How does a police department respond to a city in crisis?
In 2014, Flint, Michigan switched its water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River in a bid to save money, but toxic levels of lead leached into the city’s tap water. A year later, the city elected a new mayor who in turn hired a new police chief. Tim Johnson arrived at the job facing a funding and personnel shortage in a city that is the ninth most violent in America.
Under these conditions, Jessica Dimmock, Zackary Canepari and Drea Cooper began filming the city’s police department for “Flint Town,” a new eight-episode series on Netflix. The show provides a rare insight into a how lack of resources puts a further strain on the already tense relationship between the police department and the community it serves.
Over 20 months, Canepari, Cooper and Dimmock documented the struggles of the department and its officers against the backdrop of the 2016 presidential election and a series of police-involved shootings that rocked the country.
In the series’ third episode, the filmmakers captured the officers’ reactions in July 2016 as they watched a video during roll call of Philando Castile dying after being shot by a cop in Minnesota. One of the Flint officers questions why Castile’s girlfriend would film him as he moaned in pain. Another argues that the officer who shot Castile was reacting in fear by continuing to point the gun at an incapacitated man, screaming at him. Many agreed that the Minnesota officer would be crucified by the press and the public in the coming days.
We see the officers examining themselves and their role in the community while laying bare their biases. The scene and the series as a whole shows police officers struggling not only with limited resources and a fraught relationship with city residents but also with their own conceptions of what it means to police a community.
Over the past 10 years, budget cuts have reduced Flint’s police force from about 300 officers to 98 serving 100,000 residents. As a consequence, officers cannot answer non-urgent 911 calls in a timely manner. In the first episode of the series, Officer Bridgette Balsko arrives 27 hours after a call is made reporting a robbery and assault. While 27 hours is an extreme example, the average response time approaches an hour. Though the department has tried several ways of reducing the response time, including taking reports over the phone, training and hiring a volunteer police force, and installing an intel center run by civilian employees, the department remains overwhelmed. “How can you trust the police when you can’t rely on them to help when you need them?” asks Cooper.
The filmmakers interview a resident who refuses to vote in favor of providing more funds to the police department, because he feels that Flint officers pull over and arrest too many people for petty crimes.
Capt. Devon Bernritter acknowledges the rift between officers and community members after he pulls over an African-American woman who nervously lies about her name. “It might be that the relationship that she personally has or her neighbor has or her family has somehow led her to the point where she feels like she can’t trust the police. She had no reason to lie other than she drove the wrong way on a one-way,” Bernritter says to the camera.
Brian Willingham, a Flint police officer and pastor, tries to reconcile the concerns of his cash-strapped department with his desire to serve the community. He asks: “How am I bettering the community by writing a person that already has multiple warrants more tickets that they can’t pay? The decisions you make as a cop have a ripple effect on the real life of people.”