By Aja Hoggatt
August 24, 2018 at 09:36 PM EDT
Credit: Hulu

On September 1, 2015, shots were fired in front of a Bronx grocery store as a fight escalated between two rival street crews. As the crowd dispersed, a teen was caught in the crossfire, sustaining a gunshot wound to the ankle as a bullet ricocheted off the sidewalk. Law enforcement tried tracking down the shooter, and one name quickly rose out of the chaos: Pedro Hernandez. With two eyewitness accounts confirming him as the shooter, 15-year-old Hernandez was arrested and sent to Rikers Island in 2016.

There’s just one catch: Hernandez was innocent.

Hernandez’s arrest was a result of quota-based policing; eyewitness accounts were coerced. (The unjust policing practice was outlawed in 2010, yet police officers continue to be expected to maintain a certain number of arrests each month.) By the time he was arrested for the market shooting, Hernandez had already been arrested eight times in 2015 alone, with each charge being dropped due to insufficient evidence. He spent 12 months at the island jail awaiting trial, turning down plea deals and never wavering on his innocence.

The outcome of Hernandez’s case is explored in the new documentary, Crime + Punishment on Hulu. Along with Hernandez’s story, the illuminating film focuses on 12 whistleblower cops (known as the NYPD 12) and their highly publicized class-action lawsuit against the NYPD for racially discriminatory quota goals, which were outlawed in 2010, but continue to be an expectation of the job.

These cops were punished for refusing to falsely arrest the citizens they swore to protect. Crime + Punishment director Stephen Maing documented this over the course of four incredibly trying years, striving to bring a human perspective to a complex issue. “This is not a didactic film,” he tells EW. “This really is about the human experience, this is about the intimate access to these officers and families and the whole ecosystem of individuals who kind of contribute to this larger systemic movement.”

Maing captures the hardships each officer faces in an attempt to shed a light on the corruption that not only affects communities, but the officers who refuse to take part. One such officer is Sandy Gonzalez, a 12-year veteran of the force who was demoted for not complying with the quota policy. “They’re retaliating against me for my numbers,” Gonzalez can be heard saying over the phone to Maing in the film. He later agreed to let Maing film his first shift as a foot officer, a demotion which left him locked to a designated block for the entirety of his shift.

Crime + Punishment captures the moment in which Gonzalez is reprimanded unjustly by a fellow officer (who writes him up for a minor uniform violation). The experience is no different for the rest of the NYPD 12. They’re put on foot patrol and the night shift, ostracized by their fellow officers, and denied promotions, all for their refusal to commit an illegal act to keep up with a numbers game.

“When I saw firsthand this moment of retaliation over a full [eight]-hour shift — taxpayer dollars paying essentially for this cop to stand on a corner — I knew that this was sort of the beginning of something that felt [like] a really important public interest,” Maing explains.

One of the film’s most compelling characters is Manny Gomez, an ex-cop turned private investigator who tirelessly works to exonerate Hernandez and fight false, quota-driven cases. As Gomez works to prove Hernandez’s innocence, the audience gets an up-close look at the boys continuously targeted by these practices. It’s key to the documentary’s success: Walking around the Bronx in a triple-breasted suit, Gomez speaks with young men in the neighborhood, putting faces to the numbers and showing the true cost of revenue-driven arrests.

“Something I realized early was that if we could expand the burden of responsibility and liability [to the] other individuals pushing back against… the criminal justice system, against the NYPD, we could [create a] corroborating effect, [so] that the individual [NYPD 12] claim[s] could not be so easily dismissed by the city or department,” says Maing.

Maing intended to show that all of these claims were connected “and radiated out into the community and into the courtroom and then into homes,” creating a “ripple effect that policy and practice have throughout the entire city.” One member of the NYPD 12, Edwin Raymond, recorded his boss informing him that his promotion was being blocked due to his “dreads” — and his race. He’s later seen reading an evaluation riddled with grammatical and spelling errors that essentially implies Raymond has a low IQ. (In reality, he had the eighth-highest score on the sergeants’ exam, out of 900 total cops.) “When you have this kind of numbers-driven system, it’s a very slippery slope,” warns Maing. “You can see the deeply damaging impact that this can have on lives because not everybody has the strength or the resources to fight back like Pedro did.”

Since filming, four members of the NYPD 12 — Detective Derick Waller, Officer Adhyl Polanco, Officer Julio Diaz, and Officer Kareem Abdulla — have retired. Some of the officers did so early, without benefits. “A few of them would have continued on, but just felt like they were so unwelcome and [blocked] in their career advancement in the department to do anything useful or meaningful,” Maing reveals.

Today, the NYPD still insists it has no quota system; however, the department recently began mandatory “no quota” training for officers across the city.

“Crime reduction shouldn’t come at the cost of community harm,” Maing argues. “That’s kind of the mantra here.”

Crime + Punishment is available on Hulu and in select theaters Aug. 24.