Hollywood could take lessons in gangster chutzpah from the real-life convicted robbers and dirty cops parading through Tiller Russell’s documentary “The Seven Five”: They flaunt their dubious achievements with deplorable yet somehow infectious glee. The title refers to Brooklyn’s 75th precinct, which in the 1980s became a hotbed of crack wars, boasting one of the country’s highest murder rates, including numerous cop killings. Onto this stage in 1982 strode 20-year-old patrolman Michael Dowd, and the phases of his transformation from shiny young rookie to criminal mastermind, as recounted by Dowd, his partner and appreciative drug lords, makes for riveting viewing.
Russell establishes a dualist dynamic in his treatment of Dowd, who is first presented in archival footage from 1993 as he testifies, in hangdog mode, to his numerous acts of malfeasance before the Mollen Commission on Police Corruption. Then, with post-prison, present-day exuberance, he proudly, unrepentantly recounts his decade-long high-living heyday for the camera.
Dowd observes that he started his descent into crime simply enough, by skimming first hundreds, then thousands, of dollars from cash confiscated during drug busts. This sleight-of-hand escalated to include the drugs themselves, which in turn necessitated outright dealing. Attracted to a Corvette and a beautiful woman, Dowd soon hooked up with their owner, Baron Perez, who ran his drug operation from an automotive stereo store. According to Perez (the only disguised player in the film, seen in dreadlocked silhouette), Dowd offered to keep him informed about projected police raids and undercover operations in exchange for weekly payments.
Perez not only hired him on the spot but also recommended him to Adam Diaz, a bigwig Dominican drug lord. Diaz, now deported, boasts with a superior smirk about the scope and deadliness of his old operation, which distributed large quantities of cocaine out of multiple grocery stores and permanently eliminated any competition or interference. Diaz notes how he immediately recognized in Dowd a criminal soulmate (“He was like me”) and trusted him implicitly to watch his back, though he was less sure of Dowd’s partner, Kenny Eurell.
Dowd was assigned to Eurell in 1987, and gradually initiated him into what it meant to be a “good” cop — i.e., to imitate, support or at least turn a blind eye to whatever shady dealings fellow policemen were involved in. Eurell was soon converted, a process elucidated in intercut interviews with Dowd, Eurell and Eurell’s wife, with only varying degrees of trepidation distinguishing the three accounts. The cop duo’s activities escalated from skimming and dealing to armed robbery and kidnapping.
Perhaps the most amazing aspect of Dowd’s confession — and Russell’s documentary — is the total ease with which Dowd reconciles his twin careers as all-out gangster and dedicated cop. The contemporary interview makes clear that, even in the midst of warning drug dealers of imminent raids, Dowd considered himself a loyal policemen and saw little contradiction in his actions, since his allegiance was not to actual police work, but rather to the police “brotherhood” from which he derived his identity, power and protection. Doubtless aided by his growing cocaine addiction, he never imagined that the apparatus of law enforcement he used for his own gain could ever be turned against him.
In this context, Russell’s insertion of video surveillance tapes, audio wiretaps, official reports and ID photos serves as both an illustration of events in Dowd’s testimony and a representation of an objective, functioning law-enforcement system beyond his gangster purview. In a way, the doc’s alternation of grainy, archival artifacts and Dowd’s vivid, pumped-up first-hand reminiscences indirectly mirrors Dowd’s schizophrenic identity.