CHICAGO – Will the city act?
That’s the question many Chicagoans will be asking Wednesday – a day after the dramatic conclusion of a civil trial that stemmed from a notorious 2007 beating of a female bartender by off-duty police officer Anthony Abbate. A video recording of the attack later went viral worldwide.
Jurors came back with a verdict Tuesday and gave voice to what has been whispered for years: That at least some Chicago police adhere to a code of silence to protect their fellow officers. And while the city all but promised an appeal of the verdict, Mayor Rahm Emanuel also suggested that anyone in the Police Department perpetuating a code of silence would face consequences.
The attorney for bartender Karolina Obrycka – whom the jury also awarded $850,000 in damages – described the verdict as a landmark, precedent-setting decision that proved the code of silence existed “at every level of the Chicago Police Department.”
Now, Terry Ekl said, the onus is on Emanuel to end the culture of protection and silence.
“The question now becomes, ‘What are they going to do about it?’” he said. “If there’s going to be change, it has to come from the mayor’s office.”
After the verdict, Emanuel’s spokeswoman Sarah Hamilton said in a statement that the mayor is confident the police superintendent he selected, Garry McCarthy, and his leadership team, “would not approve of, let alone participate in a code of silence.” But, she added, “to the extent there are members of the department who have a different view, the mayor is confident that McCarthy and his team will deal with that.”
The city’s law department, at the same time, issued a statement that the city strongly disagreed with the verdict and all but promised an appeal.
The jury’s decision Tuesday is another blow to a department that for decades has struggled to overcome a reputation for brutality and a willingness to cover up the mistakes and even outright lawlessness of its officers.
This civil trial at a federal court in Chicago was unusual. It was the first of its kind to focus almost wholly on the question of whether there is an ingrained code of silence – with most of the 2½ weeks of testimony devoted to that question.
In the end, jurors not only found that other officers and Abbate’s superiors tried to cover up the attack at Jesse’s Short Stop Inn, but they concluded that Abbate’s knowledge of his fellow officers’ willingness to cover him created an environment that led to the attack on Obrycka.
The surveillance video – which showed the drunk, hulking Abbate pushing Obrycka to the ground behind the bar, then repeatedly punching and kicking her – became a major embarrassment for Chicago police. Amid accusations that police dithered in the weeks after the beating, then-Superintendent Phil Cline retired and the department vowed to clean up its image.
Abbate was convicted of aggravated battery in 2009 and sentenced to probation.
At the civil trial, Obrycka asked jurors to hold Abbate and the city liable for damages to compensate her for any pain or distress she suffered. And the core issue they had to decide was not whether Abbate beat her, but whether the police culture emboldened him and led him to act with impunity in attacking her.
During the civil trial, Obrycka’s attorneys alleged that police sought to downplay and cover up the beating, in part out of an ingrained but shadowy culture among police of protecting their own.
City attorneys countered by telling jurors there was no evidence that such a secret code existed. The fact that Abbate was charged and convicted for the beating in 2009, they said, proved that the system worked.
But some police officials who testified contradicted each other, which Obrycka’s attorney said proved their point about alleged cover-ups.
Debra Kirby, who headed the department’s internal affairs division at the time, testified that she recommended during a phone call with Cook County prosecutors three days after the beating that Abbate be charged with a serious felony.
But Joseph Stehlik, who was an internal affairs detective under Kirby’s command, said he was next to his boss at the time of the call. Stehlik testified Kirby recommended the lesser charge.
Then the prosecutor in question, Tom Bilyk, told jurors the call never happened and that he never talked with Kirby about charges.
Abbate was on the witness stand himself for two days and asked by Obrycka’s attorney about phone records showing he made dozens of calls to fellow officers in the hours after the beating. He said he was so drunk before the attack that he couldn’t remember calling anyone or what he might have said, though he insisted he “didn’t tell anyone to do anything regarding the incident.”
Abbate’s attorney said he wasn’t surprised by the verdict Tuesday, saying the video was too hard to overcome even though, he said, it provides no evidence of a code of silence.
“No matter what occurred, that video in terms of my client is the most damning thing,” said Michael Malatesta.