A handful of New York City cops have contended for the dubious crown of most corrupt ever in the 170-year history of the NYPD. There was Charles H. Becker, who met the electric chair in 1915 after he successfully ordered a hit on a gambler who had threatened to expose him as crooked. Or Louis Eppolito and Stephen Caracappa, who served as detectives while secretly doing the bidding of the Lucchese crime family. And then there was Michael Dowd.
As detailed in the new documentary The Seven Five, Dowd was a cop in official title only. Working in East New York, Brooklyn—the 75th precinct—in the cocaine-addled late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Dowd acted as bodyguard and consigliere to a neighborhood coke kingpin and spiritual leader to a gaggle of corrupt East New York cops, taking large and regular payoffs, robbing rival dealers, and brazenly driving an ill-gotten red Corvette to work. At a hearing of the Mollen Commission, an anti-corruption panel formed following Dowd’s 1992 arrest for cocaine dealing, an investigator asked whether, in the depths of his depravity, Dowd saw himself chiefly as a drug trafficker or as a cop. Dowd took a moment to consider the question and answered frankly that he was both. (That’s him with the mustache at center-left above.)
The Seven Five is thrilling, if far too gleeful at Dodd and his crew’s shenanigans, which were sometimes astoundingly violent. The film presents its central character as a natural leader and a borderline sociopath, who succeeded as a drug dealer for as long as he did through force of his own manic charisma and the persistence of the NYPD’s so-called blue wall of silence. Out of a twisted sense of honor and a fear of being labeled a rat, Dowd’s colleagues in the department staunchly refused to turn in one of their own—even if, in this case, he was often stumbling drunk and thought little of bringing cocaine with him into the station house.
Dowd spent 11 years in prison—a forgiving sentence, it’s hard not to feel by the end of The Seven Five—and was released in 2004. Last week, I sat down with him to ask whether he believes the NYPD has gotten any better in the two decades since his sordid heyday.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
When everything came down on you, it was the Suffolk County Police Department that arrested you, and not Internal Affairs at NYPD. Why do you think that was? Why didn’t Internal Affairs root you out first?
Internal Affairs had me for years on their radar. In my opinion, they really weren’t aggressively seeking to make a big case because it would have been a scourge on the NYPD after the 77th Precinct. (Eleven cops from the 77th were arrested as part of a well-publicized drugs and corruption case in 1986, during the height of Dowd’s own corruption.)
That was basically my whole mantra, why I stayed on the job. I said in my brain—the small brain that it is—that the department is probably willing to just let things go away, if it were to go away. And then, you know, like old habits—I only let [my own corruption] go away for a short period of time.
After you were arrested, Mayor David Dinkins created the Mollen Commission in an attempt to overhaul the way the NYPD roots out corruption. Let’s say another Michael Dowd were working in East New York today. Are the mechanisms for finding and arresting him better than they were in the early ‘90s?
Yes. The mechanisms are better. Not 100 percent, but better. They were embarrassed by my case, and they’ve put things in place. I don’t know the details of the way they structure Internal Affairs today, but they would encourage an officer to come forward if they knew that someone’s behavior was the same as my type of behavior.
They’re all trained on me. The academy class is basically [about] me, in Internal Affairs. Or it used to be. I don’t know if it currently is.
When you were testifying in front of the Mollen Commission, you mentioned something that has come to be a commonly held belief: that there’s a culture within police departments that encourages cops not to rat on their buddies, or to go along with whatever their partner says happened in a given situation, whether or not it’s true. Do you think that culture still exists within the NYPD?
Yes. It’s still there, but it’s probably not as prevalent as it was.
Could you give an anecdotal or hypothetical example of an instance in which that culture might play itself out?
Well, if an officer is making an arrest—and sometimes force is necessary in an arrest—oftentimes, the thing is this: You’re asking a police officer to do a job that should be done by a machine, someone with no emotion. It’s very hard to separate yourself from an emotional affront by an individual. Maybe he spit at you. Maybe he smacked you. Maybe he shot at you. It’s very hard to separate the emotion of your fury and your fear. Most cops, including myself, respond out of fear. Fear that they’re going to get injured or killed by their own weapon, in many cases.
So sometimes a cop will lose it. Maybe give the guy an extra shot or two—I don’t mean with a bullet—maybe with their hand or something, or their elbow, or a briefcase. And the other cop’s not going to say anything, because he feels the emotion. But the reality is that it’s still wrong.
Do you think that dynamic plays at all into the Eric Garner case? Do you think the public would have gotten a true recounting of what happened to Eric Garner had it not been caught on video?
Listen, what happened to Eric Garner is that the officer used force against him. So, how do you explain away the amount of force? If someone dies in your hands from the amount of force, I don’t know how you would explain that, other than to say the truth—even if you wanted to cover it up.
You could say—
Eric Garner bit me? Or punched me?
If you wanted to put it on Eric Garner, I guess there’s a way you could do that. You’re asking me to speculate. The fact is that the officer was a lot stronger than he thought he was, and he ended up killing someone. And that happens, unfortunately.
Kenneth Eurell, your partner, broke the blue wall of silence when he wore a wire as part of a federal investigation against you. Do you have any animosity toward him for doing so? Do you think he did the right thing?
In the beginning, of course, I was hurt. I felt betrayed. I said some things that I wouldn’t have normally said, and acted in a way that I probably wouldn’t have acted. I was like an animal in a cage. I was desperate. I was looking to leave the country. At that point, I was willing to say and do just about anything.
Anyhow, when he turned me in, the way he did it—it’s almost very cunning of him, and he’s not a cunning type of guy. So he caught me off guard. And it was hurtful, but I got over it. It still hurts when I think about it, but I got over it.
There are plenty of things that you did bad, that you deserved to go down for.
Yeah, I’m bad. I did bad. No, I’m not bad. I did bad. I did a lot of bad things. I had a lot of fun. But the fact is that it’s all bad. When it’s not right, it’s bad. So I did a lot of things that my mother’s not proud of.
If the roles had been reversed, would you have worn a wire?
No. I shouldn’t say I was offered that opportunity to do so, but I was offered the opportunity to come in and speak to the federal government, and I chose not to.
Because I thought that if we had stuck together, we had a chance of beating the case. Silly me. What do I know about the feds? They don’t play fair.
What do you think should change in the NYPD or other police departments to make them better, in terms of corruption or the culture of not snitching on each other?
I think these guys do a damn good job. It’s not an easy job, because every mistake is potentially life-threatening. What can they do? I think that they need more hands-on training. To tell you the truth, I’d love to be able to speak to them, and tell them how it happens, how they might go wrong. To know that there’s consequences to each one of their actions.
If you don’t turn in your buddy for doing something inappropriate—whether it’s departmentally or criminally—then you just committed a crime yourself. That’s the problem. You have to know that, one partner to another: You can’t do that to me, because you just made me commit a crime by not telling on you.
Was it fun? Did you have fun as a cop?
Yeah. Life was fun. It was hectic. I was young and dumb. But it was a lot of—I was living that drug dealer life. But it’s a fast burnout. It was interesting.