Friday, 14 August 2015

Precinct Seven Five: An Interview With Michael Dowd

Anyone who managed to make their way through my full coverage of EIFF 2015 should already know that I was seriously impressed, and blown away, by Precinct Seven Five, a documentary that tells the incredible true story of a New York police officer named Michael Dowd. Dowd managed to lead an exhausting double life, as both cop and valuable asset to a major drug dealer, for the better part of a decade until the house of cards came tumbling down around his ears.

I was thrilled, therefore, and also a little bit nervous to grab an interview spot with Dowd (and please read up a little on the situation, or see the documentary, before reading the following interview). I had so many questions racing through my mind, but I wondered just how I would phrase them. How did he survive when things turned sour? How did he keep a clear conscience when his actions surely kept him from making the maximum possible impact as a policeman? Considering his losses, was it all worthwhile?

But everything changed when I walked into the room to meet this smiling, chatty New Yorker. I was at ease within minutes. By the end of the interview, hell, I was hoping we could go out for a few beers. That’s not to say that my questions were forgotten. I just didn’t know how to ask them politely, and I had no need once Michael Dowd got into the full flow of the conversation. Also, it’s worth noting that some of my questions were answered without being asked. Dowd gives his own view of events, of course, and it soon becomes clear just how he feels about things, and how he continues to justify his actions to himself.

Kevin Matthews (AKA me): When did you first see the finished film?

Michael Dowd: Oh, I saw it, it’s actually changed a few times since I saw the original release, which I guess you would call the premiere release, which was October past. It was stunning, but I’ve heard they’ve changed a few things. I don’t know if they’ve just shortened it or adjusted a few things.

KM: So you’ll be looking at it again to see what’s changed?

MD: Yeah, I think I noticed a few things but, you know, I’ve seen it seven times. So I’m good. I’ve lived it and now I’ve seen it seven times. It might not be exactly my life but it certainly is a persuasion of it.

KM: You think it’s an overall fair representation, they’ve had to squeeze in a lot from those ten years.

MD: Yeah, in an hour and forty two minutes they’ve done what they could. It’s a fair representation overall, yes.

KM: The starting point, for me, from the point of view of a film fan, made me immediately think of Serpico. That was my reference point. This started a decade after the events depicted in that movie. In that time, had nothing really changed? Or had the corruption just become so different?

MD: It changed, it changed. The way it was handled. And I’m gonna tell you why, this is a learning process. For me, as well as other people. And the police department, as well. What happened was, and this is deep shit, Serpico showed that they had a chain. There was a chain in Serpico that actually went up the ladder. And then we were taught in a secret society, let’s say, not to let it go up the chain. Keep it amongst you. Don’t ask me who taught me that. I’m just telling you, that was how it was taught. Because then what you were doing was insulating the police department brass. Because they never really did anything anyway. They were just collecting over the years from the people in the street who were bringing the corrupt gains. Back then they had what you call bag men. In Serpico’s day there were bag men. In fact, one of my uncles was a bag man. He became a detective. Go figure. So the corruption changed though, it became more street level corruption, and co-ordination amongst co-workers rather than the superiors and the underlings. Does that make sense?

KM: Yeah. Totally. Like any workplace, you get told that this is the rulebook but HERE are the rules.

MD: EXACTLY. You got the book over here and the street over here. We don’t live in the book, okay, the other people do. We live in the street. We respond to what the street tells us. I like that analogy. That’s accurate, that’s accurate.

KM: The other burning question in my mind, as things began to escalate. How did you have enough hours in the day? Days in the week? Were you operating on two hours sleep a night? And the cycle goes on and on. Trips to Vegas to clean money, trips accompanying drug deliveries.

MD: Yeah, yeah, how do you do it all? How do you do it all? Fun times. You lie a lot. You lie a LOT. You lie to your family, to your friends. When you go home you say “I won a trip”. You don’t tell them that you’re paying for it. You say that you won a trip. Or you say “hon, look what I found”. You don’t tell her that you just shook down a drug dealer for a hundred grand large. You just say “oh, I found this” or “this was left there and I had a choice”. You make excuses for every act. You tell your mother you got a big tax return. She says: “son, what are you doing with this and that? Your brothers ain’t got it, how the hell are you managing? What’s going on?”
“Oh Ma, I went to Atlantic City and I won $26,000”
You lie. And then you try to work, and you get this burning sensation from your head to your toe, and you pull into the side of the road wondering if it’s a heart attack or just stress. Then you pull an ambulance over when you’re at work, and you ask them to lay you down and put an EKG machine on you. Because if you go to the doctor, at only 27 or 29 years old, with a heart problem then they know it’s not your heart. It’s your lifestyle. I was keen not to do that. So the ambulance driver looks at me and she goes: “listen Mike, I don’t know what you’re doing but, whatever it is, you’d better stop. Burning both ends?” And then I’m just thinking that she knows. She knows. So it’s not an easy game to chase. The chase goes on and you don’t really live in comfort as you think you are, and you burn yourself out, and you end up in rehabs, and things of that nature, at a young age. And the cycle begins, and then you come back out and you think that you’ll try to walk a straight line, but when you try to walk the straight line you realise that no one wants to work with you, so you have to go back on the other side of the straight line. So now you can get a partner, and it just takes off from there. If you’re straight then they don’t wanna work with you. It’s a self-fuilfilling prophecy. I’m trying to do good. I wanna be a good cop, and then retire, and all of a sudden it’s like no one will work with me. And I’m a very social, gregarious person. I want people around me, whether they’re doing good or bad, or right or indifferent, I want a social environment. I’m one of seven, I’m an Irish kid, we got seven kids in the family and I wanted to be part of the party. Have a good time wherever I went.

