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A Year in the Life: How the ‘Flint Town’ Filmmakers Followed the City’s Police Department

The Netflix series takes audiences to the streets of Flint, Michigan, but from a unique vantage, with full access to the men and women serving as part of the city's police department.

“In the new Netflix documentary series Flint Town, city police officers are called to respond to a drug incident,” explains Amanda Holpuch.”Patrol lights flash, the camera convulses and police are shouting and drawing their weapons. A split second later, the chaos stops and an officer is telling the suspect he’s cuffing: ‘Boy, you look just like your daddy.’

“The officer, Scotty Watson, checks the suspect for drugs and weapons while telling him how long he’s known his father. When Watson needs to inspect the boots of his friend’s son, the suspect, he offers him a seat in the police car so his socks don’t get wet on the damp ground.

“While the world might know Flint best as the city where the water crisis happened, the eight-part series unravels that snapshot description to show what happens when corruption, violence and poverty gnaw a city to its bone.” To read the full article, click here. 

“Flint, Michigan was the birthplace of General Motors and became a poster city for middle class success through the ’70s. Yet now it’s the epicenter of the industrial meltdown,” explains series co-director Drea Cooper.

“Flint feels so unique and forgotten,” adds co-director Zackary Canepari. “It’s a charismatic, weird place that has been on the fringes for so long that the abnormal has become normal. And there was a strong tendency, even during the height of the water crisis, for outsiders to see Flint in one-dimension. But it’s not one-dimensional.”

Over the course of one year, 2016, the three directors of Flint Town (Cooper, Canepari and Jessica Dimmock) follow the department from the inside as they struggle to prevent crime, taking viewers out on patrol and into the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods, while also following the officers home, deep into their personal lives.

“There were a few stories in Flint we were looking at and the police were at the top of the list,” Canepari explains. “The same state-controlled government that caused the water crisis had been making big cuts inside the police department which seemed like a recipe for disaster in a city with as much crime as Flint. With all the controversy about policing in America, how does it work in a place like Flint?

“That was the micro story we were interested in. At the same time, the water crisis, the policing in America crisis and the political drama of 2016 were all happening in the background. The Flint Police were right in the middle of it all.

“I think that, especially after the protests in Ferguson, we were keen to figure out how to get inside a police department to see what was going on day-to-day so as to better understand who becomes an officer, and why,” adds Cooper. “How do they approach their work, and what do they really think about the community and people they’re meant to serve?”

Recounting how the production gained access to the Flint Police Department, co-director Jessica Dimmock says, “Zack did an amazing job of getting us in the department and getting the department on board with the idea of filmmakers being around.

“But in order to really show the human side of the work, and who these officers really are beyond the uniform, we needed to build personal relationships and establish trust. That took time. We spent a lot of time getting to know each other—just talking and eating and drinking and sitting in squad cars with them.”

“I had a few meetings with the former Mayor and the former Chief and the next thing I knew I was doing ride-alongs with Officer Frost,” recalls Canepari. “What we found unique was how open the officers were. They wanted to discuss what they were dealing with, just like the average citizens in Flint. They wanted to be heard. What’s happened to this city is ridiculous and surreal and they’ve been ignored for so long.

Cooper, considering the challenges and dangers of the project, says, “I suppose it’s like any harrowing or dangerous activity or job: If you do it enough, it becomes more routine, more normal. What people don’t realize is that most police work is driving around and doing serious amounts of paperwork. There were certainly a few nights spent driving at 100mph through city streets which is a bit unsettling as a passenger. 

“The most harrowing and intense moments were those where we filmed people injured or killed from gunshots or other weapons. That’s something you never get used to.

“Flint Town isn’t your typical police procedural or crime drama,” Cooper explains. We’re telling a story focused on the new Chief’s approach to policing and how a handful of officers navigate this in a city like Flint. This helped in that we weren’t really following active cases, which have more difficulties attached.

“Throughout, we were constantly talking with experts and lawyers about what we can and can’t film. We had to exercise extreme care when dealing with some very sensitive situations. 

Read more: Flint Town: A Vital, Surprising Look at America Through the Eyes of Police Officers in New Netflix Series

Read more: Netflix’s Flint Town Offers a Behind-the-Scenes Look at the City’s Police

Read more: Flint Town Gets Up Close and Personal With Troubled Times in Flint, Michigan

Read more: Flint Town Examines the Trials and Tribulations, But Also the Beauty, of the Michigan City

“The point of the series was to get inside the head of a few officers within the police department as they are on the streets and in their homes,” says Dimmock. “Our approach with crime on the streets was always to stay close to the officers, and experience it as they might be experiencing it.

“Because of this, we don’t often follow the situation to its conclusion, and therefore it felt especially important to remind audiences via disclaimers at the end of each episode about the presumption of innocence.”

“We wanted to look at what happened to this department over the course of a year, as well as what a year looks like for those that we followed,” Canepari says. “We could have kept shooting, as Flint really never stops. As Officer Frost likes to say, ‘There is always a crisis.’

“The millage vote and the national election were natural high points for the story so it made sense to wrap up not long after. A year in the life of the Flint Police Department felt like a good container for the story.”