“I haven’t seen a dead body that’s bothered me for a long time” one cop in Flint, Michigan, confides to camera. Flint: a city that, by any measure, is broken. 41% of people live under the poverty line. The city has been in the top three most violent cities in America for decades. You can’t even drink the water for fear of lead poisoning. It’s in this environment that a city of 100,000 people is served by a police department reduced to 98 officers (down from 300) and with only 4 squad cars.
Flint Town is a documentary series that primarily follows the embattled police force between November 2015 to early 2017. During this period a new mayor is elected and police chief appointed, a vital millage vote (to raise funds for the police and fire service) is campaigned for, and the 2016 presidential election takes place.
This isn’t your ‘fly on the wall style documentary’. The filmmakers have opted for an overtly dramatic approach soaked in slow-mos, tension heightening music, and moody camera angles. Cops, residents, and politicians all talk directly to camera in front of a pure black backdrop. Time is spent hanging around the family homes of rookie cop Dion and his fiancée, as well as ambitious Bridgette and gruff Robert as an in-love cop couple. Some documentaries feature low key observations that coerce out secret worlds. In contrast, Flint Town is constructed with all the presentation of cop shows themselves.
What the documentary reveals though is fascinating. “It’s our city. Just take it,” says incoming police chief Tim Johnson, keen to make aggressive changes to bring down crime. We watch him come in with ham-fisted but enthusiastic speeches – his comments about high divorce rates to the new academy graduates are fist gnawingly awkward – and end the show painfully berating the council for being denied funds. The militarisation of police is evident with much police training seeming to consist of how to shoot and get shot. “You gotta keep fighting, even with a bullet in your arm” says one trainer to a muted cadet.
Key to most of the town’s problems is lack of funds. The water crisis plaguing the town has confidence in elected officials at an all-time low. It was caused by an attempt to move to a cheaper water source, resulting in lead leaching into the supply from the aging pipes. The lack of officers leads to a volunteer academy in an attempt to bridge the gap between the community and police. A noble idea, but having quasi-officers – armed of course – seems a recipe for disaster. Chief Johnson even goes so far as to take all the guns confiscated from criminals and sell them back to gun shops. Revenue for the police is of prime concern, not whether or not arms are potentially returned to the hands of those who would use them to kill.
Flint Town’s 8 episodes do get a bit repetitive as the main issues are covered early. The narrative is constructed from the tax-raising millage and the Trump vs Clinton election, amongst a backdrop of racial tension and rising violence against the police. The personal stories and views of the people interviewed give the biggest insights, with one black officer admitting to burnout but not wanting to retire due to fear that doing so will weaken the representation for the black community in the force. Flint Town presents Flint as a microcosm of broken America with little hope for the future. Happy New Year, everyone.
Words by Michael Record