Title: Precinct Seven Five
Director: Tiller Russell
Major Players: As themselves, Michael Dowd, Kenny Eurell, Adam Diaz
Out Of Five: Four
I can’t resist police procedurals as a rule, but even I raised an eyebrow at this. After the screening of Precinct Seven Five, the story of “the dirtiest cop ever”, I switched on the TV and what was on? Only Law And Order, the cop series to end all cop series. By comparison with the documentary I’d just watched, this so-called gritty cop drama was squeaky clean. But what I’d just seen was a story that you simply couldn’t have made up.
The events of Precinct Seven Five take place in the late 80s and early 90s in New York, when crack cocaine had exploded onto the streets, especially in the most impoverished areas. One police officer, Michael Dowd, used the situation to build his own empire and, along with a band of equally crooked cops, turned the 75th Precinct into probably the most notorious and corrupt ever – just a couple of years after corruption had rocked the 77th. Dowd’s web of corruption and crime meant that he was both a cop and a drug dealer, protecting and robbing drug dealers at the same time. He was eventually arrested in 1992, leading to the largest police corruption scandal in the city.
If Scorsese hasn’t considered making a film out of this story, I’ll eat my production notes. It has his name written all over it, yet it seems that director Yann Demange (’71) is working on a dramatized version. And you can’t blame him, because it’s a remarkably cinematic tale, full of great characters, emotion, action, divided loyalties and a strong story. It has the lot!
And while the film is packed with all that, it’s actually about the frailty of human nature and, even more fascinating, the culture of loyalty among the police officers themselves. They’ve all taken the same oath, and the definition of “a good cop” is one who protects his fellow officers, looks after their back and never rats on them. Whatever they’ve done. Literally. This is the definition quoted by Dowd when he testifies to the Mollen Commission, charged with investigating corruption in the NYPD. Given the nature of police work, there’s inevitably going to be a strong sense of camaraderie, but here it knows no boundaries, not even the law.
Tracking down the major players and persuading them to reveal their stories says a lot about director Tiller Russell. With many of them leading secluded lives – they’re ex-cops and criminals, so they know how to stay under the radar – he had to employ techniques associated with bounty hunters to locate them. And he admits they were astonished when he located them. The key, however, was getting Dowd himself to talk because, without him, there wouldn’t have been a film.
And it was so worth it, because Dowd is extraordinary. Despite twelve and a half years in prison, he still doesn’t seem to have fully grasped the significance of what he did in changing his $600 a week job into a $8,000 a week gig. Watch the footage of him testifying to the Mollen Commission and you see somebody who’s doing it because he has nothing left to lose. There’s an air of resignation about him, not of regret or apology and he holds up that police code by never incriminating a fellow officer. Now out of jail, it doesn’t take much to get him to re-live some of the most significant moments from the years when he was riding high, raking in the money and putting the merchandise to personal use. Not only that, but there’s one scene when he gets particularly excited, re-living one of his crimes with relish.
Yet there’s a question mark over everything he tells us, the camera and the man behind it. Because when we learn how he was eventually trapped, he denies being behind the plot that tripped him up. He invites us to listen to tapes as proof. The cop from Internal Affairs does the same, as does Dowd’s partner and closest friend at the time, Kenny Eurell. And when we hear the tapes, it’s clear he was responsible for it. So how much of what he says is actually true? He’s not just lying to his audience and everybody else, he’s also lying to himself.
And you find yourself asking another question, this time about our own police. OK, the film is set during a certain period in New York, but we’re still talking about people employed to keep the law and protect the public, a job that most people wouldn’t touch. Their location is almost immaterial, because the loyalty culture still appears to exist. After watching Precinct Seven Five, you may look at the good ol’ British bobby in a different way.
Precinct Seven Five is released on Friday, 14 August and is reviewed on Talking Pictures.