "We're dealing with a lot of similar problems in our departments. This is a film that should absolutely be used as a training tool."

Did the individuals in the film talk about the things they still loved about their jobs, even in the face of all this pressure and retaliation?

Yeah. I mean they're all cops who really like helping people. So there's so much that didn't make it into the film that I wish people had appetites for four or five hour long features. But because there were so many episodes where these guys are constantly being approached just by [people] who need help, or need advice, who need directions, who had an incident happen at home, had an altercation, are trying to understand if they are the victim of abuse, you know.

I think that policing is an incredibly social job, when it's done from a truly community-based standpoint. But so much of their tour, week-to-week, month-to-month, gets occupied with other kinds of posts and objectives that keep them from doing that as much as they would like to. I've seen so many different kinds of conversations between cops and community, and the really unfortunate part is that the department does not sincerely take into consideration those kinds of measurements.

Find out where to watch Crime + Punishment here.

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