“How can citizens in Flint trust the police to protect them when they can’t even trust their government to provide them with clean water?”
Officer Brian Willingham wrote this in a New York Times opinion when news of the Flint water crisis first broke. Willingham is one of the featured officers in Netflix’s new docuseries “Flint Town” (2018), which focuses on the Flint Police Department and makes the water crisis feel like an afterthought. (Just a reminder, the water crisis is still going on.)
“Flint Town” beautifully captures the tragic situation faced by both the Flint P.D. and the citizens they protect. The documentary lacks real input from the community. Aside from interview segments where residents say a sentence or two, the documentary is driven by the officers. One thing is certain: When you sit down to watch “Flint Town,” you’ll be faced with the harsh reality that one of America’s poorest communities is currently enduring.
Series directors Zackary Canepari, Jessica Dimmock and Drea Cooper spent a year following the police department of Flint while it experiences continuous conflict and strife. While poverty and crime have drastically increased, police resources have decreased.
When you drive into Flint today, you’ll see “Vehicle City” signs that have welcomed visitors since 1899. What was once a prosperous motor city is now a shell of its former self. Thriving factories have been abandoned and replaced by deteriorating buildings. Instead of lively homes, streets are littered with boarded up houses and drug deals. In fact, in 2017, the U.S. Census Bureau named Flint the poorest city in America.
Each episode is just as tense as the previous one as the audience follows around a mostly white, some black, police department that observes and polices a population of over 100,000 mostly black, some white citizens. It doesn’t help that the number of officers has dropped from over 300 a few years ago to just 98 officers.
The eight-part series touches on many dividing topics that impacted Flint from 2015 to 2016. Within that time period, a millage that decided whether or not 20 to 30 additional officers would be let go was decided. On that very day, the 2016 Presidential election split the department in half as differing political views came to a head. And the water crisis happened, which feels forgotten throughout the series.
The “Two Worlds” episode crafted one of the more compelling problems. As the country waited for Election Day results at the national level, the police department collectively held its breath to hear if 20 to 30 of its officers would be laid off.
In preparation for losing a third of its staff, the department created a 30-day police academy for residents to become volunteer reserves of the Flint P.D.
65-year-old reserve officer Lewis Spears said he volunteered “to do whatever it takes to bridge the gap between the community and the police department. So, whatever it takes to help, I’m gonna do it.”
The bridge that Spears enrolled to fix has been damaged for decades. The residents of Flint have been dealing with corruption at the local and state level, culminating with the water crisis, which, again, is surprisingly not as prevalent in the show as was expected.
In one of the most crime-ridden cities in the country, it’s no surprise that the police and community have been at odds. Racial tensions have been on the rise with the increasing number of police brutality cases that have been captured on video. In a predominately black community being governed by a predominately white police force, these tensions are well represented throughout the documentary.
In one jarring scene, officers are shown the tragic killing of Philando Castile, who was shot seven times while in the passenger side of his girlfriend’s car. The officers were given the opportunity to discuss the footage. One officer criticized Castile’s girlfriend for taking out her phone and recording the incident as Castile bled out in the seat next to her.
The most polarizing character on the show, Sergeant Robert Frost, insensitively implied that the video could’ve been edited, saying, “There is so much that happened before that thing actually kicked on, and that’s even if what we saw wasn’t even edited.” (Granted, the video was live-streamed on Facebook, which can’t be edited on-the-go.) He then references the Rodney King video, which had been edited but still showed a force that is as excessive as they come.
These are just some of the most poignant scenes of the harsh reality the members of Flint are facing, as portrayed in the docuseries.