Netflix's Police Documentaries Can't Escape the Toxic Shadow of 'Cops'

flint town netflix
'Flint Town' | Zackary Canepari/Netflix
'Flint Town' | Zackary Canepari/Netflix

On the morning of July 7, 2016, a group of cops in Flint, Michigan, gathered at conference tables during roll call to watch the latest act of citizen journalism creating headlines across America. A YouTube video, playing on a TV in the center of the room, showed Diamond "Lavish" Reynolds, a young woman from Minnesota, live-streaming the shooting of her boyfriend, Philando Castile, by a police officer. As the scene unfolded, some of the Flint officers averted their eyes. Others solemnly shook their heads. The room was silent except for the sound of the video.

When the clip ended, a discussion about policing in the era of cell phone cameras and Black Lives Matter broke out. A white officer named Robert Frost remarked that this particular interaction reminded him of similar incidents in the press and that the video only showed "one side of what happened." Another white officer criticized not the officer who shot Castile but Reynolds's decision to film the encounter. "Her boyfriend just got shot by the police," he said, "and her first reaction is to take out her cell phone and start recording. And she was pretty callous about it." He went on. "Assume you're always being recorded. Don't let it change your tactics."

His comment comes with a layer of irony: The entire exchange was filmed as part of Flint Town, a new Netflix documentary series about policing that debuted March 2 and, along with Dirty Money, Dope, and Shot in the Dark, is part of a wave of original programming on the streaming giant showing the gritty aspects of the true-crime genre. The episodes chronicle the city's police department during a year in which it faced budget cuts, rising crime rates, and a water crisis that left as many as 8,000 children exposed to lead. Given an unparalleled level of access to the Flint police department, filmmakers Zackary Canepari, Drea Cooper, and Jessica Dimmock sought to portray the economic and racial tensions that exist between law enforcement and the communities they're tasked with overseeing.

With its carefully composed photography, highly serialized storylines, and gestures towards relevant political issues, Flint Town initially scans as the antithesis to Cops, the controversial reality series with the famous theme song that debuted on Fox in 1989, thrived in syndication, and is still chugging right along, now on the Paramount Network. But the show is also a byproduct of Netflix's strategy to expand its content library exponentially and reel in every possible subscriber by dabbling in every genre seen across the linear TV landscape. Accomplishing that task will require Netflix to adopt a "throw everything at the wall and see what sticks" ethos, and as anyone raised on TV knows, there's always going to be unhealthy ingredients mixed into their overall media diet.

Like Cops, for example. Since the start, Cops has peddled a now ubiquitous aesthetic: a cinéma vérité style, an absence of voice-over narration, the occasional car chase, and a warped view of poverty and crime. It's a problematic program. It's also a popular and lucrative American institution. So is Flint Town a farm-to-table Cops? Or is the series and Netflix's other recent crime-related reality shows just more fast food TV with a veneer of respectability?

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There's a moment in Flint Town when one of the show's new trainees, 20-year-old Dion Reed, relaxes on the couch with his girlfriend by watching an A&E show about corrections officers. In a later episode, Dion describes how he used to watch cop shows before he joined the police academy. "Every single show is someone getting in a forcible, or getting in a foot chase, or something crazy," he says in a voice-over as we watch him patrol the streets in his car. "Now that I'm actually a police officer, every call is not a foot chase or car chase. Most of the time, they just need someone to talk to."

Shots fired, right? It's an aside that can also be interpreted as a subtle dig at Cops or as an authorial mission statement: Where shows like Cops are constructed, emphasizing the sensational aspects of police work, Flint Town is real. The fact that one of the subjects of the documentary calls into question the truth of other cop shows means that this one is selling a more authentic version of reality. 

It's a tactic that John Langley, the creator of Cops, has used to defend his own show in the past. "You can be entertained by it, you can be disgusted, but it is what happened,” he told The New York Times in 2007. “It wasn’t staged, it wasn’t scripted. I didn’t put anyone on an island and tell them what to do.”

'Cops' creator John Langley | Todd Oren/Getty Images for Langley Productions

There's something almost quaint about Langley using Survivor to make the case for his own controversial show, which a recent piece by the Marshall Project dubbed "the most polarizing reality TV show in America." Before he became a reality TV mogul, Langley was a PhD dropout from the University of California at Irvine working odd jobs in the film industry. In the '80s, Langley and his producing partner Malcolm Barbour made a drug trade documentary called Cocaine Blues, which caught the eye of celebrity newsman Geraldo Rivera. Rivera recruited the pair to produce the syndicated special American Vice: The Doping of a Nation in 1986 and the drug bust segments served as the inspiration for what eventually became Cops. By 1989, the show was a hit for the network, where it paired nicely with the similarly lurid America's Most Wanted. The reign of the "Bad Boys" had arrived.

