Netflix's New Series 'Flint Town' Is a Shocking Look at How Politics Affect Our Police

flint town documentary

Election Day 2016: While most of the country is concerned with the presidential race, police officers in Flint, Michigan, eagerly await the results of a more personal vote. They need a public safety millage to pass to ensure there are no cuts to their already under-equipped and understaffed department. Donald Trump might be more supportive of police work than Hillary Clinton, as some of the officers point out in Netflix's new docuseriesFlint Town, but he's also a racist, as some of the African-American cops counter. To all of them, it's the local election that really matters anyway.

Flint Town begins one year earlier when the city elected a new mayor, who in turn chooses a new police chief, who decides it’s time to do something about the crime rate. The new leadership goes with a plan for heavier policing, despite having fewer than 100 officers for more than 100,000 residents. The new chief sets up a Crime Area Target Team (CATT) that utilizes military-grade intimidation tactics to crack down on violence-ridden and drug-infested neighborhoods. The department also initiates a volunteer police unit to put citizens on patrol -- an idea mostly to get more bodies out in the streets but which also works to bring the community closer to the police, and vice versa.

Different Flint police officers have different thoughts on how to lower the crime rate while simultaneously improving their relationship with residents. Some lean toward the tough-guy approach. Some believe the solution is simply to remove the barrier between cops and community -- the people don’t want to be chased, they want someone to talk to, says one officer -- but that’s difficult with such a low ratio of police to population. The cop characters who are originally from Flint, most of them African-American officers, are especially interested in serving their hometown. One cop quips that he sees all the "fuck the police" graffiti around the city as a term of endearment, as if to mean a suggestion to "make love to the police" out of gratitude for their hard work. Another struggles with having to distance himself from family and old friends who spout hatred towards his job.

flint town documentary

Meanwhile, we see a scared and cynical community. The primary incentive to obey the law is expressed by one local as, "Don’t get in trouble, because you don’t know if you’ll get a good cop or a bad cop." As they are in the recent documentary feature The Force (also currently on Netflix), the efforts shown in Flint Town turn out to be Sisyphean tasks. A local TV reporter notes for every step forward, the department takes two steps back. And even when great progress is made, locals are still never satisfied. Pending any major setback shown on screen, we're encouraged to root for the cops to do their best and for that millage to ultimately pass -- more for the sake of the city as a whole.

Flint Town and The Force offer alternatives to the Cops-style verité depiction of police work. As more nonfiction films (including Oscar-nominated short Traffic Stop) look at the issue of racially motivated police brutality through the lens of past incidents, both documentaries showcase attempts to improve police conduct and procedures in order to prevent future abuses and to regain the trust of the people. They focus on the shattered relationships between police and community, with Flint Town especially stressing how the police force should be part of that community -- politicians are actually the more separate and blameworthy part of any city’s problems.

Over the course of eight episodes, the series covers a year in the life of a city also dealing with a preposterous water crisis, a government-made debacle that struck an area already suffering from decades of severe poverty. Flint Town takes viewers on virtual ride-alongs for routine and deadly calls, as well as the "cowboy"-like CATT patrols and raids, centering its narrative around number of officers. We get up close and personal with a pair of officers who are romantically involved and an incoming rookie who just went through the police academy alongside his mother, and we’re given reason to care about, if not always like, these and other members of law enforcement. But it also picks up testimonials from representatives from local news stations and a smattering of civilian voices, providing predominantly pessimistic views on the Flint police and their efforts.

Flint Town is not necessarily pro-police propaganda -- a white cop we’ve gotten to know reveals some unsavory views on race -- but it does ask us to give the men and women in blue a chance while maintaining empathy towards everyone in the city, save for maybe the politicians. Officers are portrayed as being just as uneasy about the ongoing misconduct fueling national outrage against their profession.

Without spoiling it, there is a twist in the end causing the series to emphasize a certain point about where citizens should be directing their anger. Above all else, Flint Town sticks with the theme of empathy for all, but it doesn’t shy away from the real difficulties in maintaining that attitude. There’s a likelihood that after watching the whole thing, whether or not you have a better appreciation for the police, you’ll at least take local government and agencies and community into greater consideration. Because "Flint Town" could, outside of some obvious specifics, could be Anytown.

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