Precinct Seven Five tells the story of Michael Dowd, a corrupt police officer in 80s New York who, in a neighbourhood that was rife with corruption, managed to make headlines by being “the dirtiest cop in N.Y”. With a focus on story over judgement, the film plays out more like a fictional crime drama than a documentary; the initial temptation of small bribes and skimming money off the top gives way to drug deals and burglaries which then culminates in the inevitable downfall and capture of the corrupt cops.
Director Tiller Russell deftly mixes CCTV footage, court recordings, photographs and interviews to chart the rise and fall of Dowd and his crew. Interviews with key players are by turns informative, interesting and horrifying; the stories they tell reminiscent of Goodfellas or the more recent, A Most Violent Year. The majority of those interviewed have already paid for their crimes and have no shame casually sharing stories of burglaries, drug deals, car chases and worse. Drug kingpin, Adam Diaz reminisces about a thief Dowd and his partner, Kenny Eurell, helped him catch: “He’s not around anymore. I’m not saying I killed him. He’s not around anymore”, Diaz explains with a knowing smile.
Russell introduces the theme of loyalty early on and this runs through the documentary. Even when testifying in front of Mollen Commission, set up to investigate NYPD corruption in the wake of his arrest, Dowd only talks about his crimes, showing a loyalty to his fellow officers that feels at times worthy of respect and at others morally immature. Although Russell doesn’t blame anyone for Dowd’s crimes, it’s clear that this is the flip side of the camaraderie and brotherhood encouraged by senior officers in the NYPD. Cops are always there for each other, they protect each other and they don’t rat on each other.
While the editing is slightly jumpy in places, the end result is a smooth film which chronologically charts the rise and fall of a corrupt cop turned career criminal. For all that Russell never seems to glamorise his crimes, Dowd still comes across as charismatic and funny, a natural storyteller who flits from almost gleeful recollections of his felonies to genuine remorse over the death of a fellow cop. As the film ends, Dowd looks at the camera and admits that he wanted to be a good cop; he was just unlucky that it never happened. With interviewees describing Dowd as a victim, a gangster, an abuser of power, a loyal friend and a good partner, Russell declines to make a judgement and leaves it to the viewer to decide exactly what kind of man they have just seen.
Precint Seven Five is in UK cinemas now.