'Crime + Punishment:' Being Black &/or Latinx in a Broken System

     'Brown Eyes, Silver Screen' is a blog by Reyes Ramirez that focuses on Latinx film in the United States and abroad. The first few posts will be in conjunction with the 3rd Annual Houston Latino Film Festival (March 22 - 25, 2018). This blog hopes to further discourse, informally and formally, regarding Latinx film topics, trends, aesthetics, audiences, etc. while also uplifting Latinx directors, actors, writers, etc.

Officer Felicia Whitely

Officer Felicia Whitely

          It’s opening night for the 3rd annual Houston Latino Film Festival at Talento Bilingue de Houston. There’s free beer; I’ve run into an old friend; I’ve somehow gotten into a discussion about the education system in Texas with someone I’d just met. The prior two opening nights, in 2016 and 2017, featured explosive films, Viva (2015) and Dolores (2017) respectively, and this one was no different. Crime + Punishment (2018), a documentary directed by Stephen Maing, focuses on the NYPD 12, a group of 12 police officers of color, active and retired, who are suing the city of New York and the NYPD for forcing them to meet racial quotas through trumped up arrest charges, despite quotas having been outlawed by the city. Two of the original 12 police officers, Adhyl Polanco and Derick Waller, are in attendance, though now retired from police work. A group, composed mostly of black and brown bodies, file into the theater. We all watch the movie together. Its gravity pushes us all down into our seats.

            It perhaps goes without saying what was on most of our minds in that room, watching a movie about institutional corruption, racist and discriminatory practices, and the military industrial complex in a US police force: I know this; we’ve known this. We get reminders. Stephon Clark was murdered by police a few days earlier from tonight for having a cell phone, interpreted by police as a gun, in Sacramento, California. Us Houstonians have it built in our DNA, too: less than an hour’s drive away, Sandra Bland; in 1977, Joe Campos Torres; less than a year ago, Marlin Gipson had a dog sic’d on him and tazed after being confronted by police for giving out his yard work business card door-to-door (arrested for ‘failure to identify’ and ‘evading arrest,’ both charges were dropped for insufficient evidence.) We get it (well, you know. Except those who don’t). But, here’s the thing. The movie shows how hell freezes over: police officers not only admitting openly that racism exists in police departments and in their policing, but also trying to stop it from happening.

          Each of the officers recognize how rare of a species they are. As such, the movie keenly maneuvers between macro to micro, micro to macro, etc., if you will, to show how these officers are operating against a machine much larger and older than themselves: a title card with facts/figures; a shot (from a drone? I bet it’s a drone) of New York, the port water shimmering gold from the sun, overlaid with a non-diegetic phone call between one of the whistleblowers and the director; an induction ceremony for fresh police academy graduates with a speech by former Commissioner William Bratton leading a recitation of a police oath; a shot of South Bronx, snowy and windy; then the camera finally rests on Officer Sandy Gonzales looking in a mirror, buttoning up his shirt to get ready for another day on the force, anxious. The director is deft in these movements so that you won’t forget what’s at stake, what energy is flowing between all these injustices.

"NYPD officer Edwin Raymond describes his hopes of fixing the system from the inside by becoming a cop..."

          We watch the officers try to live normal lives, despite everything going on: Officer Felicia Whitely, the sole black woman of the NYPD 12, helps her daughter get ready for prom; we learn of her fears, the repercussions of her speaking out while still on duty; we learn she is pregnant; we see her go through all this. Another: Officer Edwin Raymond, a young, black officer who graduated 8th out of 6,000 applicants on a sergeant’s exam, struggles with the moral and ethical quandary of being asked to oppress other black men (he should be a poet/writer, if he isn’t already). There are scenes where the officers speak to community leaders, to the press, to each other, making game plans on how to talk, what terms to use, what each of their goals are. Anthony Miranda, a retired lieutenant and head of the National Latino Officers Association, speaks to Officer Raymond and reveals a harsh truth to him: the legal system is not built to correct to itself. We see Officer Raymond grow from this; while speaking to a group of community leaders, he says something along the lines of: “you are not going to get this for another hundred years,” this referring to a group of police officers whistle blowing on the corrupt nature of the NYPD. It’s a bit pessimistic, no? Or realist? There’s a subplot that follows private investigator Manuel ‘Manny’ Gomez as he gathers clues, evidence, and testimonies in order to free Pedro Hernandez, a young victim of this quota system; he knows that NYPD simply fill quotas with young, innocent bodies without any semblance of proof. Polanco and Waller mention that this is one youth out of thousands.

          I wanted to ask the officers in attendance during their Q&A if they believed that as well, “Will it truly be another 100 years before a sizable amount of police speak out against the corruption in their departments?” Both officers were open and honest. Polanco, when the Q&A began, announced that he would take ANY questions or comments, even criticisms or derision. He was willing to accept the anger, outrage, fear, frustration, etc. from all those who are subject to the practices he represented while wearing the badge and uniform. He answered questions in English and Spanish. Both officers were candid about the level of racism in NYPD policing: no, the police do not hassle or fuck with white people/communities as badly as they do black and Latinx communities; if an officer were to hassle or fuck with white people as they did black and Latinx people, that officer would be removed from that placement and replaced by an officer who would play ball; no white officers have joined or helped them in their lawsuit, the NYPD 12 made up of black, Latinx, Afro-Latinx officers. Both officers said that it’s important to watch the movie to see how this all works, this corruption, because the NYPD is the ‘epicenter’ of policing practices; what gets introduced and practiced in New York policing becomes perfected everywhere else, like Ferguson, like Houston. I didn’t get to ask my question, but I suppose it didn’t matter. It’s up to all of us.

Amidst a landmark class action lawsuit over illegal policing quotas, Crime + Punishment chronicles the real lives and struggles of a group of black and Latino whistleblower cops and the young minorities they are pressured to arrest and summons in New York City.

Reyes Ramirez