The Rise and Fall and Rise of a Gangster Cop

By Dorri Olds 05/11/15
The Fix Q&A with Michael Dowd, the kingpin of a gang of cops who extorted drug dealers, and now the subject of a brilliant documentary.
The Dowd Gang

Michael Dowd’s story is being compared to Goodfellas but, unlike wiseguy Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), Dowd was a New York City police officer who described himself as a “gangster and a cop.” In his fifties now, Dowd says he’s “for the most part” sober since 1992 — the year he was arrested for racketeering and cocaine trafficking. At the time, he was employed by East New York, Brooklyn’s 75th Precinct.

The Seven Five documentary opened in theaters this weekend and tells the whole sordid mess. It’s not your typical doc though. This is a crazy rush of adrenaline told by a charismatic criminal who seems to get as much of a kick out of himself as Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill. Another similarity to a Scorsese movie is the wild abandon used with the F-word.

This is better than any police procedural. Sony already bought the rights to the story and has begun making a feature film with big Hollywood names including screenwriter Scott Frank (Get Shorty, Out of SightMinority Report), director Yann Demange (71) and producer John Lesher (Birdman). Oh, and there’s a book in the works, too. Dowd could not hide his excitement when he said he hopes the book will answer any questions that might arise.

During the late '80s through the early '90s, Brooklyn had the highest murder rates in America. Crack cocaine was everywhere and Michael Dowd was a cop so crooked that he, along with his uniform-wearing law-breaking cohorts, inspired Mayor David Dinkins to create the Mollen Commission, a task force assigned with investigating police brutality, criminality and abuse of power.

In the film, Walter Yurkin, another shady cop from the “Seven Five” said, “It was the deadliest precinct in the country. It would scare Clint Eastwood and I’d break your neck if your neck needed breaking.”

In 1982, Dowd was a 20-year old, shiny-new clean cop. A decade later, he was the dirtiest thug in the New York police department. Dowd was the kingpin of a gang of crooked cops extorting money from Dominican drug lords and robbing drug dealers at gunpoint.

Like so many drug addicts, his grandiosity did him in. In American Gangster Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) brought about his own downfall by strutting around in a lavish fur coat. Dowd’s version of that was when he began forgetting to pick up his $615 per week NYPD paycheck while riding to work in his brand new red Corvette. He even arranged limo pickups from work to Atlantic City to launder his ill-gotten green.

The Fix interviewed Dowd last week in New York, just before the release of the film.

In American Gangster, Russell Crowe played Richie Roberts, the one cop with ethics. And in Serpico, one cop stood up to the whole corrupt police department. Did you think those cops with ethics were saps? Or did you just see them as rats? 

Look, most cops want to be good cops, including myself. It depends on the environment they’re in and where the gray line is. I didn’t want to be a gangster but once you cross the line it’s very difficult to get back. It was hard to sleep with myself then, knowing night-after-night what I was doing.

How bad were your years in prison? Were people beating you up because you were a cop?

They would have loved to but no one had the balls to do it. 

Why do you think they left you alone?

There’s a reason that everybody does what they do. In prison, if someone wants to go after you, they could. The inmates wanted me to “check into the hole” [solitary] but I refused and had several confrontations. It never actually came to physical blows. You have to be a man and step up and be willing to take the blow if need be but I didn’t have to. I was one of the most physically fit guys in the joint so they knew, with me, it would be a long dance, not a short little run. I would just look at them and say, “Let’s go. Right now.” You never go to bed in prison without answering the call.

What do you mean “the call”?

You immediately make sure you’ve put to rest any potential threats. Otherwise you’ll never be able to sleep. When you wake up somebody is going to be standing over you with a shank. You come to an understanding, “Okay, you stay on your side of the yard and I’ll stay on my side of the yard.” 

Were your wife and two sons able to come visit?

Yes, but I was in Florida for much of that time and the visits were infrequent. My wife was a young woman with two children to feed. She had to go on with her life.

Have you made amends to your friends, parents, ex-wife, and kids by living in a different way?

I’m back in all of their lives and these people are moral and upstanding citizens and they love and embrace me. Not everybody is happy about the film—Mom especially. But, I live my life one day at a time. I make mistakes every day but I am remorseful for the past and I’m humble enough to be corrected today and I try my best not to repeat the same mistakes. But I am a fallible human being and I will make mistakes and I ask for forgiveness.

Are you completely sober now?

I have had a couple of slips but, for the most part, I haven’t done drugs or drunk alcohol since 1992. 

Which actors would you choose to play you and your partner in the feature film?

I don’t know who could play my partner. There’s got to be somebody with a little rat on their head. Ryan Gosling for me, but for him it’ll have to be some squealy-nosed little prick. You saw Kenny with his sleeves of tattoos—you’d think he was the one who did time in prison, right?

When you stole money from drug dealers did you feel entitled to it?

The entitlement part was that they were selling drugs on my street. If you’re going to make money on my corner, I’m gonna make money too—either with you or against you. At that time, the NYPD did not want police officers making narcotics arrests. So, I’m in a blue and white [car], I drive by, you’re selling cocaine on the corner. I don’t stop you because my boss doesn’t want me to be vouchering money and making overtime for the city. The public sees me drive by, not make an arrest so they’re like, “What’s up with these cops?” The department didn’t want us to go near the drugs because then we might be on the take. So we found a happy medium [stealing and extorting money].

Why didn’t the department want you to make arrests? 

It costs money to process arrests. In the early ’80s, people learned that if their lawyer made a complaint that the cops stole something, the investigation would turn against the cop rather than the civilian who’d been arrested. 

Do you feel that a part of you looks back on your youth and thinks, “Wow, I really got away with a lot of stuff and I had a lot of fun”?

I’m laughing as you say this because I didn’t get away with anything. I’ve paid for every single thing I’ve done. Did I get away with it for a while? Yes. But, getting away with it for a while is a completely different answer than getting caught and being handed a 14-year prison sentence.

You got out in 12 for good behavior?

Twelve point five, yeah.

But, who’s counting, right?

[Laughs] Me. I’m counting.

Watch The Seven Five trailer:

Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in book anthologies and numerous publications including The New York Times.

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Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.