In the first episode of "Flint Town," police officer Bridgette Balasko talks frankly about just how understaffed the cops in this gritty Michigan city are. She demonstrates it, too, by responding to a robbery and assault call 27 hours after it was reported by a resident.
"This city is poor. Our department is poor. That's no secret," says Balasko. "I had heard that Flint was bad. You'd see the news stories. But I had no idea."
The eight-part documentary that lands Friday on Netflix isn't getting the huge publicity push of "Stranger Things 2" or the latest Marvel spin-off. That's a shame. "Flint Town" is a cop show, but it's not just another cop show.
Instead of emphasizing the danger and drama of police work with the "Cops" approach of high-speed chases and tense traffic stops, "Flint Town" goes deeper into the thoughts and conflicted emotions of the men and women who are trying to protect an urban area struggling with poverty, crime, financially strapped public services and, on top of it all, a catastrophic water crisis making international headlines.
Offering rare behind-the-scenes footage of how a police department really operates, "Flint Town" is the latest attempt by filmmakers to capture the Michigan city's challenging story — a catalog of work that runs from 1989's "Roger and Me" by Oscar-winning director Michael Moore to the 2017 Lifetime TV movie about female residents trying to expose the lead contamination of the water system, titled simply "Flint."
While tracking the big picture of budget crunches and community unhappiness, the series introduces viewers to cops like Robert Frost, a department veteran who's frustrated and angered by frequent layoffs and a lack of resources.
"You get one call, you handle that call. You do the best you can with that call, because there's nothing you can do about the other 15 calls that are sitting there," says Frost. "We're just scraping the bottom of the barrel, just trying to keep up. And there's no real policing done when you're taking that many calls. You're just driving to addresses like a UPS man."
Another officer, Scott Watson, is a member of CATT, a Crime Area Target Team created by the new police chief to be proactive. After a group of white and black cops have a discussion at work about the video of a 2016 fatal shooting by a Minnesota cop of Philando Castile, Watson shares his reactions while alone in his patrol car.
"I don't think 'I felt threatened' is a good enough answer in these situations," says Watson, who's African American.
And there's a cadet, Dion Reed, who's training to join the force simultaneously with his mother. The quiet young man brushes his uniform carefully with a lint roller on his first day with the squad and thinks the tactical driving lessons are the fun part of training.
"Flint Town" is remarkable not just for its intimate access, but for the timing of the project. Filmmakers Zackary Canepari, Drea Cooper and Jessica Dimmock co-directed the documentary series that covers a period from November 2015 to early 2017, the same time frame as the 2016 presidential election.
The department captured on-screen is down from 300 cops to 98 for 100,000 people, the lowest number out of comparably sized cities. Over the course of the episodes, the cops will face a crucial millage vote and city government wrangling over funding.
They will deal with the fact that many of Flint's citizens who don't trust them any more than they do the government officials whose decisions wound up poisoning the water with lead. And they'll confront their own feelings about a national wave of incidents that raise questions about police bias and brutality.
The Free Press was unable to reach the Flint Police Department for comment.
Canepari and Cooper collaborated previously on "T-Rex," the 2015 documentary about Claressa (T-Rex) Shields of Flint, the first woman to win a gold medal in Olympic boxing. Winner of the Roger Ebert Award at the Traverse City Film Festival, "T-Rex" was applauded for its portrayal of Shields inside and outside the sport.
Around the same time that "T-Rex" premiered, Canepari and Cooper, who were joined by Dimmock, launched their initial conversations with city and police officials, including then-Chief James Tolbert.
"I think there was some excitement that we had told a positive story about Flint with 'T-Rex.' I think there was some interest in continuing to giving us access to work in the city," says Canepari by phone. "At the time, they slowly let us into the department and through the rest of 2015, the relationships that we developed, Jessica, myself and Drea, sort of blossomed and became strong. By October and November, when we started to film seriously inside the department, we had developed really unique access."