Jury finds against Chicago in civil trial alleging police code of silence led to beating

A federal jury agreed Tuesday that Chicago police adhered to a code of silence protecting fellow officers in the case of a female bartender whose beating by an off-duty officer was videotaped and went viral online.

The jurors awarded $850,000 in damages in the lawsuit filed by the bartender, Karolina Obrycka, who was beaten in February 2007 by 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.

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 in her lawsuit, Obrycka was asking jurors to hold Abbate and the city liable for damages to compensate Obrycka for any pain or distress she suffered. Jurors sided with her after listening to weeks of testimony.

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 alleged cover-ups.

Debra Kirby, who headed the department's internal affairs division at the time, testified that she recommended during a Feb. 22, 2007, phone call to a Cook County assistant state's attorney that Abbate be charged with a serious felony.

Pressed by Obrycka attorney's, Terry 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 did recommend the lesser charge to the prosecutor.

But when the prosecutor in question, Tom Bilyk, took the stand, he offered yet another twist about Kirby's testimony: He told jurors the call never happened and that he never talked with Kirby about charges.

Because Abbate was off duty during the attack, the onus was on Obrycka's attorneys to persuade jurors that a code exists, that it's sanctioned by the city and that it led to the beating and an attempted cover-up.

Abbate, on the witness stand for two days, was asked by a plaintiff's attorney about phone records showing he made dozens of calls to fellow officers in the hours after the beating. He told jurors he was so drunk before the attack that he couldn't remember calling anyone or what he might have said.

Asked how he could be so sure he didn't press his fellow officers to cover up the matter, given his claims he remembered almost nothing from around that time, Abbate responded: "I know I didn't tell anyone to do anything regarding the incident."

Abbate claimed he was bent on drowning his sorrows on the day of the beating because he had just learned his dog was dying from cancer. "I was on a mission to get inebriated," he told jurors.

In questioning Abbate, city attorney Barrett Rubens sought to establish a pivotal claim: Under questioning, Abbate agreed that on the night of the beating, he never presented himself as an officer or asserted he had special off-duty privileges.