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.

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35 thoughts on “FLINT TOWN: EMPATHY AND LACK THEREOF”

  • I deliberately passed watching "Flint", figuring it was another BS Netflix documentary, but guess I'll put it on tonight's agenda.

    Good cop, bad cop, huh? Give someone a badge, a gun and a uniform and the power that goes with it in these times . . . hey, what could go wrong?

  • I will watch the documentary, but I don't know "that most cops are Good." Perhaps "out there" in the 21st century the majority of your cops aren't underpaid bullies excitedly awaiting their chance to be the half of the working class killing the other half for the bosses. That is not the case where I live. I always assume any LEO I am dealing with is my enemy, would harm me and mine at the slightest provocation. Even when they are "helping" someone, they are out to make arrests, that's what they do. "Protect the propertied class, and serve them well."

  • Hey, at least it's not another reality show about people in Alaska.

    There's like fifteen people living in the whole damn state and they all have their own TV show.

  • "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." -Ed

    This is a nonsense individualist take. Cops can't have sympathy for people they are paid to systematically oppress. Policing in the US (unlike say the UK) grew out of slave-catching. Even PoC cops eventually succumb to a system that promotes quotas and specifically race-based policies (broken-windows, stop-and-frisk, gang raiding, eminent domain, etc) and then protects their own by prosecuting at abysmally low rates (2% of cops are actually convicted of anything) or covers for them by moving their offenders between jobs and departments.

    This doesn't even deal with the incestuous relationship between DAs and cops, local politicians and cops or the militarization of the police.

    All of this is of course pretty consistent with how our privatized carceral state functions: a system that benefits by having a pool of low-wage, oppressed labor (not to mention non-voting prisoners that count towards states' voter counts) is going to systematically use racism to make a profit.

    It turns out that "bad policing" is in fact just racism and capitalism, working hand in hand.

    Additional information about gang raids:
    https://soundcloud.com/citationsneeded/ep-03-the-rise-of-superpredator-20

    Additional information about broken windows:
    https://soundcloud.com/citationsneeded/episode-27-how-the-media-mainstreamed-racist-pseudoscience

  • I find documentaries about police, and public reactions thereof, very interesting for an obvious reason (Hint: Look at my user name)
    Point 1: I am not a cop in the US. I am a cop in a country where police don't routinely carry firearms, and which does not have an armed populace
    Point 2: This doesn't make a major bit of difference as there are some universal truths to policing

    A lot of emotions went through me when watching Flint. And, it was very interesting to see what colleagues of mine who had watched it were saying.

    What troubles me is something I already knew: the police will – As Ed points out – fall into rank when something goes wrong or they feel the integrity of the organisation is under attack. This is, to an extent, human nature. The police has always laboured under the belief that it is a tribe, if you will, of guardians. And an attack on anyone but the absolute worst (those convicted of criminal offences outside of the job) is an attack on the tribe. Given the specialised nature of the role (specialised in the sense that a small number relative to the population are trained to undertake) this feeling is intensfied. On watching the reaction of the Castile video, I was not surprised – but certainly disappointed – to see not one person say "Fuck, that cop lost his head".

    But. But. BUT.

    Unfortunately the realities of policing as such are thus: the people you deal with are not dealing with you of their own choice. This creates an underlying sense of resentment in your interactions with the public. This feeling of resentment will only be intensified if the person you are dealing with has fallen foul of the law – no one wants to get caught. More unfortunately still, this means you have to be prepared for confrontation that can escalate out of nowhere. For instance, in the UK a warrant was executed at the home of a UK dancehall/reggae singer. He was cool, and calm, and collected, to the extent that the police attending didn't see a need to handcuff him. After clearing the kitchen, the police attending allowed him to make a cup of tea. He returned with a knife and tried to stab the officers.

