CHICAGO – The city of Chicago is asking a judge to erase a landmark verdict that found there exists a code of silence in the police department that leads officers to protect rogue colleagues — a legal move that critics say is calculated to deny others suing over alleged police abuse from citing the decision as a precedent.
The motion, filed this week in U.S. District Court in Chicago, comes a month after jurors at a civil trial returned with a verdict against the city and for bartender Karolina Obrycka. A videotape of off-duty officer Anthony Abbate beating Obrycka in 2007 created a sensation after it went viral on the Internet.
One aspect that makes the motion unusual is that Obrycka joined it. The advantage to her is that, if the joint request is granted, Chicago will pay $850,000 in damages awarded to her by jurors immediately, rather than stringing out the litigation for years on appeal.
Attorneys who had heralded the Nov. 13 verdict criticized the city's legal maneuver Tuesday.
"It's outrageous," said Flint Taylor, a Chicago-based attorney. "The city forced the plaintiff to trial, there's a finding about there being a code of silence — and the city turns around and tries to buy itself out of the jury's finding as if it never happened."
Rather than trying to strike the finding from the record, the city should commit itself to eradicating an engrained police culture the leads some officers to feel obliged to protect their own, said Taylor, who has sued the city multiple times in the past on behalf of clients alleging police abuse.
"Instead of trying to buy their way out of the problem, they should deal with the problem," Taylor said.
A status hearing in the case is scheduled for Friday, when U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve could rule.
While the city would still be on the hook to pay Obrycka, it could save itself money by snatching the potential precedent from others seeking massive city payouts in the future.
"In the long run, they figure they can keep the ship steering in the same direction without taking on additional water," said Locke Bowman, the director of the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University School of Law. "I think that is unfortunate. (The motion) loses sight of the need for additional reform."
A spokesman for the city's law department, Roderick Drew, issued a brief statement saying, "The city has concluded it is time to move on and resolve this unfortunate incident without further litigation."
Abbate was convicted of aggravated battery in 2009 and sentenced to probation. The core issue jurors had to decide at the civil trial was whether city officials tolerated the police culture, and whether that emboldened Abbate and led him to act with impunity in attacking the bartender.
Obrycka's attorneys had said before and during the trial that they hoped a verdict in their favor would send a wider message that the code of silence won't be tolerated.
Still, Taylor said he didn't blame Obrycka and her lawyers for taking the city's offer and joining the motion.
"There's a gun being held to their heads," he said. "The city is saying, 'If you don't agree, we will appeal and you will have to wait two or three years for your money.'"
Obryska also faces the risk that, if she loses on appeal, a higher court could drastically reduce her damages payment or even rule she should receive nothing.
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