A pervasive culture of silence in the Chicago Police Department led officers to try to cover up the brutal 2007 bar beating of a 115-pound bartender by a 225-pound off-duty officer, a federal jury has decided.
It was a big win for the plaintiff, Karolina Obrycka, who filed suit five years ago, and a big loss for the city. The jury awarded Obrycka $850,000 in damages Tuesday, deciding the police department had enabled the disgraced officer, Anthony Abbate, and shielded him from the attack’s consequences until the case went public.
“Nobody tells me what to do!” Abbate had shouted at Obrycka during the 2007 attack after she told him he'd had enough to drink and refused to serve him any more alcohol. The assault, captured by a widely-circulated security video at Jesse's Short Stop Inn, shows the huge officer tossing the small bartender to the ground and beating her with his fists and feet.
He’d gotten into two other fights that evening, during which video showed he’d been shouting “Chicago Police Department!” while flexing, according to the Chicago Tribune. When Chicago police initially investigated Obrycka's case, they decided Abbate had committed a misdemeanor, not a felony, and detectives had Obrycka sign forms saying as much.
Cook County prosecutors upgraded the case to a felony after Obrycka’s attorneys made the video public.
Obrycka said Abbate’s friends had threatened her if she pressed charges. According to court records, Abbate and a police partner made about 150 phone calls to other cops shortly after the beating, according to the Tribune. One police watch commander -- later demoted -- had told officers to harass reporters covering the case, police disclosed later.
At Abbate's criminal trial in 2009, his attorney, Peter Hickey, argued that Obrycka provoked his client, who is twice her size.
"Defenseless? I think not," Hickey told jurors at the time, according to the Tribune, raising a few eyebrows. "She grabbed him, she tossed him around like a rag doll. If not for a garbage can that held him up against the bar, she would have had him on the ground."
Abbate was convicted and fired, but was spared prison and put on probation.
Outrage swept the city and the force’s wall of silence crumbled. Then-Mayor Richard M. Daley appointed an outsider from the FBI, Jody Weis, as the new police superintendent, with a mandate to clean up the department.
Obrycka’s civil suit in federal court forced Chicago to face its past again. Her attorneys argued that Abbate had acted with impunity because he’d been enabled by a police culture that covered up for wayward officers.
"The city came this close to walking away from one of the biggest black eyes in its history," Patrick Provenzale, an attorney representing Obrycka, told the jury last week as he held a DVD copy of the attack footage, according to the Tribune. "And this man came this close to walking around the streets of Chicago with a gun and a badge and a blue shirt."
The city’s attorneys responded that Abbate was just another angry drunk, not a cog in some vast departmental conspiracy. As for the botched investigation, testimony plunged into finger-pointing and outright denials. Chicago police said they’d told state prosecutors they wanted felony charges; prosecutors said no such conversations took place.
In the end, federal jurors agreed with Obrycka’s claims that the Chicago Police Department was operating under a code of silence, and decided that both the attack and the department’s culture “constituted an exercise of power without reasonable justification in a manner that shocks the conscience.”
“Speechless,” Obrycka said after the verdict. She added: “I am very happy justice was served. It's finally over.”
The Chicago Tribune contributed to this report.