The new Netflix docuseries sticks close to the understaffed police department and the day-to-day struggles of overworked officers. The pressures they face are harrowing, with simmering and justifiable anger from the community always present as they rush from call to call, their workload too much to accomplish anything but reaction, often late. In one jarring scene, officer Bridgette Balasko responds to a violent house break-in 27 hours after the initial call, the victim already back from the hospital and stitched up after the assault.
“There’s no real policing when you’re taking that many calls, you’re just driving to addresses like the UPS man,” Sergeant Robert Frost says.
With only 98 officers for 100,000 residents (a handful more are hired over the course of the docuseries), the police are acutely aware of the problems, both in the community and in their limited capacity to address widespread crime.
“The folks who are in the community, they don’t give a shit about our staffing problems,” Captain Devon Bernritter says. “They don’t give a fuck about what our current union crisis is, or pay, or whatever. We need help. I mean, every system has a breaking point.”
Officers describe getting laid off over and over, then being rehired when the budget allows it. “How the fuck do you ever relax and think, ‘I’m secure now?’” one asks.
But budgetary problems are far from the only policing limitation revealed in Flint Town. In an interview with Vice, the Flint Town documentarians, Zackary Canepari, Drea Cooper and Jessica Dimmock, described how Flint Town changed their own thoughts on policing. “As a New Yorker and someone who is coastal, I thought I had it figured out about the police, and I don’t think that anymore,” Dimmock said. “I hope people who are anti-cop feel different watching this. I hope people who are solely pro-cop also feel different watching this. That’s our biggest hope.”
The same sentiment is echoed in Flint Town. “We have to show people that we’re human too,” one officer says.
While it’s easy to sympathize with many of the police in Flint (or hard, such as when officers add callous commentary to the video of Philando Castile’s death), Flint Town often reveals individual sympathies to be beside the point.
Though Flint Town keeps its focus tightly on the police department, it finds numerous opportunities to offer broader local and national contexts, particularly as the city becomes a repeat campaign stop for 2016 presidential candidates. And looming over it all is what residents and police alike refer to as the “water crisis” or “water situation,” which refers to the switch of municipal water from Detroit’s water supply to the Flint River, a cost-cutting decision that poisoned residents with elevated lead levels, in some tests more than 866 times the upper limit allowed by federal guidelines.
For years, state regulatory officials downplayed the threat to public safety, overrode fixes proposed by the Flint City Council and allegedly buried contamination studies, eventually leading to a state of emergency, national outrage, resignations and criminal charges, including manslaughter and obstruction of justice. Despite political grandstanding at every level of government, the crisis is ongoing, with an estimated 12,000 Flint area children exposed and thousands of homes awaiting pipe replacements.
Lead exposure causes irreversible brain damage (and has been theorized to increase crime rates). The Washington Post reports the number of third-graders who tested as proficient in reading at their grade level dropped from 41.8 to 10.7 percent between 2013 and 2017.
The Flint Police Department has no solution for a problem of that scale. Instead, they fight its symptoms, often with tactics and metrics that further alienate residents. In the first episode of Flint Town, the chief of police is replaced. The new chief, Timothy Johnson, pushes zero tolerance policies, resulting in arrests for minor offenses, and cracks down on high crime areas. The result is predictable, with Johnson’s CATT (Crime Area Target Team) squad hassling poor people just as often as it takes guns off the streets.
Flint’s problems are poverty and government corruption with its residents as the victims. As much as Flint Town makes obvious the need for police, often the only resource for people subjected to violence, no policing can fix the problems that necessitates aggressive policing in the first place. Subjecting the poor and non-violent to the worst prison system in the developed world can’t be allowed to suffice as an acceptable side effect in addressing a city’s violence. Flint Town humanizes the police and their often thankless work, but also exposes just how inadequate a response policing is in the first place. It will never simply be about weeding out the bad cops and keeping the good.
Flint Town is a beautiful, troubling, thought-provoking documentary series. All eight episodes are now available to stream on Netflix.
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