Chicago police adhere to a code of silence protecting fellow officers, a federal jury ruled Tuesday in a lawsuit filed by a female bartender whose videotaped beating by a drunken off-duty officer went viral online.
Jurors awarded $850,000 in damages to the bartender, Karolina Obrycka, who was beaten in February 2007 after she refused to keep serving Anthony Abbate, who was off-duty and admittedly drunk at the time. Surveillance video of the hulking Abbate pushing Obrycka to the ground behind the bar at Jesse's Shortstop Inn, then repeatedly punching and kicking her.
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The surveillance video, which became a major embarrassment for Chicago police, shined a spotlight on allegations of abuse by the city's officers. 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 was asking jurors to hold Abbate and the city liable for damages to compensate her for any pain or distress she suffered. Jurors sided with her after listening to weeks of testimony.
"I'm still in shock," Obrycka said outside the courtroom after the verdict, adding that she hopes she can move on with her life now.
Her attorney, Terry Ekl, heralded the verdict as a landmark, precedent-setting decision.
"We proved the code of silence at every level of the Chicago Police Department," from the first officers who responded to the beating to then-Chief Phil Cline, Ekl said after the verdict.
Ekl said the onus was now on Mayor Rahm Emanuel to end that 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."
During the civil trial, her 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. They said that culture emboldened Abbate and created an environment that led to the beating.
City attorneys countered by telling jurors there was no evidence that such a secret code existed. The fact that Abbate was eventually charged and convicted, 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 cover-ups.
Debra Kirby, who headed the department's internal affairs division at the time, testified that she recommended during a phone call three days after the beating to a Cook County prosecutor that Abbate be charged with a serious felony.
Pressed by Ekl about whether she told the prosecutor she actually thought a misdemeanor battery charge was appropriate, Kirby emphatically denied it.
"Absolutely incorrect," she said firmly.
But less than an hour later, 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 when the prosecutor in question, Tom Bilyk, took the stand, he told jurors the call never happened and that he never talked with Kirby about charges.
Because Abbate was off duty during the beating, Obrycka's attorneys needed to persuade jurors that the silence code exists, that it was sanctioned by the city and that it led to the beating and an attempted cover-up.
Abbate was on the witness stand 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 claimed he was bent on drowning his sorrows that day because he had just learned his dog was dying from cancer, telling jurors: "I was on a mission to get inebriated." But he said he never presented himself as an officer that night or asserted he had special off-duty privileges.