Tiller Russell’s quick-fire, often jaw-dropping documentary Precinct Seven Five opens with a pledge. On 27th September 1993 Michael Dowd, once a New York City police officer in reputedly the most dangerous precinct in the country, vows to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth in proceedings brought against him for a decade of theft, extortion and drug trafficking; a monumental abuse of his position of trust and authority. Clearly posturing for a Scorsese-style feature remake, Russell’s film unflinchingly recounts the true to life story – in one interviewee’s words – of “a crook in a cop’s uniform” and blows open the lid of corruption at the core of the Big Apple’s boys in blue.
With culpability a non-issue from the outset Russell’s intentions for Precinct Seven Five are called into question. There’s no possible reason to vindicate Dowd and his band of amoral men, so will he simply allow them to dig their own graves? Will he seek to highlight the blood brother allegiance of one cop to another which Dowd emphasises in initial footage from his trial? In true The Departed style it becomes clear that to end up in front of a tribunal there must have been a rat. But whodunit? Interviewed near to the present day, Dowd retains a street-smart, confidence and ease of expression. An open collared shirt, a broad smile and mannerisms befitting any mobster, he exudes the “I don’t give a fuck”-ness of Joe Pesci in his pomp. His complete lack of remorse for hundreds of crimes is breathtaking.
Jumping to the cocaine and gun fuelled mayhem of early 1980s New York, a 22-year-old Michael Dowd had raised his right hand to swear allegiance to serve and protect the people. From ‘integrity training’ onwards it is made plain that he and a number of others didn’t honour that oath or do a great deal of honourable police work. A payoff here and a petty theft there soon snowballed into an astounding number of burglaries with his partner Kenny Eurell, a willing and able accomplice. Further escalation saw the dynamic duo running protection for La Compania, an infamous Dominican drug gang, before moving onto an even bigger fish, Adam Diaz, who Dowd refers to as his boss. A select group of talking heads will be a familiar technique to all doc viewers but Russell focuses only on the main players, keeping divergent viewpoints relatively streamlined and the deplorable acts easy to follow, if not easy to swallow.
Snappy editing is employed at certain moments to reflect paranoid concern and a front-on camera moves to a high angle as recollection on the pressures of being caught mount and crooked cops feel the heat from The Heat. Spliced in between these interviews are aerial shots of the precinct in question, grainy archive footage and home video, brutal photograph stills and maps literally showing where X marked the spot for Dowd and the gang to pilfer drugs, money and any other number of scores. Russell looks to neither excuse nor glorify these nefarious activities but fails to aptly tackle the effects they had on these men’s young families, and the community which they were supposed to serve. To its credit Precinct Seven Five, as well as its principal subject’s testimony, is as candid as it is shocking and brings new meaning to the old adage “Good cop/bad cop”.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens