“Speaking truth to power”: 5 Questions with Stephen Maing, director of “Crime + Punishment”

In his captivating and cinematic investigative documentary, filmmaker Stephen Maing (High Tech, Low Life) spent years with a group of minority police officers fighting to expose racially discriminatory policing practices in their precincts. As the officers go public, the tension escalates. And the sympathetic policemen and women, such as Felicia Whitely, who must balance pregnancy with activism, and Edwin Raymond, an eloquent spokesperson and rising top cop, face pressure and retaliation from the powers-that-be. Winner of Sundance’s Special Jury Award for Social Impact and executive produced by Oscar-winner Laura Poitras (CitizenFour), Crime + Punishment is equal parts docu-thriller and “blood boiling” (The Hollywood Reporter), “masterful” (POV Magazine) tale of tenacious whistleblowers, risking their livelihoods for the sake of a greater cause. Below, Maing speaks with DOC10 about his unique and noble protagonists, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, and patiently observing a story unfold.

I know that “Crime + Punishment” comes out of some earlier nonfiction shorts that you made. What, in particular, drew you to these characters and their stories, especially considering you’ve been with them for several years now? Is there something about informants or whistleblowers that especially interests you? 

Stephen Maing: For several years my producing partner and I had been filming a few officers as silhouetted informants for some more journalistic projects. Crime + Punishment came about when these cops decided they were ready to reveal their identities and openly publicize their fight against the department. Before this I had spent many years working on a vérité film about Chinese citizen reporters fighting censorship in mainland China and then another project about a Korean-American State Department “leaker” harshly prosecuted under the Espionage Act, so I suppose a part of me is drawn to unexpected protagonists speaking truth to power – but the real interest was sensing an opportunity to film the actual evolution of whistleblowers in an observational approach. This felt like a vital history the public had not seen before but should, particularly amidst an ever-increasing disconnect between police and minority communities in New York and nationally, so when our access deepened I made sure to go everywhere and anywhere the officers and many others I met along the way would allow me to film.

It seems like Edwin Raymond emerged as a main spokesperson for the NYPD12, and in the same way, I think he emerges as the main character in your film. Why do you think the public, and you as a filmmaker, find him so compelling?

Edwin is everything the NYPD should want in a cop. He is exceedingly honest, disciplined, hard working, and, despite what detractors might say about him, loyal to the mission of policing. He, like the other NYPD12 officers, is somebody that actually believes cops can impact society for the better, however it is his great aversion to corruption and injustice that led him to push back against the department and discriminatory aspects of the quota system. Aside from the well-documented and veritable nature of his claims, he is someone that possesses a unique insight and charisma that seems to capture the attention of everyone he meets. His lifelong commitment to helping those in need comes as no surprise considering his difficult childhood and nearly impoverished conditions that he and his brother grew up in after the loss of their mother. As a student of history, law, criminal justice and human behavior, he could bring so many valuable improvements to the problematic practices and complex cultural praxis in New York City policing. It’s a shame that instead he is seen as a pariah.

Was there always the idea that the film would unfold, at times, like a thriller? I’m especially thinking of the under-cover recordings and the tension that ratchets up? It made me think of CitizenFour.

In documentaries about fraught present-day issues, there is a very high bar of expectation especially for a subject that many may think they already understand. So I felt there was a need for the film to be both investigative but also push the formal bounds of cinematic, character-driven and experiential storytelling. Because of the many layers needed to portray a systemic view of quota-driven policing, the filming process led us to many different social spaces, but also various modes of storytelling and reportage. A ‘direct cinema’ kind of observation might dovetail into a cinema vérité scene that breaks the fourth wall and leads to more investigative surreptitious recordings. Tonally, I wanted the film to capture this dynamic range of situations I was witnessing over the years – so the perceived feelings of suspense, tension and ‘the unknown’ were important moods to capture as well as moments of levity. 

In my filming process, I think a lot about the photographic image – particularly what is unseen but suggested in the frame - as well as the narrative tools of fiction storytelling. So, in trying to make a different kind of film – a highly cinematic, investigative experience that unfolds in real-time but creates both immediate and associative meanings - another point of interest for me was the linkage of multi-character worlds and shifting perspectives in non-fiction like Capote’s In Cold Blood.  Aside from reimagining the true-crime genre as a work of art, Capote suggested powerfully haunting meanings by illustrating the points of convergence of people's tenuously overlapping worldviews. I could appreciate how these points of intersection of vastly different class and cultural experience were as important as the central crime at hand.

