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Editorial: Code of silence or code of cowardice?

Off-duty Chicago Police Officer Anthony Abbate beats up bartender KarolinObryck2007.  |  Video surveillance tape

Off-duty Chicago Police Officer Anthony Abbate beats up bartender Karolina Obrycka in 2007. | Video surveillance tape

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Updated: December 19, 2012 11:47AM

In a tight spot, every cop has to know that every other cop has his back. He can’t go down a dark and dangerous gangway any other way.

But every law-abiding Chicagoan confronted by an out-of-control cop should feel that same assurance, that somebody has his back. And that somebody is City Hall.

Now that a federal jury has ruled against the City of Chicago in the case of former Police Officer Anthony Abbate, who beat up a female bartender, it’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s job to clamp down on a very real and ugly police “code of silence,” before the next brute wearing a badge goes wild.

Emanuel must reassure a city still smarting from the scandal of Police Cmdr. Jon Burge, who once tortured suspects in a police station basement, that he and the police top brass have zero tolerance for such cover-ups.

On Tuesday, a jury awarded $850,000 to Karolina Obrycka, a bartender whom Abbate repeatedly beat and kicked in 2007 in a Northwest Side bar, a shocking scene caught on a security-camera video that went viral. Abbate, the jury found, thought he could break the law with impunity because other cops would cover up for him.

The City of Chicago insisted in court there was no code of silence, a claim that Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th) repeated Wednesday, and that Abbate was just incredibly drunk and didn’t think twice. Ludicrously, Abbate claimed he acted in self-defense.

But the code of silence was at work. The evidence is indisputable:

† Abbate, who had beaten the rap on a serious complaint before, bragged that he was a Chicago Police officer in the bar earlier that same day. He clearly thought being a cop gave him a license to beat people up.

† The two cops who responded failed to note on their report Abbate’s name, the fact that he was a police officer and the fact that there was a video. It is impossible to believe that was an oversight. The video later clearly showed they had been told all of that. After they learned of the video, they changed their story from saying they never had been given the information to saying they didn’t put it in the report because it was unverifiable.

† The responding police failed to ask for the video.

† The police originally got Obrycka to sign a misdemeanor complaint, clearly looking to make the case go away. Abbate was not charged with a felony until the video became public. He was convicted in 2009.

† In one of the most disturbing chapters of this case, Debra Kirby, who headed the Police Department’s internal affairs division at the time, testified that she recommended during a phone call with Cook County prosecutors that Abbate be charged with a serious felony. But internal affairs detective Joseph Stehlik, who said he was next to Kirby at the time of the call, testified that Kirby recommended a lesser charge. And the person supposedly on the other end of the call, prosecutor Tom Bilyk, told jurors the call never happened at all.

† It doesn’t matter that Abbate was off-duty. Nobody stands up to a bully cop whether he is on duty or off.

We understand why one cop will feel the need to look the other way when another cop crosses a line. Every cop wants to get home safely each day. No cop wants to make an enemy of another officer who may one day be his or her backup on a dangerous call.

We get that.

What we don’t get is a code of silence that gives a 265-pound man the freedom to savagely beat a 115-pound female bartender.

That’s a code of cowardice.

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