Men in blue today get a bad rep, but they look like schoolyard bullies when compared to Michael Dowd, the ex-NYPD officer who slung crack cocaine in Brooklyn’s murder capital, East New York, at the height of the drug’s epidemic. Dowd, who served the 75th Precinct for a decade, made up to $4,000 a week by partnering with a local drug dealer to keep crack on the streets and, by his own admission, committed “hundreds” of crimes. When his sizable criminal ring, which included other cops and ex-cops, was exposed in 1992, other police corruption scandals across the city were discovered and former Mayor Dinkins set up an independent commission to investigate the NYPD. Dowd became a morbid obsession of the New York media and in 1993 he was sentenced to 12 years in prison. Now, Dowd is back in the spotlight to tell his story in Tiller Russell’s documentary The Seven Five.
The film culls from footage of Dowd’s committee hearing, collects interviews with the DEA and cops and drug dealers in Dowd’s ring, and uses home videos to piece together how Dowd and his crew pulled off the unbelievable series of heists and burglaries that went undetected for so long. The enthralling movie is fueled by two questions: How could Dowd, entrusted as a cop, become such a ruthless criminal? And why didn’t law enforcement catch him earlier? While seemingly different, the two inquiries point to the same answer: there were no consequences to either party as long as everyone stayed quiet.
East New York was a war-zone at the time, with 1,000 shootings a year. It was considered to be the deadliest precinct among the cops who spoke in the film. “You have to remember, this was a very specific time and place,” says Russell. “‘The Battle Days of New York,’ so to speak. You had the streets flooded with crack cocaine and cash, you had very little supervision, you didn’t have every civilian with an iPhone and the ability to record it. The department was averse to another scandal, having just been through one once before. So it was kind of a perfect storm of opportunity from a criminal perspective.”
According to Dowd, rookies weren’t well equipped to deal with the streets. “An overwhelming number of police officers had to be supervised by an underwhelming number of supervising officers,” Dowd says, adding that had he “had more supervision at an earlier age” or “if maybe someone showed the consequences” of “what could happen when confronted with an opportunity to take money,” he might not have gotten himself into the mess. Given the number of corruption scandals that plagued the NYPD in the ’80s and ’90s, there’s some truth to what Dowd says. Over 6 years, the 16 complaints launched against Dowd fell on deaf ears.
The way Dowd tells it, his descent into crime was inevitable. He felt “underappreciated” serving East New York, and got his first glimpse of a better life when, as a rookie cop, he pulled over a driver with no tags who had a stack of hundred-dollar bills in his backseat. Instead of ticketing the man, he decided to make things even by taking away some cash.
It may seem like Dowd was completely amoral and unscrupulous to do what he did. What is baffling is that Dowd abided to a strict set of principles that he followed both as a criminal and an officer. Throughout the documentary, he reiterates the importance of being “a good cop” in order to survive on the streets of East New York. A “good cop” is “a cop that would never give up another cop,” he says at his committee hearing. “He’s 100% behind anything a cop does, no matter what it is.” Judging by the NYPD’s top-down decision to consistently turn a blind eye towards Dowd’s activities, it was a principle the entire force followed. This loyalty was the same quality that drug dealers valued above all else, too, and turned Dowd into the trusted confidant of at least one drug dealer.
Where other cops got spooked and left, or toned down their law-breaking for fear of repercussion, Dowd forged on, however. He says now that he was “addicted” to the God-like power and, as we learn in the film, to the crack he was peddling. Now 54, he recalls in the film that an MTA transit cop was killed by a gang Dowd was competing with. We assume that perhaps the younger Dowd had a moment of reckoning and might have tried to turn his life around. In the commentary, he says he struggled with his perverse sense of guilt: “I wanted to feel the pain, and I did feel the pain for him, but I had a sense of shame mixed in with pain — that I really don’t deserve to share that pain with him, because I wasn’t loyal.” But the moment is just a bump in the road on Dowd’s highway to hell. Even after Suffolk County police caught him in 1992 and he was released on bail, he attempted to flee and got tangled in a murder and kidnapping plot. It was a low even his partner and accomplice Kenneth Eurell couldn’t ignore. Eurell made a deal with a DEA agent in exchange for all the dirt on Dowd.
Given his “good cop” credo and the many opportunities to pull out, it’s ironic that Dowd’s biggest regret wasn’t his inability to resist initial temptation, but that his partner Eurell — or someone else — didn’t turn on him sooner. If he got “stopped at a younger age,” he reasons, “I wouldn’t have spent so much time in prison. I wouldn’t have gotten in so deep, I wouldn’t have gotten so far from my moral compass as a human being, and would probably not have this documentary today.”
“One of the guy’s who is in the movie had a partner that had a drug and alcohol problem and actually, this individual left the police department and on his way out the door, he made a phone call to turn his partner in. Because he wanted to save his partner’s life,” he tells me. “Today the guy is a big shot in the police department.”
The experience has made Dowd an unlikely supporter of body cameras, the technology that the public hopes will bring more police accountability. But Dowd embraces them perhaps a little overzealously, with a fervor that seems delusional. “There’s no question,” he says, “If I had a camera on me, you certainly wouldn’t have seen me doing anything wrong. Listen, everybody has a choice to make. I made the wrong choice. If I had a body cam on, there’s my intervention stopping me, you know?” Of course, as the movie shows, Dowd fought harder than most to stay seeped in his illicit dealings. It’s hard to believe that, even with a body cam, he wouldn’t have figured out a way to stay in the game.
These days, Dowd works as a mechanical engineer, well beyond the temptation of power. But it’s nonetheless surprising to hear him say things like, “In the world of police, there is no room for corruption. Zero. And I can only tell that personally.” He even advises cops to snitch on their partners. “If you’re going to turn in another cop, be aware that there may be consequences as well. But the bottom line is, if [you’re] condoning the acts of corruption by another cop, then [you’re] actually guilty of the same act — and worse.” Coming from Dowd, all of this sounds laughable. But, always a smooth-talker, he says it with a conviction that makes you want to think he means it — and maybe he does. Prison, and losing his family, changed him. He’s on friendly terms with Eurell, after a decades-long rift.
“This is self-serving at the moment, but I think I would be an excellent example to any police officer in the Academy, or even after the Academy, for a little training.” says Dowd, always one to see an opportunity. “I’d be an excellent example of showing other cops what happens to someone who actually is confronted with going the wrong way.”
The Seven Five opens to limited release on May 8.
(Lead Photo: Steven Siegel, In-Line Photos vis Sundance Selects/IFC Films)