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Gripped by the spread of crack cocaine and associated gang violence, New York City in the late 1980’s was one of the most violent places in North America. In East New York, a war was waged between powerful drug cartels and police struggling to stem the constant flow of bloodshed. The most deadly battles were fought on the slice of paradise known as the “Seven Five” – Brooklyn’s 75th Precinct. Facing an unending stream of murder, rape, drug trafficking, and gang violence, the officers of the Seven Five risked their lives every day for unnoticeable results; this perpetual risk to life and wellbeing, coupled with low pay and little appreciation, led some of these men to step out of line and into the shadowy domain of crime. None more so than Michael Dowd.
Tiller Russell’s documentary dives into the cobweb infested closet of the 75th Precinct, uncovering the details of a nearly decade long instance of police corruption. Featuring unnerving interviews from the perpetrators, DEA and Internal Affairs officers, and accomplices, The Seven Five lends credence to the age-old feelings of distrust towards law enforcement. In a modern world bombarded by headlines of police brutality, The Seven Five only adds fuel to the fire.
Russell’s film is undoubtedly influenced by Errol Morris’ pivotal crime documentary, The Thin Blue Line – offering candid interviews, old photographs, and reenactments – yet there is no real sense of urgency behind the story. All of the characters of this real-life drama are dressed in street clothes, including Dowd, leading any betting man to assume they are free men. What is left is a detailed assembly of case documents, archival footage of a committee hearing, and groups of “good” cops assuring the documentarian that this is a once in a lifetime event. Perhaps they are referring to the scale at which Dowd was operating, but plenty of corruption was shown to have been perpetrated by various other East New York officers and precincts before and after his conviction. Without any stakes, Russell focuses on the individuals themselves – an interesting amalgamation of drug dealers, bad cops, and the proactive Dowd. Each interview comes off more as an in depth character study than recapitulation of the crimes committed by this highly-organized team.
Dowd himself is a pragmatic enigma – part worldly older man in acknowledgement of his damning past, part affable ex-gangster pleased with how remarkable he was at not getting caught. From toeing the waters of corruption by stealing money from crime scenes, to diving into an ocean of crime by working for one of Brooklyn’s biggest cocaine dealers, the ex-cop leaves no stone of his lengthy career in malfeasance unturned. Russell uses Dowd’s and his co-conspirator’s confessions as proof of just how easy it is for a cop to go bad. The charismatic assembly of “brothers” is only aligned with one another, concerned with maintaining the reputations of themselves and their friends, rather than upholding the letter of the law. The audience is made to side with this fraternal group, fighting against interminable brutality, yet seeing so little compensation or results for their efforts.
Tiller Russell’s The Seven Five strives less to provide a thrilling narrative arc, and more to get its audience thinking about the police accountability. As the group in charge of enforcing the law, they are, in effect, above certain aspects of the law. The Seven Five shows that the systematic indoctrination of an “us versus them” mentality and the severe measures taken against whistle-blowers establishes the groundwork for untold abuse. An incredible story of police corruption in the face of an apocalyptic drug war, The Seven Five only widens the gap between civilians and the people chosen to protect and serve.