Filmed from above, a dark police car rolls noiselessly along a snow-covered track. Streetlights above reveal the road to be quiet and deserted. A crackly voice issuing from a police radio breaks the silence: “We have a male, white, wearing a Michigan State hoodie down in a driveway, semi-conscious… we [already] have an ambulance en route”. Sirens burst to life and the car streaks off down the road, flooding its path with red and blue flashing lights. Later, the hoodie-wearer is revealed to be the young victim of a violent crime. Paramedics struggle to preserve the life of the casualty while Sergeant Wayne Suttles attempts to question his distraught family. The young boy dies where he lays.
This scene could easily be mistaken for the opening of some dramatic US crime movie. Unfortunately, the reality is far more frightening. These distressing images mark the beginning of Netflix’s new docu-series, Flint Town. The eight-part series follows the police force of Flint, Michigan, as they battle against budget cuts, layoffs and a terrible public image. We meet a police department in crisis set against a backdrop of political upheaval, in which a TV mogul is running for President against the wife of a former leader. Flint’s police numbers are down from 300 to 93 and they have just 9 police cars to protect a population of 100,000. A population that isn’t their biggest fan. The town is experiencing mass unemployment, huge crime rates and, to top it all off, a killer water crisis.
In 2014, Flint officials, in an attempt to save money, switched the town’s water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River. The new supply corroded old pipes and this, along with insufficient water treatment, caused tap water to become contaminated with high levels of lead. The locals were instructed to drink, cook and clean with only bottled water. But this warning came too late. Fourteen people had died from lead poisoning and many more suffered adverse effects owing to the contaminated supply. The understandable outrage and distress felt by citizens only exacerbated crime in the town; crime that had to be dealt with by an already struggling police force.
Flint Town’s episodes are densely packed with action. Viewers are catapulted between scenes of immense brutality, from both police and civilians, to the quiet, mundane home-life of sergeants and townsfolk. The juxtaposition between the busy, anarchic streets and peaceful homes of Flint highlights just how confusing and stressful life must be for its inhabitants.
The series is shot from the perspective of the police force and the audience is given an intimate insight into the lives of officers in which we share the birth of a child, the strains of a romantic relationship and the funeral of a mother. The series co-director, Jessica Dimmock, claimed that, “it felt important to us that we go home with officers, we learn about their personal lives or personal struggles”. Whatever your views on US cops, you can’t help but empathise with their stories as they strain to maintain normal home lives and utterly abnormal jobs. Who can say whether or not the documentary is a completely accurate representation of police proceedings in Flint, the officers do after all know that they’re being filmed, but the on-screen emotions and testimonies do seem raw and organic. What the viewer does come to understand is that Flint is a town of chaos, crises and depravity and that it is a town largely forgotten by the rest of America.