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Spotlight: Flint And The Pursuit Of Accountability

Officials are sworn in during a 2016 House oversight hearing on the Flint water crisis
Getty/Mark Wilson

Spotlight: Flint And The Pursuit Of Accountability


Five years ago, in Flint, Michigan, a state-appointed emergency manager made the decision to switch the city’s water supply. Local health officials then failed to ensure the safety of the water. The consequences were devastating. Children’s blood lead levels rose. Twelve people died of Legionnaires’ disease, believed to be the result of bacteria in the water.

In her 2018 book about the Flint crisis, “The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy,” journalist Anna Clark wrote about how dangerous the water became:

“The drinking water, it turned out, was full of lead and other toxins. No amount of lead exposure is safe. There is no known cure for lead poisoning. The threat invaded the most intimate spaces of people’s lives: their bodies, their homes, their meals, the baths they gave their children, the formula they fed their babies. Yet it will be years before we can fully assess the effect of lead exposure on a whole generation of children. We must wait for them to grow up and see.”

Even though residents could see, smell, taste, and feel that the water was alarmingly different, officials with the state’s Department of Environmental Quality assured them, for months, that it was safe to drink and contested reports to the contrary. So most people, unable to easily afford alternative sources and their fears dismissed by state environmental officials, kept drinking and using the water.

It was only after Flint residents mobilized, collaborating with engineers and scientists on an independent study; after an Environmental Protection Agency employee leaked an internal memo; and a study showed elevated lead levels in the blood of children who had been tested at the local hospital, that officials stopped insisting that the water was safe and conceded that something was terribly wrong: Flint’s water supply was poisoned.

Flint’s water crisis has become a byword for the ways in which government at all levels can fail a city, and perhaps especially a majority Black city.

Clark described the actions and the actors responsible:

“This is the story of how the City of Flint was poisoned by its own water. It was not because of a natural disaster, or simple negligence, or even because some corner-cutting company was blinded by profit. Instead, a disastrous choice to break a crucial environmental law, followed by eighteen months of delay and cover-up by the city, state, and federal governments, put a staggering number of citizens in peril.”

The health disaster, whose worst effects may only be revealed years from now, was caused, in short, by government officials. So it perhaps came as no surprise when, three years ago, the state attorney general’s office announced that it was bringing charges against 15 of them.

However, as the New York Times reports, there were questions from the start about the prosecution’s approach and questions from residents about why the governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, a Republican like the attorney general, was not among those charged. Seven of the officials charged eventually pleaded guilty to misdemeanors in no-contest pleas that have not yet resulted in convictions.

On Thursday, the attorney general’s office, now led by Democrat Dana Nessel, made an unexpected announcement. It said it was dropping all the remaining charges against the eight, other individuals, including the involuntary manslaughter charges against the former head of the state’s Department of Health and Human Services. Prosecutors on the case said that the investigation had been mishandled by their predecessors. In a statement reported on by Governing and other outlets that covered the announcement, they said:

“Legitimate criminal prosecutions require complete investigations. Upon assuming responsibility of this case, our team of career prosecutors and investigators had immediate and grave concerns about the investigative approach and legal theories embraced by [the former special prosecutor] particularly regarding the pursuit of evidence.”

The announcement, in combination with search warrants for Snyder’s cell phone and other devices used by him and others in his administration, released earlier this month, has raised questions about whether prosecutors are considering charges against the former governor.

In Flint, the announcement came as a shock. Residents who saw their lives endangered by the reckless decisions and the duplicity of state officials and who have waited five years to see if anyone would be held accountable are now being told they must wait even longer to see if the process will resume. The investigation has already cost the state tens of millions of dollars, including in the defense bills of the state and city employees charged. One activist described the failure of the AG’s office to keep residents “in the loop” and said his level of trust is “like negative two.”

Nayyirah Shariff, director of the grassroots group Flint Rising, told the Detroit Free Press that the announcement was “a slap in the face to Flint residents.” She described the investigation as “bungled,” expressing disappointment with Nessel. The AG’s office has scheduled a “community conversation” for June 28 in Flint, and the lead prosecutors have said they will not speak to the media until they have spoken with community members at that meeting.

The announcement in Michigan comes after the release of the miniseries “When They See Us,” about the boys wrongly convicted over the Central Park jogger rape and while people call for consequences for the prosecutors involved. The Flint case is another reminder of how law enforcement is often simply bad at solving and prosecuting crime. It is a reminder of how impunity for wrongdoers coexists with a culture of extreme punitiveness. And it, once again, forces the question of whether the law enforcement system we have is the one we should look to when it comes to issues of harm, repair, and accountability.

Flint has already become a byword for two things: the life-endangering mistakes and cover-ups of government officials and the heroic activism of its residents. Its residents deserved to see their harm acknowledged and addressed and the people who harmed them held accountable. The open question, five years later, is what accountability will and should look like.

This Spotlight originally appeared in The Daily Appeal newsletter. Subscribe here.