Be Careful Out There

Precinct Seven Five (Tiller Russell, 2014)

We’re used from television programmes such as NYPD Blue and The Wire to the complex interrelations between cops, criminals, politicians and victims and the shades of moral greyness that are faced in policing the streets. Our news of the last couple of years has been filled with dubious shootings of African Americans — not that this is a new phenomena. And despite the fact that particular police forces are clearly — in Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton’s term — institutionally racist, we keep ending up with the one bad apple alibi.

This account of New York police corruption in the late 1980s and early 1990s is a documentary, although you can imagine Al Pacino and Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro playing the roles and the DEA guy is a double for J.K. Simmons. Thus it is mostly talking heads — with only one of the speakers shown in silhouette, one of the New York dealers — along with police evidence video, grainy reconstruction, archive photos and the inevitable skycam view of the streets.

But it begins with former policeman Michael Dowd giving evidence to some kind of enquiry and is taken up in talking heads. There had already been corruption in a nearby Brooklyn precinct, and several cops had resigned lest they be exposed too. Dowd, having reflected on the cynicism with which their ethical training was treated, began his shadow career by asking for a bribe rather than arresting a criminal and then started lifting cash from crime scenes. Soon he recruited his partner, Kenny Eurell, by giving him a hundred dollar bill from a crack dealer. Dowd appears the most dynamic of the speakers, the camera moves with him rather than staying locked off and it is clear there is next to no remorse.

We’re talked through his career — the bribes and thefts proceed to a working relationship with a local king pin to arresting the competition to a potential kidnapping of a debtor’s wife. The amounts of money involved are clearly vast — hundreds of thousands a week, devastating hundreds if not thousands of lives. The Dominican kingpin clearly admired Dowd, but still thought of Eurell as a cop and not up to it. (Meanwhile: cast Jared Leto?)

And inevitably it comes crashing down — we see his testimony — and we might reassure ourselves that criminals will not prosper. Dowd served his sentence. Only one female voice is heard — Eurell’s wife — and none of the consumers of crack. What is striking is that the real emotions come when you see Dowd and Eurell’s discussion of their feelings for each other — textbook homosociality. Clearly a cop’s partner is a blood brother, indeed when they discuss becoming partners you expect there to be a swapping of blood. You have to have each others’ back. You have to trust the other person won’t betray you.

And you get the sense that Dowd doesn’t regret a single moment of his career — only the betrayal.