In telling the NYPD12’s story, did you ever find yourself under pressure by authorities or retaliation in any ways? And are you concerned at all that the film will make some of the cops more of a target?

I have not experienced anything yet. As a filmmaker also working in a journalistic capacity on this subject for many years, and having produced a previous film that had attained sanctioned departmental access, I really don’t believe the NYPD is the kind of institution that would act extra-judicially against a media-maker today. However, for good measure I did request departmental participation in this new film multiple times but was declined. This only deepened my feeling that the public has a right to pose important unanswered questions even if our institutions are not yet willing to answer.

Becoming an outspoken critic of the police department didn’t happen overnight for any of our whistleblower officers. Some have been speaking out against the department for five to ten years, during which time they’ve all willingly embraced and calculated the potential risks and retaliation. In this regard, more than anything they seem to see the film and its exposure as a potential form of protection. 

Exposing people in documentaries for the first time can be a dangerous prospect so I felt it was important to document the officers’ process of going public on their own, as opposed to being the vehicle that would out them for the first time.  For me as a filmmaker, the idea of breaking a story is also so much less interesting than patiently waiting to see what happens after a story is broken by traditional media – and in this case, even more fascinating to see that despite some serious print and broadcast coverage, there was still little local and national awareness of their case which raises so many questions about the reticence of media to report certain stories of race, our news consumption habits, and perhaps the public’s openness to certain counter-narratives in law enforcement.

One thing is for certain, that the department is aware of the film because four days after receiving the Special Jury Prize at Sundance, it was reported that an internal video message was circulated to all 36,000 uniformed officers essentially reminding personnel that there has never been and continues to be no quota. Interestingly, two weeks later, another internal memo was circulated ordering all uniformed officers and supervisors to take a mandatory “no quota” training and reiterating… that there is no quota.  

In the last couple years, we’ve had a number of films deal with the dire consequences of these discriminatory policing practices. Aside from “The Force,” I can’t think of another film that’s told a story from the police’s perspective (and that film ended up being fairly critical), so I’m wondering how important do you think it is to have this kind of sympathetic portrait of individual police officers right now?

There have been many films about police misconduct, corruption, the militarization of police, cases of unlawful killings of minorities and scandals within departments. What was most exciting for me was the opportunity to create an observational film that would introduce a voice not yet heard in the fraught police-community debate - that of the whistleblower officer. While the perspectives of active duty police have often been documented – something I learned while making previous projects on policing is that the message delivered when filming officially “approved” officers can be incomplete and purposefully granted. So featuring unsanctioned voices that could speak about problems in policing with first-hand experience working in law enforcement allowed for a more authentic account that could be both critical but also sympathetic in navigating questions the role police must play in society. 

For better or for worse, it was important to me to make a film that would be accessible to both minorities who feel targeted by police as well as police who feel assailed about the de-legitimization of police. Both are impacted by the more daunting question our film hopes to conjure – that patrolmen as well as minority communities are vectors in a larger system of revenue generation and the optics of “crime reduction.” For this reason, I wanted to portray policing issues in New York City from a systemic vantage point that might allow viewers to think past the individualized cases at hand, or even the binary of pro- or anti-law enforcement, so all viewers might consider these more invisible political and systemic forces that impact all.

Through the interconnected stories of Manual Gomez, the ex-cop turned private eye, to each of the NYPD12 cops, Pedro Hernandez, the lawyers and families, there was a rare opportunity to show the ripple effect of quota-driven policing practices with both a human and systemic lens. Following this ripple effect, to my surprise, also revealed a powerful intersection of efforts to make positive change throughout the city.

Today it is all too common for cops and minorities to be portrayed as ‘racist police’ and the ‘dangerous criminals’ they must contain. This is why it felt important to create a more sympathetic portrait of all with the hopes of demonstrating how discriminatory policing practices may not be the stated goal – but can be an inevitable outcome for power structures that aim to empower the institution of policing above the actual officers or citizens they are responsible to protect and serve. 

Paula Froehle