FLINT TOWN: EMPATHY AND LACK THEREOF

This is the wrong moment, culturally, to try to sell a show about police.

Either you paint police in a negative light (or simply in a non-reverent light) and become a culture wars talking point or you fawn all over law enforcement and look like some kind of soft-focusing apologist. Either way, you kind of have to pick your side – and by extension, your audience.

The new Netflix series Flint Town does as good a job as any Rust Belt documentary – either on video or in the numerous anthropological pieces on places that are falling apart in the East Coast-centered media outlets – of making obvious that two truths can exist simultaneously without negating one another:

1. Being a cop in a place like Flint, MI is very close to the worst job on the planet
2. Holy shit are some of the white cops terrifyingly bad human beings and examples of exactly what people hate about police

I highly recommend giving this short series a watch for that very reason. What is happening in Flint is a worse version of something that's very familiar to Rust Belt residents; a story of decline, neglect, and poverty (personal and municipal) creating a toxic stew of mismanagement, crime, and the indefinable but palpable sense of a place going down the drain.

Flint is a city of 100,000 that has no more than nine – nine – police cars out on any given shift. This obviously makes the police feel vulnerable and overworked since violent crime is common in the city and they are on their own the vast majority of the time. From the citizens' viewpoint, this means the average response times for calls range from several hours to a couple days. When you can't get the police to show up for a few hours when you call in a shooting – not some minor "Teen boys fighting in the yard" thing, but people driving up and down the street shooting – it's difficult to imagine what sort of faith could remain in The System writ large.

Add in the very real fact that this same System actively ignored evidence that it was poisoning you to save some money on water and, well, is it hard to believe that Flint people are not exactly waving the American flag and beaming with pride? To a sentient person who thinks about things, their attitude comes off as perfectly understandable. Rational, even.

The African-American cops (at least those included in the series) are, to a person, empathetic. They talk about their jobs and about the city in a way that demonstrates a good grasp of the city's underlying problems. Most of the white cops are no different. But there are some troubling moments with the police as a whole in the series and, well, if you've seen it let's just say there are two cops in particular who don't come off looking very good by the end. It won't exactly surprise you when one of them starts telling the tale of the time he shot and killed an unarmed black guy.

The group scene that is most revealing involves the officer in charge showing the Philando Castile video to a large group of cops the day after it happened. Not surprisingly, every cop in the room immediately starts making excuses to justify it and explain why it was his own fault he got shot. Days later, the officers' reaction to watching the mass shooting in Dallas in which several cops died is dark and somber.

As a viewer it's hard not to feel like a basic problem is the inability of police to feel the kind of sympathy for citizens shot by cops that they feel for themselves as a group. Some guy gets choked to death in broad daylight by a cop? Too bad, he should have complied. But a cop getting shot…well, not a dry eye in the room for that idea.

Worse, the one Really Bad Cop talks repeatedly about how bad the public hysteria about police violence is for a cop's career. You know, one smartphone video of a cop beating up a black guy and just think of that poor cop – public shaming, denied promotions, maybe even getting fired (but probably not). And of course I'm watching this with my own biases about the use of force by police thinking, a cop just fucking killed a guy and you're wringing your hands at how it might keep him from getting a promotion.

And that crystallizes the problem pretty well. The problem is not Bad Apples, which are indeed found everywhere. The problem is the basket that keeps and protects the Bad Apples. You could walk away from the series with the optimists' view that, despite having a clearly horrible and thankless job, almost all of the cops come off as reasonable, balanced people. On the other hand, the cops who come off as narcissistic, bitter, and hostile, though few in number, seem to enjoy the empathy and protection of the rest. Everyone in that room was ready with a handful of excuses when they watched the Castile video, Good cop or Bad cop. Police excel at empathizing with their own kind. And even when as individuals they are capable of showing empathy for the people being Policed, that feeling appears to be superseded by the Blue Code when their group identity is under fire.

The most refreshing moment was a cop watching the Rodney King video and explaining why it was "bad police work." It marked maybe the first time in my life I've heard a cop admit that some other cops might be shitty at their job. At the same time, Bad Cop is full of explanations about the King video being "edited" so you "couldn't see the whole story," which is an excuse that was popular from the moment the incident drew national attention. It's too bad none of the police could watch a video that isn't 25 years old and come to a similar conclusion, like watching the Eric Garner video and concluding that using a WWE chokehold, which is against any written policy you're likely to find for a law enforcement agency, isn't a shining example of good police work.

Until the culture of law enforcement and the authoritarian personality types that are such wildly enthusiastic supporters of it in the public can admit that sometimes cops make mistakes or sometimes cops are bad at their jobs, then the Problem will never be solved. We know, and Flint Town demonstrates, that most cops are Good. The question, and the issue, is why the culture of their profession continues to protect the ones who are Bad.