In the same way a fictional cop show like the drama Dragnet -- with its "just the facts" sensibility -- served as a fractured lens to view the Watts Rebellion of 1965, Cops provided an off-kilter way to view the policing issues of the '90s. In a period defined by the Rodney King tape and the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1994, the show became central to how the public understood law enforcement.  

Did Cops dig deep into these two events and their lingering effects on social institutions? Of course not. But its rotating cast of drug addicts, drunk drivers, and shirtless felons attempting to get away on foot forms a counter-history. In a 2015 essay for Pitchfork about reality shows like Cops and the rise of gangsta rap, writer Eric Harvey described the series as "a highly effective PR bullhorn for the 'human' side of police-work."

A "Drop Cops" campaign launched by the non-profit civil rights advocacy program Color of Change put it in even blunter terms. In a 2013 press release, the group argued that FOX had "built a profit model around distorted and dehumanizing portrayals of Black Americans and the criminal justice system." 

Netflix flint town
'Flint Town' | Zackary Canepari/Netflix

Flint Town isn't a bullhorn, but it might be a dog whistle. While the show features frank talk about structural racism, rampant poverty, and the militarization of the modern police force -- there's even a sequence where we see the department auctioning off recovered guns -- it also embraces countless manipulative conventions of reality TV and filmic storytelling. Weapons are framed in shots that look like stills from action movies. Operations run by the city's elite "CATT" tactical squad are edited to look like scenes from Sicario.

There's even a romance between two white officers that feels like a Midwestern take on The Office: He needs to stay in Flint because his kids live in the city, but she wants to leave town and possibly join the FBI. The series oscillates between moments of domestic tranquility and gun-totting bluster. "We're trying to make beautiful stuff," Flint Town co-creator Zackary Canepari told Vice. "I think in a sense, we engage an audience and we want things to be beautiful and well-shot. Yet proactive policing is not pretty. It's ugly."

Depending on how you respond to the imagery, you'll either become more invested in the human drama onscreen or get turned off by the slickness of the show. It's a shame, because there are moments of candor and honesty, particularly when the black officers speak at length about their service, that deserve to be seen by a mass audience sedated by Blue Bloods reruns. After hanging up from a phone call with his wife on Election Day, Officer Brian Willingham, who penned a thoughtful op-ed about community policing for The New York Times in 2016, assessed the situation with clear-eyes. "I think the whole political thing is a smoke screen from this kind of thing that we really need to deal with," said Willingham as he drove through his community. "Will our system change to a level that it would address this kind of problem? I don't think it will. I don't think it's designed to."

It's a harsh read, but Willingham's words carry real weight. The election of Donald J. Trump, who ran a campaign promising a Nixon-ian return to "law and order," hangs over the entire series. For the most part, the white officers on the show are pro-Trump; the black officers are not. But there's a sense that the city's residents have been abandoned by both mainstream political parties. Ideas about mass incarceration, plunder, and systematic racism that have been hashed out in books by writers like Michelle Alexander and Ta-Nehisi Coates also rise to the surface. These concepts don't get examined in your average episode Cops that you catch on the TV at the laundromat.

Netflix Dope
'Dope' | Netflix

For all its flaws, Flint Town is an attempt to grapple with big ideas. It incorporates the voices of people in the community, local politicians, and media members to tell a panoramic story of a city in crisis. Dope -- Netflix's other criminal justice-adjacent original series that debuted in December -- couldn't be more different in form and content. Each of its four episodes examines a different location in the never-ending War on Drugs: Oakland, Baltimore, the Mexican border, and Chicago all serve as backdrops for the first season (with more on the way on April 20). Unfortunately, each installment is bad in its own unique way.

Compared to the promotional roll-out that accompanied Flint Town or the Alex Gibney-produced Dirty Money, Dope was dumped on the platform like a bag of money tossed from the bag of a truck. The first episode "America's Cup of Coffee" was directed by filmmaker Dickon Le Marchant, who previously helmed an episode of the National Geographic series Drugs Inc., and he brings all the shoddiest elements of basic cable documentary filmmaking to bear on his subject. Chintzy drone photography, gravelly voice-over narration, and a reliance on text-on-screen to explain basic concepts make it feel like a parody of an over-the-top, alarmist TV special. The score, which was composed by a company called Extreme Music Ltd., sounds like Papa Roach.