KM: And it sounds like you did.

MD: I did, I did. But twelve and a half years is what it cost me. That party wasn’t so much fun.

KM: When it DID all come to an end, what was your main motivation for going to the Mollen Commission?

MD: They came to me two or three times and I told them that I was not interested in working with them, because I didn’t want to hurt anybody else. I didn’t want any cops to be unfairly, or maybe rightfully so, arrested. I thought that the arrest of Michael Dowd, hitting the newspapers the way it did and blasting for almost two years every day over 400 newspaper articles, I thought that the cops would say to themselves “we’d better stop what we’re doing – cos they’re coming”. It was huge. And it was every day. Pounding and pounding on these cops. And then they came to me and said “how do we catch people like you?” and I said “fuck you, go away” and they came back, and came back again, and finally my lawyer told me that I needed a friend in that courtroom. “They’re looking to hammer your balls off you,” he said, “for basically shaking down drug dealers, essentially”. And I said “alright, let’s see what we can do for them”. And I sat down with the Mollen Commission, I taught them how to catch me, and I told them initially no because they were gonna kill off cops and people and individuals, and ruin families, and they said “fuck them, we don’t care”. And that’s why I was against them. And then after sitting in the courtroom and listening to the newspapers talk about how I murdered people, and this and that, and I knew it was ridiculous and untrue, and my lawyer advised me that I needed a friend. The only friend we could find was the Mollen Commission. So then I taught them how to catch me, which then let them take down the whole 30th Precinct. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the case, I don’t know if you followed it through, the whole 30th Precinct was arrested almost right after. As I testified, the next day they took the whole 30th Precinct midnight shift and put them in prison. The whole shift. How that played out was very interesting. They had me testify, and I don’t know about anything else going on, I’m just doing what I do. I go back to my prison cell. I see the newspaper the next day – 30th Precinct: 30 People Arrested. The whole midnight shift. And I don’t know what that has to do with me. And then the next day they go back to the commission hearings, and the commission tells them how they did it, why they did it, how they were ABLE to do it. So they were justifying their existence by portraying me a certain way, taking down a whole other precinct that was doing what I was doing, based on how I taught them how to catch me. So, the whole point for the purpose of this discussion, is that I wasn’t the only one doing this. There was a large organisation of police officers doing this at the level of patrolman. The ironic thing is that I met a woman who hailed from Brooklyn, at a screening in New Jersey, and people can get up and speak after the screening, and she said: “I just want you to know that we knew what you were doing. We knew what you all were doing. We didn’t give a shit. All we cared about was that you guys were there to protect us. We didn’t care that you were taking their money and stealing their drugs. I’m from Hell’s Kitchen [30th or 34th Precinct in Manhattan] and we knew what you were doing. But, dammit, you kept us as safe as you could.” This woman, I wanted to hug her. She got it. We were wrong. We knew we were wrong. But they knew what we faced out there on a daily basis. I was clearing $310 a week. You see a paycheck onscreen, one of mine, for $615 – that’s for TWO weeks. That’s a bi-weekly check. I never got $615 a week. I still don’t. The layers of the onion can unpeel even further in the book that is coming out, there are so many layers and that goes even deeper. What Kenny did to me, the betrayal, was beyond what you see. He was retired with a disability pension. We was collecting a pension. I had no influence over him, over his life. You would think that he was in the patrol car with me, from the way the film portrays things, and that he just decided to turn on his partner. No, he was retired and living at home with his wife and kids, on the couch. He dealt drugs for six months and went down like a fucking . . . . . buffoon. I just stuck my hand in it for a minute to help him out and, bingo, they wrap me up in it. That’s what you don’t get from the film. I hope they can fill it in elsewhere, I think Sony is going to do a little version of some of the things that the documentary couldn’t get into, because there’s a lot of life there to cover.

KM: Yeah, as soon as it finished I thought that someone would surely snap it up to develop a movie.

MD: Yeah, Sony grabbed it, and I’m doing the book that will hopefully lay it all out in detail. Because it’s really an in-depth story. You know, he was retired with a disability pension that I got him. I got him this pension. I lied for him, and got him a pension. So he’s home, retired, and I end up paying to keep his pension. I pay.

KM: Last question. Do you think with the tech in everyone’s pockets today, if you were a young officer nowadays, is this kind of thing even possible now? To this degree?

MD: Oh no, this couldn’t happen. No. For many reasons, besides cell phones and such. Because of my case, the police department has turned into a place where you can actually almost feel safe giving a guy like me up again. I tried to turn in a guy like me, and that’s what turned everybody against me. When Kenny says “I wouldn’t work with Mike, I was afraid to work with Mike” he wasn’t saying that because I was corrupt. He was saying it because I turned somebody in. I turned somebody in who was doing what I was doing. Because I was trying to turn over a new leaf. I found out that this guy threatens to kill me. There’s a lot of shit that goes down that people don’t even know about, and a 15 minute interview is not going to do us any justice. Even the documentary has to be ding ding ding ding ding. There’s a guy I turn in who threatens to kill me. Internal Affairs tells him who I am. He tells me on the phone that he’s going to put a bullet in my head. I hit the ground. I’m on the phone, and on the gound. My wife wonders what’s going on, I tell her to shut the fuck up. You don’t even know, this thing is crazy. It was fun though. It’s fun, exciting, exhilarating, at the same time it’s scary. But you don’t have that fear while you’re living it. You have no choice but to trudge through it. Accept it.

And there you have it. Michael Dowd. Unrepentant, entertaining, larger than life, fascinating. Accept it.

Precinct Seven Five goes on general release on 14th August, and is reviewed here. DO see it.

The man himself - Michael Dowd (and me - perhaps looking a little nervous)

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