One of the key moments in “Flint Town,” the newest Netflix documentary series, is not something that happens in Michigan but in Texas. Through archival news footage, we see a clip from President Obama’s address at the memorial service for the five officers killed in the July 2016 ambush in downtown Dallas. The president’s remarks included this idea: “We wonder if an African-American community that feels unfairly targeted by police and police departments that feel unfairly maligned for doing their jobs, can ever understand each other’s experience…We see all this, and it’s hard not to think sometimes that the center won’t hold and that things might get worse.”
It’s a sentiment that drives much of what “Flint Town” — directed by Jessica Dimmock, Drea Cooper, and Zackary Canepari — is trying to convey as well. If the push to hear both sides of an argument has curdled somewhat in the age of “very fine people,” “Flint Town” feels like an attempt at a corrective of sorts, a both-sides approach that’s still capable of presenting a more nuanced view where some still see clearly drawn ideological battle lines.
Over the course of eight episodes, the series charts the calendar year of 2016 from the perspective of the Flint Police Department, a public institution in a state of flux. Against the backdrop of a fatally mismanaged resource decision that effectively poisoned the city’s water supply, Flint continued to become a city vulnerable to a rise in crime without the proper manpower or community goodwill to properly combat it.
The major entry points for “Flint Town” addressing this tumult are the officers themselves, from aspiring federal detective Bridget Balasko to part-time pastor Brian Willingham to even-keeled lieutenant Devon Bernritter. Some of these officers are black, others are self-described country boys. They all have varying tenures of service, from a handful of years stretching into mainstays who have seen the department evolve over multiple decades.
Reaching outside of the inner circle of Flint PD members who have logged three years or more within the department, “Flint Town” also turns its eyes to the newest wave of officers. Police academy trainee Dion Reed becomes a window into what it’s like to take on this job in this city at a particularly volatile time. His sobering recognition that being a policeman isn’t a non-stop barrage of high-speed chases is one of many indications that even among the ranks of the officers, there’s sometimes a gap between perception and reality.
Dimmock, Cooper, and Canepari emphasize that idea by following Reed and some of the more veteran members of the force through the more menial parts of the job that have to be done. Officer Robert Frost answering 911 calls and adding to the ever-growing list of incidents that are waiting for a response only adds to the growing sense of listlessness and frustration that can run through an understaffed unit. Balasko getting momentarily snagged on a barbed wire fence or Bernritter making a passing comment about anti-police graffiti are tinier, full-view moments that a simpler, more compact image of Flint may not have the luxury to include.
Without placing the burden solely on their shoulders, “Flint Town” also allows the black officers in the Flint Police department the chance to acknowledge that for them, they’re often put in an unwinnable position. Flint Police Detectives like Scott Watson and Keith Urquhart feel passionately about doing the job that they have committed in earnest to do, but also acknowledge that there is a great mistrust of law enforcement (and government overall) among some Flint citizens. A job that once brought a sense of fulfillment has become something to hold onto long enough for a pension or to keep someone unfit for the position from having to fill the void they would leave behind. “Flint Town” affords them the opportunity to not have to exist purely as either a symbol for a refutation of the problems that have caused a rift between police and their communities across the country.
As much as “Flint Town” is largely told through the eyes of these officers, that’s not the only perspective the series makes an effort to include. The local ABC TV crime reporter, the spouses who deal with the perils of their husbands’ occupation, and the mothers in the community who sense a growing unease around the disappearing sense of safety in their neighborhoods. All of them have their chance to give their version of Flint that they see and the version that they hope will one day be restored.
To match the number of metaphorical angles the series takes in looking at the city, the “Flint Town” camera takes a number of positions throughout the day-to-day Flint experiences without ever feeling like a gimmick: lingering right around the corner of a house sweep, in the passenger seat of the squad car at night, and from high overhead as the sirens tick on. Watching a stunned officer illuminated only by the red and blue flashing lights or seeing the view from the hood of a squad car as it races through the snow match the contemplativeness and the adrenaline of what it means to experience all these ideas of the course of a single night’s shift.
In addition to the work that the Flint PD does in the community, “Flint Town” also tracks the changes in management style and PR tactics that change under the installation of a new police chief. Tim Johnson is a camera-ready communicator both in his talking head interviews and in the numerous press clips we see. Chief Johnson’s overwhelming commitment to the Crime Area Target Team (CATT) Squad is a clear example of the kind of forceful leadership that can engender support from inside the organization and can seem off-putting to some of those outside. When some question the worth of having a select task force when dangerous incidents sometimes take days to get a response, it underlines a tension between image and substance that ripples through much of what the series focuses on.
It’s not just the Dallas ambush that keeps “Flint Town” connected to what’s happening across the country. One sequence connects a group of officers’ responses to watching the Facebook Live video taken after Philando Castile was killed. The footage of Eric Garner’s lethal arrest and of Walter Scott being shot are all present in a straight-to-camera collection of officers talking about growing national sentiment about in the inherent inequality present in each of these circumstances. Some Flint officers get defensive (including one we know was involved in a police shooting himself), others stress the need for reassessing threats in potentially violent situations.
And as a necessity, following the department throughout that year means that the story of “Flint Town” dovetails with that year’s election. As both a campaign stop and a debate locale for the three most prominent candidates in the presidential race, some candid downtime brings with it some officers’ feelings about the Clinton and Trump campaigns. As Election Day approaches and arrives, a local funding initiative gets a majority of the attention, but it’s the conversations, unspoken and not, about all the November outcomes that makes it more fulfilling when “Flint Town” focuses on individuals more than reductive groups.
Even before the events of late 2016, interviews with this core group of subjects coalesce around an overriding feeling of danger, even more than one might usually expect from the daily duties of a police officer in a city where 98 people are tasked with responding to the needs of a city with a crime rate that ranks high on a national scale. Even if the series itself doesn’t always operate under a neverending danger-around-every-corner approach, many FPD members describe a certain powderkeg feeling that clouds the work they do and the loved ones they leave behind when they go to work each day.
“Flint Town” doesn’t place blame for this attitude on any one decision or factor, instead pointing to a systemic, cyclical problem. The needs of the community overwhelm those in a position to provide meaningful help, leading to law enforcement becoming a symbol of punitive measures rather than a means for keeping peace. For a city gripped by the idea of a lack of accountability for fatal decisions, “Flint Town” shows how these first responders end up on the receiving end of an anger that’s often misplaced, even if it’s justified.
“Flint Town” isn’t intended as a referendum on the intentions of law enforcement officials. The idea that there are profession-specific ideals that even the members of the Flint Police Department disagree on deflates the idea of treating “the police” as a single entity. It doesn’t negate the concerns that many subjects and viewers have about the current state of police-community relationships in cities big and small. If anything, it’s proof that, at least in Flint, the department is not hardened to those viewpoints.
Instead, if there’s a condemnation to be found inside what unfolds in “Flint Town,” it’s challenging the wisdom of short-term solutions to long-term problems. Whether it’s Johnson’s insistence on measuring department effectiveness with a single percentage, the establishment of a military-style subunit, or an emphasis on reserve officers as a stopgap measure, the audience is able to track the initial enthusiasm through to a less-successful conclusion. And that lack of foresight and the danger of impulse extends far beyond one city in Michigan.
Some of the featured officers are split on whether regaining its relationship with the community is possible. “Flint Town” doesn’t offer easy solutions, but it does provide something valuable: a calm, reasoned presentation of the hope for another idea expressed in that speech given in the aftermath of Dallas, “that we are not as divided as we seem.”
“Flint Town” is now available to stream on Netflix.