    This is what we have to prepare ourself for. It's less of an issue in my country, where the public do not usually have access to firearms, and therefore we have more tactical optipns – including running away and calling for backup without anyone being harmed – but in the US, with a proliferation of firearms, including cheap 'n' nasty handguns, this is not possible

    Throw into the mix a longstanding history of societal/socioeconomic racism and classism, and your traffic stop went into a potentially dangerous situation. Adding to this are well publicised examples of well-meaning cops taking bullets when trying to talk to people who have pulled a gun and shot them, and woefully inadequate training (NYC PD used to teach officers to approach doors from the side, to avoid getting shot through the door – this created in recruits' minds a belief that behind every door was a potential shooter, which meant more firearms were discharged by officers entering premises without anyone inside being armed. The problem in this sense, I would argue, isn't necessarily the police officers themselves – but rather the wider circumstances like widespread gun ownership and socioeconomic oppression that keep certain members of society poor and more.likely to be in situations where they will end up confronting police.

    Furthermore.. the "5 seconds before the film" justification?

    I'll be clear. In a lot of cases – the guy who was shot in the back whilst running away, Michael Brown, Philandro castile, Rodney King – there is little that could explain what the officers did other than simply terrible policing. Terrible policing coupled with an authoritarian complex

    But but but (part deux)

    I have been in these situations. There is a film of me (probably) goig around instagram. It shows me and 2 other police officers on top of a male writhing on the floor. All around us are his family and neighbours. They are all filming. They are all screaming that we are killing their son, their friend, etc. I watched my body worn footage back and fuck me if you only watch the (fourth) officers bodywork from a certain point it looks bad. 3 cops grappling with a single guy on the floor?

    The reality was the male was simply wanted for failing to turn up to court and when two of my colleagues turned up to arrest him, he tried smashing a window to escape (he was three stories up), and was screaming threats at the officers the whole time. It took two of them to cuff him and he was trying to kick, elbow and headbutt them the entire time. They put up for urgent assistance and me and another cop arrived, wrestled him to the floor. On his way into the black Maria he kicked me twice, when booking him in he spat in my face and kicked me again. Yet if you were only to watch the 10 seconds on youtube, it would look pretty bad. Maybe we weren't raining punches down on him Rodney King style (again, inexcusable) but bad all the same.

    So what was the point of this exercise? Maybe I just have a lot of things to say having watched the show, things I felt before and afterwards.
    Do I have solutions?
    Well, gun control would be a good start. Any excuse you give a scared – yes, scared, at some level – cop who has statistically likely to have seen or known someone to get shot on the job not to instantly worry about whether you're packing is going to help.

    Bodyworn cameras are about huge help in my line of work. They catch those behaving unprofessionally, they make us accountable and they secure crucial evidence. I'm proud of several convictions for relatively serious offences I've secured because of my camera. And if one day it helps me put away a corrupt or criminal colleague, I'll be equally as proud.

    More community contact points. A police service cannot see itself as above the community it serves. I joke about the time wasters, the nonsense calls, but I do my job because fundamentally I care about the public. If I didn't I would quit tomorrow. Similarly, the public cannot see itself as not needing a police force. I'm a hobbesian essentially, and attempts by the public to regulate their own behaviour fall woefully short. For example, Drunk driving and mobile phone use at he wheel have increased in my country because people know there are less specialist road cops about and fewer working cameras to catch them. As Ed pointed out many years ago, cutbacks have led to the friendly neighbourhood cop standing at the school gates, or attending community events, being phased out in favour of a response model (which is also woefully underfunded).

    Finally, addressing issues around drugs, and mental health. I can't go into too much detail but we are increasingly being used due to cuts in health services to deal with MH incidents, or people who have fallen through the cracks and not been helped. This leads to the mentally ill being criminalised in many cases and failing further away from getting the help they need. Similarly with drugs, we need to focus on big criminal suppliers and explore decriminalisation of certain drugs as an option. The reactive "tough on drugs/what about the kids" mentality has been tried and isn't working.

    Funny, nearly all these solutions are out of the police's hands… but that's the way it goes.

  • Couple years ago I wrote a two and a half lecture on the American Family Insurance Boulevard of Dreams commercial for an alternative (activist) journalism class. This could be ten classes. An excellent piece of work.

