CHICAGO (AP) — A judge on Thursday refused to toss a jury verdict that suggested Chicago police adhere to a code of silence in protecting rogue officers, citing its "social value" despite claims by the city that the verdict could cost Chicago millions in other litigation.
The ruling involves the case of Karolina Obrycka, a local bartender who was attacked by a drunken off-duty police officer as she worked in 2007. Obrycka sued the city after the beating, which was caught on video and went viral online, and a jury ruled in her favor last month.
But along with awarding her $850,000, jurors strongly suggested in their verdict that they agreed the officer, Anthony Abbate, was protected by an unwritten code of silence among Chicago police.
The city asked U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve to throw out that element of the verdict, arguing it could be cited as a precedent — and potentially cost the city millions of dollars fighting and losing lawsuits claiming the same alleged code. The city said it would still pay Obrycka the full jury award.
But critics said the city was seeking to sweep the police abuse issue that has plagued Chicago for years under the rug.
In her 13-page ruling, St. Eve agreed there were limits on how much other alleged victims of police abuse could cite the case at their own trials. But she said it shed light on an important and hotly debated issue of the day.
"Although the judgment's precedent is not binding, it has a social value to the judicial system and public at large," she wrote, but the judge didn't specify what that social value entailed.
The motion was unusual, in part, because Obrycka joined it.
The city initially said that if St. Eve granted the motion, it would pay Obrycka the $850,000 and not appeal the ruling, which could take years. But days after the motion was filed — and amid criticism that the city had squeezed Obrycka to join the motion — city attorneys said Obrycka would be paid the full damages immediately whether or not the judge ruled in the city's favor.
Abbate was convicted of aggravated battery in a 2009, and the sentenced to probation. During his trial, he admitting drinking heavily the night of the beating, saying he had just learned his dog was dying of cancer.
The core issue jurors had to decide at the civil trial this year was whether city officials tolerated a code of silence in the police department, and whether that emboldened Abbate and led him to act with impunity in attacking the bartender. Obrycka's attorneys originally said they hoped a verdict in their favor would send a wider message that the code of silence won't be tolerated.
In Thursday's ruling, St. Eve agreed with city attorneys that the jury's verdict could be seen as ambiguous — even though the majority of testimony dealt directly with police culture and whether officers are prone to cover up for each other.
Defense attorneys who represent clients with police-abuse claims welcomed the ruling.
"I think she was sending a strong message to the city," said Flint Taylor, an attorney with the activist Peoples Law Office. "She was basically saying, 'You got what you deserved in this and then you tried to back out of it.'"
The whole episode — the beating and the city's motion — also indicated a lack of seriousness about the issue that has plagued one of the nation's largest police forces for years, Taylor said.
"Where is the reform of the police area?" he said. "The reform just isn't there."
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