Code of Silence: 'Don't Rat Out Other Cops'

Karolina Obrycka works as a bartender at a Chicago tavern. On a quiet February night in 2007, she was covering the night shift by herself. The small group of customers included off-duty Chicago police officer Anthony Abbate, who was drinking heavily.

"He drank three shots of raspberry brandy, one shot of tequila, and 2½ vodka and Sprites," Obrycka recalled.

Apparently feeling good, Abbate began to show off, flexing his muscles. His behavior -- captured by the bar's security camera installed just days before -- is just one example of how videotape is beginning to make off-duty officers' private actions public.

'Nobody Will Tell Me What to Do'

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Obrycka said she tried to ignore Abbate as he verbally abused her. But then, she said, he crossed the line by joining her behind the bar.

"I told him to get out from behind the bar," she said. "I pushed him out because he's not allowed. And then I took his drinks, whatever he got left, and I put it away.

"I put the drinks down and he gets right away behind the bar with a chair," Obrycka continued. "I tell him to get out. That's when he tells me, 'Nobody will tell me what to do.' I tried to get him out [from] behind the bar, and boom. He's like trying to grab my neck, then he throws me on the floor. I was down and he was beating me. And I remember he was hitting my head; I was like sitting on the floor. You don't know if he wants to beat you until you bleed and you die. I thought that he would never stop beating me."

Finally, a patron leaving the bathroom came to Obrycka's aid, and Abbate stormed out.

Obrycka said she was shocked to learn that Abbate was a police officer, sworn to uphold the law on duty and off duty. She also was shocked by the response to the incident. Chicago police arrived to take a report, but according to Obrycka's lawyer, Terry Ekl, they ignored the bar owner's key evidence: the surveillance tapes.

Abbate initially was charged with a misdemeanor, and it was only after the tape of the beating was leaked to the press that the charges were upgraded to felonies. He's since pleaded not guilty.

"If there hadn't been this videotape," said Ekl, "there would have been no charges in this case."

Ekl, who has filed suit against the city of Chicago on Obrycka's behalf, said both the incident and the attempted cover-up are no surprise. He said police misdeeds are routinely ignored, and worse.

"Covering up their misconduct," he said, "and not punishing them for any conduct they engage in emboldens these police officers, essentially to believe that they're above the law."

That's a serious charge to make about the second-largest police force in the country, but new research from the University of Chicago also concluded that little is done to punish officers.

As the result of a lawsuit against the Chicago Police Department, University of Chicago law professor Craig Futterman was given access to over 10,000 complaints of police abuse. He found that only 19 of those resulted in what he calls meaningful discipline — suspension for a week or more.

"The code of silence is very real," Futterman said. "Don't rat out other cops. If you do, there'll be real consequences."

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