    Pretty shitty job, when you boil it down to ones and zeros. Sucks someone has to do it.

  • PIGSTY CORPORATION says:

    Just look at Second City Cop blog and the associated comments to confirm every bad thought you have ever had about police.

  • Jonny Scrum-half says:

    I have no personal knowledge, but I have a suspicion that training is a big part of the problem, specifically training that emphasizes an us vs. them framework and tells police that their lives are threatened in every encounter. So they need to do what they can to protect themselves and be sure they return home to their families. Of course that's nit an untrue statement, but my guess is that it over-emphasizes personal safety and de-emphasizes that their job is to, in some measure, put their lives on the line for the community at large.

  • @Jonny Scrum-half

    It has nothing to do with training. Cops are routinely able to take into custody white active/mass shooters alive (who don't kill themselves first). That courtesy is rarely extended to black men selling loose cigarettes, black men selling bootleg CDs, black men with broken tail lights, black children with toy guns, black women with parking tickets, black women with mental health issues, black men having outstanding child support payments and black men sitting in cars doing nothing in particular.

    They all get the bullet.

    For. Some. Reason.

  • A bad example of this hypocrisy is the Law Enforcement Bill of Rights. The police apparently are very sophisticated and sensitive when it comes to respecting the rights of an accused cop but could care less about the lowly citizen.

  • Tribalism, authoritarianism, and our continuing effort to control violence.

    And now we have ICE in the mix in the US…

    I should have saved this article for when the sun is past the yardarm and I can start hitting the rum…

  • Saving Actual Cop's comments, btw.

    Recently re-read When Brute Force Fails, still trying to recover from the frightful cognitive dissonance of what we could be doing versus what we are doing…

  • jcdenton, this is only for a single year in a single place, but unless you consider the NYPD at the height of stop-and-frisk to be a particularly just place, it doesn't look like that's the case.

    The cops were disproportionately less likely to shoot at black suspects in shootings, and more likely to shoot at white people. Surprising, right? (Specifically, a person shot at by the cops is more than twice as likely to be black as any random New Yorker, but less likely to be black than the average shooting suspect.)

    Of course there's clear disproportionate impact, but the origins aren't that simple. It comes from overpolicing, as in Ferguson, where the cops loot the neighborhoods via ridiculous fines. It comes from failed policing, as in Chicago, where in the most violent neighborhoods, there's a consensus that calling the cops will make things worse, so you've got to handle justice yourself, the old-fashioned way. And these are just the factors directly involving the cops!

    But if you reduce the problem to a cartoon caricature of cackling racist cops sprinkling some crack dust on the kid they shot for fun that day, you're not helping.

  • @grendelkhan—

    I’m from Baltimore. Planting drugs and fake guns on people (and stealing from them!) to justify whatever bullshit authoritarian complex they have is -literally- what they do for a living. Baltimore city police are racist AF, and the majority of the citizens in Baltimore are Black. This is not a coincidence, and Baltimore is not an anomaly in the US. The cops see the citizens as the enemy. Getting the cops involved in anything is guaranteed to make the situation worse. jcdenton is right about this one.

  • Some good comments here.
    Having watched in a meta way half the scripted, staged 8 part series with all its nuanced swirl, and with no desire to parse all that, I give thanks that that's not my immediate movie and that I live in a safe and clean environment and wear the right color skin and gender, even though age and dependency on viscera gutting social services puts me at a certain disadvantage, but really, what the attempt here on my part is, is to outdo Victor Hugo with a run on sentence.
    Why, yes, I'll take a shot of that distilled amber liquid, please. Thank you.
    And so ends my commenting career.

  • @Aurora; you're from Baltimore? Did you see that UMBC beat Virginia in the NCAA tournament?

