Any documentarian depicting a current, ongoing social hardship has an inherent added challenge in the filmmaking process. Simply put, reality doesn’t always play along. The desire to wrap up stories with some level of finality — not necessarily tidily, but with a clear sense of conclusion — runs up against the unyielding adversary of messy existence. A documentary needs to end. The complexities of whatever the documentary traces have no obligation to follow the same protocol. Problems and conflicts may persist. Perhaps more problematically, they might dissipate in a even more unsatisfying haze of sad stasis.
Crime + Punishment, directed by Stephen Maing, follows the efforts of a group of New York City police officers challenging the force’s persistent use of arrest quotas well after the practice was made illegal. Since there’s evidence such policies encourage the persecution of underprivileged communities as officers rushed to make the numbers set down by supervising personnel, the complaint is not merely one of professional preference. Citizens are being harmed. Recognition of that fact is the chief motivation for a group of whistleblowers — all of whom have a racial or cultural affinity to the unfairly targeted community members — as they steel their spines to stand up against a system veering away from the honest justice that’s supposed to be its defining feature.
Maing details the problem with damning detail, smartly including a parallel story of a teenager incarcerated for a crime he insists he did not commit. It is brutal to watch as he grinds through a rickety judicial process rigged to break down his resolve so he pleads guilty in hopes of a reduced sentence. His situation — which exists in a cruel limbo for a year before reaching resolution — puts a solid import to the officers’ collective battle.
As he tracks the day-to-day of the whistleblowers as they try to persist in a job after they’ve been outed as breakers of some nonsense, unstated code of silence, Maing indulges in hidden camera tricks that can seem a little gimmickry. But the tactic does allow him to catch moments of department petty retribution exacted against the protesting cops, countering any suspicions that the fretting about negative professional repercussions are mere paranoia. Like the imprisoned suspect, the officers are faced with a mighty challenge to their will.
There’s little satisfying clarity at the end of the film. Though elements of the whistleblowers’ court case reached completion, other pieces remain inching along. And the various officers have moved forward in different ways, most of them notable for their sense of uncertainty. The particulars might be out of Maing’s control, but he also seems at a loss as to how to shape his most recent footage into cinema that’s compelling. The film simply winds down, as if it is only the first part and a follow-up episode will arrive to clap the story shut. The problems identified in Crime + Punishment are certain to endure, even as there’s some hope that the class action suit has led to some positive cultural change within the force. Even if the infuriating abuses aren’t at an end, the film has an obligation to complete its argument. The equivalent of a defeated shrug won’t do.