These lapses in artistic judgment would be more defensible if it felt like the show was coming from an empathetic place. Besides a handful of revealing interviews with drug users and dealers, the series displays all the nuance of a Dick Tracy comic strip. As others have pointed out on Reddit and Twitter threads, the series gives off a vibe that could generously be described as inaccurate. (That's mostly the dealer sections; the police sections are dull enough to likely be real.) Even if the footage is 100% authentic, it often feels staged and rehearsed. In reality programming, that's the kiss of death.

Alaska State Troopers
Alaska State Troopers | National Geographic

After I finished Flint Town and Dope, the algorithmic guiding hand of Netflix pointed me towards even more Cops-like programming. These shows and movies aren't officially under the Netflix Originals umbrella -- they mostly originally aired on American cable networks or in the UK -- but they're worth considering as pieces in a larger puzzle. Many are directly tied to locations and climate: There's cold and icy (Alaska State Troopers) or warm and sweaty (Miami SWAT). If you prefer your cop show with a famous face, there's Vinnie Jones Toughest Cops USA, which finds the British footballer traveling stateside to bother American police officers on their rounds. (Sadly, Steven Seagal: Lawman is not available on Netflix.)

The best Cops knock-offs in Netflix's library is Under Arrest, a re-edited version of a Canadian series that aired in the '90s and early '00s as To Serve and Protect. Capturing the same context-less whirl of anarchy and mundanity that often made Cops so perversely watchable, Under Arrest bounces from conflict to conflict with no rhyme or reason. One episode I watched featured a young man carrying a sword down the middle of the street in a misguided effort to frighten some bouncers who threatened to beat up his brother. In another scene, a young woman worried about her escaped salamanders after a violent domestic dispute between her neighbors led to the destruction of her terrarium. I wanted more of that woman's story. What happened to her salamanders?

There's often a void in documentaries about law enforcement: the victims. We watch alleged criminals get placed in the back of cop cars and we follow the tired officer as he makes his way back to the station at the end of the day, but the men and women who must deal with the aftermath are rarely given a voice. Maybe they huddle in the background of a scene or provide a quick testimony. They're rarely centered in the story. Eventually, their absence becomes a type of presence.

In its dutiful way, Flint Town makes an effort to rectify this problem. Citizens in the town are given the chance to speak on screen in confessional interviews, voicing their opinions on the relationship between the police and the community. They serve as a Greek chorus at pivotal moments. Peter Nicks' The Force, a recent documentary on Netflix that focuses on the Oakland police department, also attempts to bridge this divide. But both the show and the movie inevitably ends up feeling weighted towards the institutions they intend to critique. How could it not? Even as the scope of the story widens, law enforcement is always at the center.

Strong Island
Strong Island | Yance Ford/Netflix

One of the most striking elements of Strong Island, the Oscar-nominated feature debut from documentary filmmaker Yance Ford, is the way the police officers in the story are heard but not seen. Like Flint Town or Dope, Ford's film is a Netflix Original, but it has a formal rigor and deeply personal tone that separates it from many true crime documentaries. In the battle between quality and quantity that has come to define Netflix's expanding library, Strong Island is a sign that the company can occasionally not just recognize greatness but also get greatness in front of an audience. Though their viewing data isn't available, one has to assume the Oscar attention for the film attracted more than a few curious eyeballs who would have skipped over a film like this in theaters. This is the kind of work they should be making.

There's not a larger mystery driving the plot. Instead, Ford, a black trans man, tells the story of his brother Will's death in 1992 after he was shot in the chest during an argument at a garage in Long Island. Following an investigation, a grand jury decided to not take the case to trial and Will's killer walked away free. Justice remains elusive for Ford's family. Weaving together interviews with his mother, old family photographs, and his own testimonials, framed in strikingly cropped close-ups, Ford pays tribute to his brother by excavating his own memories.

He also makes an incredibly difficult phone call to a police officer, inquiring about details of the investigation years later, and it ends in heaving cries of pain. It's the rare case where the police officer is the absence. He's only a voice on the line and then he's gone. Abandoned by the institution that's sworn to protect and serve him, Ford makes the same decision Diamond "Lavish" Reynolds and countless others have made in times of crisis and struggle. He turns the camera on himself.

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Dan Jackson is a staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.