    Re: cops: my wake-up moment with the police happened awhile back when I had a tire blowout on I-95, in the middle of a bright and sunny day. I'm of a demographic that usually doesn't terrify the police, and I was dressed for a high-level meeting, meaning heels and a skirted suit–in other words, not able to make any sudden moves or run far. I also couldn't manage to loosen the lug nut myself. A cop stopped and I thought, great…until he pulled a gun on me and demanded to know why I was "loitering" on the side of the highway (uhm, see how this tire is FLAT and IN PIECES?!?).

  • Good piece, and an excellent comment, Actual Cop.

    (Katydid, you're female in a skirt. Obviously loitering with intent. Women get the sharp end of cop stereotypes all the time too. The problem is the stereotyping, not which specific ones they're exercising.)

  • I'm surprised no one has mentioned the factor that I believe is the main cause of police over-aggression—steroids. I think steroid use is widespread in police gyms, and 'roid rage is the unspoken culprit in many instances of police brutality.

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

    Obviously the networks and other "producers"*

    * often producing popular television shows with the same level of critical thought as cud-chewing cows "produce" methane. Which all sorta works out anyway–because their audiences make sheep look "edgy".

  • Sorry, premature submission!

    Obviously the networks and other "producers"* are not in the loop.

    I'm only surprised that nobody's come up with a sitcom treatement for a town like Ferguson, MO where a ragtag "F-Troop" sorta copshop deals with the hilarious misadventures of their efforts to enforce law'n'odur via "plantation policing".

    Sample dialogue:

    "Whatcha doon there, BOAH!? You lookin' for trouble?"

    "Oh, no, Cap'n, I'se jess goin' bout my biznezz—"

    "Well, now, 'Buck', let's see whatcha got in your pocket!"

    "Why, it's just a co–"

    Blam! Blam! blam!! blam!!! blam!!!!* blam, blam, blam, blam. Blam, blam, blamitty, blam, BLAM.

    "I saw a gun, I saw a gun, active shooter. Get down on the ground, NOW."

    "But I wa'nt with that man you just shot 14 times, Cap'n."…

    Now, now; I know that none of this sounds very funny but, hey, you get, say, Donny Wahlberg, Sindbad and Wanda Sykes (they will be recurring characters and not be "killed" until at least the end of the first season) you're gonna have a hit on your hands,. baby.

    * It is sad to admit that I have already used up my entire bag of "!" with 10 days left to go in the month. I may have to go the rest of the month without being upset by anything. Well, that, or I'll just go into "deficit exclaiming" and borrow my umbrage from the Chinese.

  • And yet, and yet…there are also the stories like the young thug (yes, shoving a gun in the face of someone and robbing them makes you a thug) who runs from the po-po, hides in the trunk of a car driven by his accomplices, who then opens the trunk lid and starts firing….Not sure the police are to blame when they pepper his ass.

    Our police ARE violent and have a violent culture. But so does America.

    Not sure I would join the protest march in the case described above.

  • No doubt, demo. And it is by no means the most or even a particularly dangerous one. A lot of it is a mythos that is self-generated and attracts the macho hero type.

    And….in today's paper, the cops gun down a dude "holding a stick". another case from a couple of years ago about a video appearing showing a brutal beating. Another case the cops shoot a guy holding a toddler.

    The thug in the car trunk? Not a lot of sympathy. Too many other cases illustrate the original point of Ed's post.

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  • "The whole Good Cop / Bad Cop question can be disposed of much more decisively. We need not enumerate what proportion of cops appears to be good or listen to someone's anecdote about his uncle Charlie, an allegedly good cop.

    We need only consider the following:
    (1) A cop's job is to enforce the laws, all of them;
    (2) Many of the laws are manifestly unjust, and some are even cruel and wicked;
    (3) Therefore every cop has to agree to act as an enforcer for laws that are manifestly unjust or even cruel and wicked.

    There are no good cops."
    — Robert Higgs

  • Tribalism, is the democracy killing factionalism the founding fathers feared almost as much as Bonapartism.

    I think it is not a coincidence that police and republicans have a culture of ignoring the heinous crimes of their own.

  • Cops are substantially unionized – it's way more than tribal…

    I speak from experience*

    *minimal, but amusing…

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