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

Prosecutors take action against off-duty police officers captured on video.

September 16, 2008, 11:47 AM

May 16, 2008— -- 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.

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."

Futterman says some officers with as many as 50 complaints against them in the last few years have never been disciplined or flagged. He points out that most cops rack up few, if any, complaints. In fact, fewer than 5 percent of the cops on the beat, Futterman's study found, are responsible for nearly half of all abuse complaints in the entire department.

"The vast majority of officers who would like nothing more than to get rid of these guys who are doing the bad stuff, if they open their mouths, the culture tells them that they're gonna be the ones who pay," Futterman said.

Jodi Weis, a former FBI agent, is the first outside superintendant of police ever to run the Chicago department, and he's trying to send a "strong message."

"We just have to send … a unified [message] that misconduct, brutality, lying, cheating, stealing simply will not be tolerated," he said. "What I've been telling the officers, you know, this concept or idea or practice that you may have had in the past, where if something bad happens I just won't say anything, forget about it. With technology out there, you've got to assume it's gonna be captured on videotape. You just have to assume that."

Does technology really have the potential to crack the big blue wall of silence?

"20/20" obtained security camera video from another bar in Chicago, the Jefferson Tap and Grill, that shows a group of off-duty officers drinking into the morning and instigating a confrontation with four businessmen who witnesses say were peacefully playing pool.

The video shows that the men were knocked to the floor, one was chocked, another was slammed down on the table itself and then to the floor, where he was put in a headlock and pummeled.

One of the men tried to make a cell phone call for help, but when an officer later identified as Sgt. Jeffrey Planey noticed, he grabbed the phone and violently shoved the man to the wall.

911 calls from inside the bar managed to get through, but a total of nine police vehicles rolled up and then quickly rolled away after being greeted by the same Sgt. Planey.

Police didn't investigate until much later, after the off-duty officers had left. The businessmen suffered numerous injuries from the brutal beatings, including broken ribs, a broken nose, a herniated disk, several bodily contusions and much more.

Futterman describes the actions captured on tape and the response to the incident as "disgusting."

In fact, there was little sign of investigation in the Jefferson Tap case for months. After public outcry, Sgt. Planey and two other officers were hit with felony battery charges. They have since pleaded not guilty.

"The big difference was there was a videotape, and it was leaked to the public," Futterman said.

Some of the videotape that is making a difference is captured by cameras in officers' patrol cars.

In 2004, officer Adam Brown pulled over a driver who was weaving down a Kentucky road. The exchange with the driver, a police officer from a nearby department, was captured on Brown's patrol car camera. When questioned, Sgt. Mark Crank admitted to having "a couple" of drinks.

Crank was slurring his words, and according to Brown, he reeked of alcohol, yet he seemed to appeal for a break.

"Oh come on now, we're cops now," he can be heard saying on the tape.

Officer Brown stepped back to talk privately to his back-up officer.

"You know what, quite frankly, I really don't care if he is a cop," Brown said. "He was going to kill somebody or kill himself."

Officer Brown discussed the situation and the implications of arresting a fellow officer with his supervisor, who told him that "the moral thing to do is to treat him the same as any other DUI," but left the decision up to Brown.

"You have put me in a horrible situation tonight, one that I pray you never find yourself in," Brown told Crank. "I am faced with a moral dilemma."

"I've been in that position," Crank said.

"What would you do, honestly?" Brown asked.

"I would make sure that the officer had a way home," Crank replied.

"OK, so you feel like we should allow you to break the law and get away with it?" Brown said. "Why? Because you're another officer?"

But in the end, Brown confided to his fellow officer that he couldn't bring himself to make the arrest. After almost 50 minutes of agonizing, Brown upheld the code of silence and allowed Crank's supervisor to drive him home, even though he knew he was breaking state law.

Crank did eventually get a slap on the wrist — a few days suspension without pay. But after the videotape was leaked to the local media, a prosecutor picked up the case, and Crank was ultimately convicted of DUI.

In Chicago, drunken driving off-duty police officers may have killed as many as seven innocent civilians over the last three years, but Rory Gilbert, a counselor who has treated hundreds of cops for alcoholism, said it's incredibly difficult for police officers to take a stand.

"Alcohol is just part of the police culture," he said. "So for that one officer to be the one who is all of a sudden gonna be the hero and buck the system, I can't be critical of that person."

It's clear that cops are now being watched when on- and off-duty, but it seems that the Chicago police superintendent's message that the rules have changed has not reached the entire force.

Still, superintendent Weis said, "The days of giving people a pass, the days of taking care of folks like that for DUI, it's over."

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