At the very end of the credits to “The Place Beyond the Pines” reads a brief disclaimer: “The characters and incidents portrayed are fictitious and any similarity to the name, character or history of any person living or dead is entirely coincidental and unintentional.”
But there’s no denying at least one uncanny parallel included in the narrative: The troubled history of the Schenectady Police Department during the late 1990s. Though Derek Cianfrance’s film portrays the city in gritty-but-flattering hues, it takes a sobering dig at the corruption within the department that troubled it for years and ultimately landed it under federal investigation.
Perhaps the most startling likeness between the past and fiction comes when Avery Cross, a character played by Bradley Cooper, becomes the cop guarding the department’s evidence locker. As the narrative unfolds, a veteran cop played by Gabe Fazio begins asking Cross to bend the rules.
At one point, he asks him to shave off several ounces of cocaine that he can give to a prostitute who is helping him set up a bust. Cross surreptitiously records the conversation and ultimately turns in the cop and two others played by actors Ray Liotta and Luca Pierucci.
Another scene shows Cooper accompanying the three officers during an illegal search of a city residence. The four make off with money that was stolen from a bank.
When the three offices are finally arrested, news reports reveal that the three were using the drugs to spur crime in the city and bolster their arrest records.
The clip serves as a backdrop for the main narrative. But it also acts as a reminder of a time when the Schenectady police image was tarnished.
The FBI began investigating the Schenectady police in August 1999 after Officers Michael Siler and Richard Barnett took crack from a vice squad informant and gave part of the cocaine to one of Siler’s informants. At the time, the two were part of an extremely effective clique of officers that also included Lt. Michael Hamilton Jr. and Patrolman Nicola Messere.
At first it seemed they could do what the vice squad couldn’t — arrest the street dealers who fueled much of the addiction and street crime in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. But some of the officers were using illegal tactics to build cases.
They would conduct illegal searches, use crack cocaine to entice information from their informants and protect snitches from arrests. In one case, they were supplying drug-addicted prostitutes who gave them information.
Barnett pleaded guilty in federal court in 2001 to taking cocaine from a suspect and giving it to an informant as a reward. Siler also pleaded guilty to giving drugs to informants.
The following year, a federal jury found Messere and Hamilton guilty of rewarding informants with crack cocaine and aiding and abetting a crack house, respectively.
No hard feelings
The similarities between the two instances haven’t seemed to stir much ire among city officials or police. The Pines crew filmed amicably with officers from the department, even after the similarities became painfully clear during filming last summer.
Lt. Mark McCracken said he had no hard feelings about the likenesses he saw during the filming and the chaotic period when he first started on the force more than a decade ago. He wasn’t sure if his sentiment was shared by everyone else, but said most of the department got along well with the film crew regardless of the plot line.
“There may be some similarities,” he acknowledged.
Mayor Gary McCarthy, a councilman and investigator with the Schenectady County District Attorney’s Office at the time of the federal corruption case, said the likenesses included in the film should serve as a reminder of how far the Police Department has come since the scandal broke.
“We weeded those things out and put that behind us,” he said.
Robert Carney, the county’s top prosecutor, shares this view. He said the department has made marked changes in both policy and personnel since the dark years.
“It’s a better, stronger and healthier Police Department now,” he said.
Ultimately, Carney said the film should be taken with a grain of salt and not as a literal history of the department’s troubles. After all, it is a movie.
“I think it’s fiction,” he said.