CORRUPT New York policeman Michael Dowd, subject of the engrossing Precinct Seven Five, puts moral compasses in a spin, says Siobhan Synnot
I’d arranged to meet Michael Dowd at my hotel during the Edinburgh Film Festival, but when he arrives all the public areas have been taken over by an exuberant family wedding, so we agree to shift our interview to my room. As he steps through the door, Dowd instinctively scans the place: “Wow,” he says. “I thought prison was bad.” He’s joking, I think – and I tidied up beforehand – but that’s Dowd reminding me that he can be deadpan funny, for a man who was sentenced to 14 years in jail.
A new documentary, Precinct Seven Five, traces how Dowd went from New York rookie to its “most corrupt cop ever”, stealing money and guns, shaking down criminals and setting up his own drug dealing operation. It’s an engrossing movie, told with the verve of Scorsese in Goodfellas mode, right down to the Rolling Stones soundtrack and attention-grabbing freeze-frames. Dowd was 22 when he was assigned to the 75th Precinct in Brooklyn’s East Side. In 1982 it was one of the city’s toughest zones, with the highest rate of murders and police shootings in the USA. Dowd says he had been keen to clean up his district, but that he became disillusioned fast.
“I made drug arrests when I first got there. But very, very quickly you’re turned off this by the department itself. We’d get complaints from our commanding officer or our sergeant that, ‘What’d you do? You took two crack vials off the street and you cost the city 16 hours overtime. What’s going on here?’ You knew that you were accomplishing nothing, and at that point you make a decision in life, on the good side or the bad side.”
It took Dowd six months to draw his partner Kenny Eurell into the criminal fold, but once he did, their bond was intense. In the documentary someone compares it to a love affair. They shared the danger and its illegal rewards. At one point a vicious drug-lord was paying so much for their protection and escort service that Dowd owned four homes, and a Corvette. Sometimes he would forget to pick up his weekly $400 police pay cheque.
Dowd comes to life talking about these days; he loves watching your eyes pop as he describes the adrenaline rush of duffel bags packed with thousands of dollars, and a hundred mile-per-hour drunk-driving party he, his partner, and their wives took off on after an early big score. His facility for storytelling is more riveting than any movie cop narrative: no wonder that, in his company, your moral compass spins.
I was, really, wanting to be rescued. I was waiting for someone to come and stop meMichael Dowd
Both Dowd and Precinct Seven Five have been criticised for flipping between corrective displays of contrition, and vivid brags about Dowd’s hubris and notoriety. “I do have remorse,” he counters. “But when I’m telling you a story, it’s from the perspective of being in the car.”
“He calls himself a cop,” said a New York City police officer, when Dowd eventually testified before an investigative commission, “but he’s no cop, he’s just a criminal.”
Dowd says the truth is that he was both: “I consider myself a gangster cop. Working in the ghetto was one of the most enjoyable parts of my life because the people actually liked you. Even the drug dealers liked you.”
Remarkably, Dowd’s operation and his ring of transgressive cops was ignored by Internal Affairs. The only time supervisors questioned him about his flamboyant lifestyle was “small talk, to ask how I did it”. Only Sergeant Joe Trimboli set out to investigate Dowd and his partners. “He once said to me ‘I know what you’re doing, and I’m going to get you’.” Dowd laughs. “He hated me. He had a lifelong obsession to put me in cuffs.”
Trimboli had nothing more than a battered unmarked car and a pair of binoculars to bring down Dowd, at a time when the department was so afraid of bad publicity that they would transfer a corrupt officer rather than investigate or arrest him. Dowd felt invincible, shielded by a code of honour amongst cops that meant they always covered for each other: “If s**t went down, and you saw Kenny and me show up, your life came back into your hands. The blood started to flow back into your body.”
Rather than a lesson about honesty versus wrongdoing, the focus of Precinct Seven Five is tribalism, and this feels especially relevant at a time when cops cover for fellow officers in cities such as Ferguson and Baltimore.
To be a good cop in Dowd’s world did not mean you were honest. It meant you did not rat out your buddies in uniform. When Eurell caved in and gave evidence, Dowd clearly regards this betrayal as the film’s greatest immoral act. Eurell’s deal with the authorities helped nail Dowd for racketeering and conspiracy to distribute narcotics. “I was as guilty as he was of whatever acts we had done,” he says.
“We would have done our time together. But he had to find his way out of it, and keep his pension. His wife was arrested and charged but never convicted – he saved his family, is what he did.”
Was putting his family ahead of Dowd so wrong?
“Listen, I’m not going to judge his moral interpretation of what’s best for him and his family. I’m not saying anyone’s beyond reproach. But you have to live with yourself afterwards.” The disdain is palpable.
Perhaps Dowd was already undone by his own excess. He was drinking heavily and sniffing lines of coke from the dashboard of his car. Dowd’s wife Bonnie became so distraught over his drug use that she put a gun to his head one night in an unsuccessful effort to stop him.
He was always fearless, but became reckless. While out on bail he hatched a batty plan to rob and kill a drug dealer’s wife to finance his escape to Nicaragua. “That really wasn’t supposed to happen,” he says. “I was, really, wanting to be rescued. I was waiting for someone to come and stop me. And the last day in jail, they had to come wake me – I’d overslept, for the first time in my life. They said ‘aren’t you going home?’ But I had this sense of overwhelming peace – it was very odd”.
Jail cost him his marriage, contact with his children, and all of his money. Eight years after his release, when director Tiller Russell tracked him down, Dowd was finishing a course to become an air-conditioning engineer, “but no-one would hire me”.
The success of Precinct Seven Five has given him a bit of his swagger back, although he says his mother in particular finds the film hard to watch: “I wasn’t raised to do some of the things I did, and as a 54-year-old man it’s very clear to me the mistakes I made.”
Now he’s got a book coming out “with all the things they couldn’t fit into the film”, and Sony Pictures has bought the rights to his story, with Get Shorty screenwriter Scott Frank working on the adaptation.
“Maybe Ryan Gosling, Mark Wahlberg or James Franco could play me,” muses Dowd.
Maybe – but it’s hard to see how a drama can top Precinct Seven Five and its real life cast.
• Precinct Seven Five is on general release from Friday