(AP) – Allegations of a culture in which Chicago police jump to protect fellow officers accused of wrongdoing are at the heart of a federal civil trial that began Monday, pitting the victim of a barroom beating by an off-duty officer against the city.
The trial stems from the 2007 pummeling of bartender Karolina Obrycka by then-police officer Anthony Abbate, who was the first witness called to the stand.
The attack, for which Abbate was convicted of aggravated battery in 2009 and sentenced to probation, was captured on a security video that went viral nationwide. Shortly afterward, the city’s police superintendent announced his retirement and the department vowed to clean up its image.
In his opening statement, Obrycka’s attorney, Terry Ekl, told jurors the beating highlighted an insidious, deeply entrenched culture in which city officials refuse to hold officers accountable, thereby emboldening police to violate individuals’ rights.
“Officers routinely cover up the misconduct of other officers,” Ekl told the Chicago courtroom. “We call it a ‘code of silence. … Misconduct without consequences.”
As the city’s lead attorney, Matthew Hurd, stepped up to address jurors, he launched immediately into a scathing attack of Abbate. But Hurd also insisted Abbate wasn’t acting as a police officer on the night of the beating – but was acting on his own behalf as a drunken “idiot.”
“This case is simple,” Hurd said. “It is not about Chicago police policy and procedures. … It’s about a guy who got drunk … and beat up Karolina Obrycka.”
Abbate was eventually charged with a felony and fired, the attorney told the nine female and three male jurors.
“The system works,” Hurd said, adding that city officials and police “are out there doing good, getting bad cops off the street – bad cops who give the department a black eye.”
Obrycka’s attorney played the security video of the heavyset, 6-foot-1 Abbate walking behind the bar and repeatedly punching and kicking the petite bartender. Just before the attack, he can be seen flexing his muscles and yelling, “Nobody tells me what to do.”
When he testified Monday, Abbate answered questions with a monotone yes or no. Obrycka sat with her head turned to a wall as he spoke and never appeared to look at him.
Her attorney pressed Abbate about whether he had figured on the night of the beating that, as a police officer, he had no reason to fear any consequences for the attack.
“My brain wasn’t working at all at the time,” Abbate replied. He claimed he had so much to drink that, “It was pretty much a blackout that night.”
Abbate contradicted himself at times while on the stand. He said wasn’t aware of a culture of police protecting or watching out for each other, then conceded he did know of such a practice.
Ekl, the lead attorney for Obrycka, told jurors that phone records and more than 30 witnesses would prove everyone from Abbate’s former partner to authorities high up in the department rallied to protect him.
“It is standard operating procedure in the Chicago Police Department to protect the image of the Chicago Police Department,” he said.
The Feb. 19, 2007, attack at Jesse’s Shortstop Inn was seen as another example of misconduct by Chicago police, and the fallout was swift. Then-Superintendent Phil Cline suddenly announced his retirement and the department scrambled to repair its image.
City attorneys sought to narrow the scope of the trial to the facts of this particular case. But in a 22-page, pretrial ruling, U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve allowed Obrycka’s attorneys to make unspoken codes of behavior in the department a focus of their case.
Obrycka has said she continues to suffer psychological wounds, often has nightmares and has trouble trusting people, including her husband.
On the stand Monday, the 260-pound Abbate insisted over and over that it was the 115-pound Obrycka, not him, who was the aggressor that night and that he’d felt threatened by her.
“You are telling this jury that this beating on this video was self-defense,” Ekl said in response to Abbate. “You felt you were in physical danger?”
“Yes,” Abbate said.