CHICAGO—In an unanticipated move, the City of Chicago took tangible legal steps in federal court this week to silence the Chicago Police Department’s “code of silence.” The city announced it had struck a macabre deal with Karolina Obrycka, a bartender who was infamously beaten without provocation by off-duty Chicago police officer Anthony Abbate in February 2007, which was captured on surveillance video and viewed by millions around the world.
On December 3rd, the city agreed to quickly pay Obrycka the $850,000 in damages awarded by a federal jury, reversing its earlier impassioned vows to appeal the November 13th ruling. In exchange for quick payment, the city obligated Obrycka to request that a federal judge erase the jury’s landmark finding that the City of Chicago “had a widespread custom or practice of failing to adequately investigate and discipline its officers and a police code of silence.”
The importance of the jury’s November 13th verdict acknowledging the code of silence is not to be overlooked.
Evidence presented during the high-profile two and half week trial revealed not only that the Chicago code of silence directly supported Abbate’s confidence in being able to assault Obrycka without consequence, but that Chicago police brass and police brethren concealed evidence and obstructed legitimate investigation into the assault. Such actions, the jury ruled, were characteristic of more general, systematic practices within the department to conceal police crimes through an organizational code of silence that aims to protect criminals within its ranks, akin to what the mafia commonly refers to as “omertà.”
The city has in essence cynically maneuvered to”silence” the ruling as a likely avenue for hundreds of police brutality victims to receive some modicum of justice.
The potential deal between Obrycka and the City of Chicago is now in the hands of U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve, who on Friday morning December 7th allowed legal scholars to file an amicus brief where they will argue why the jury decision on the code of silence should not be vacated. The judge is expected to make a final ruling in two weeks.
Criticism of not only the city’s deal, but also their prior legal maneuverings related to the incident, came from all sides.
The Chicago Tribune wrote this week that the city was “essentially agreeing to pay the woman $850,000 now in return for erasing the jury’s finding that a police ‘code of silence’ protected the cop.”
University of Chicago law professor Craig Futterman, who investigates issues of police accountability in Chicago and is one of the legal scholars filing the amicus brief in the case, likened the maneuver to seeking a “code of silence on the code of silence.”
Even police officer blog “Second City Cop” was highly critical of the city’s tactics.
The criticism should come as no surprise, as the decision to cut a deal with Obrycka was an about-face for the city. Its decision to pay up rather than appeal came suddenly after waging a protracted five year legal war in which the city spent an estimated $5 million, and came long after rejecting Obrycka’s initial request of $400,000 in damages. For five years, the city in fact offered Obrycka nothing – not a penny – for her ordeal: assault, police intimidation, and attempted cover-up of the CPD’s actions and inaction.
Interestingly, the city claimed that the battle was being fought on “principle” – that principle however remains a bit of a mystery. Even after the jury’s November 13th ruling, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration promised to continue the battle through the extensive appeals process, even while contradictorily vowing to fight the code of silence wherever it existed within police ranks.
All of that was before Rahm Emanuel’s administration filed its motion on Monday, where it contended that the Abbate assault happened several years ago and that things had since changed. It is not without irony that one of their primary arguments for why the case is no longer relevant is the amount of time passed since the city began to wage its costly legal battle against Obrycka some years ago.
In the intervening period, the Office of Professional Standards, which investigated the Abbate case, was rebranded as the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA), now with subpoena power and the pretense of independence and greater transparency. City lawyers even tried to contend that the new mayor brought change.
But the city’s own statistics tell a completely different story.
Based on the available data regarding IPRA, it is clear that the city’s arguments that change has taken place amount to little more than double-speak.
In the 2009-10 fiscal year, IPRA sustained a mere 47 of the 3,067 investigations it opened into police misconduct and brutality allegations, or 1.5%. It was hardly more successful in its first two years. In all, IPRA sustained only 1.7% of its own investigations over its first 3 years. In comparison, under the Office of Professional Standards, the City of Chicago in 2004 sustained 4% percent of the complaints brought against police officers for the use of excessive force.
The City of Chicago’s attempt to vacate the jury decision is part of its long history of concealing systemic CPD crimes and torture, and its more recent attempt to prosecute those who record Chicago police officer misconduct with the vigor law enforcement agencies normally reserve for its most violent criminals.
The city’s latest attempt to silence the vital ruling on its “code of silence” shows that the Chicago police omertà has been and remains central operating procedure in the city, and one for which legal acknowledgement is too much to handle.
In her final decision, expected within two weeks, Judge St. Eve “will have to weigh the interests of the parties involved in the lawsuit against the interest of the public in having the record of the jury’s verdict stand,” writes the Tribune.
There is federal precedent for the court to reject motions where cases of misconduct have wider importance to the general public. The Tribune writes that a judge presiding over a similar motion in a Virginia police brutality case in 2000 gave an opinion that, “the public’s interest in judicial economy, finality of judgment and the integrity of the courts outweighs the parties’ interest in having the verdict vacated.”
In the absence of civil proceedings, the prospect for holding officers accountable for incidences of police brutality in the City of Chicago is statistically next-to-impossible.
Should Judge St. Eve allow the landmark jury decision in Obrycka v Chicago to be vacated, she would effectively snatch the precedent away from other police brutality victims, leaving victims of police crimes in the city with even fewer avenues for justice.