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Editorial: Whitewashing code of silence

Anthony Abbate former Chicago cop who was convicted felony battery fired after beating bartender KarolinObryckleaves Dirksen Federal Building Oct. 22

Anthony Abbate, a former Chicago cop who was convicted of felony battery and fired after beating bartender Karolina Obrycka, leaves the Dirksen Federal Building on Oct. 22 after taking the stand in a federal lawsuit by Obrycka. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: January 6, 2013 9:48AM

The city of Chicago has a choice: End the Police Department’s code of silence or pretend there is no such thing.

The only right choice, of course, is to end the pernicious code of silence, the existence of which a federal jury recently agreed there is no doubt.

But the city, for reasons of legal convenience, is asking a judge to set the jury’s judgment aside — a bad move for the police, the city and every Chicagoan.

Under a code of silence, police officers automatically cover for each other even in instances where fellow officers have horribly broken the law. It’s an abuse of the badge that puts all Chicagoans at risk and tarnishes the Police Department’s image.

In the infamous example of former Police Officer Anthony Abbate, who beat bartender Karolina Obrycka in an attack captured on video, a jury found that Abbate felt free to pummel Obrykca partly because he believed a police code of silence would protect him. The jury awarded Obryka $850,000.

But the city doesn’t want other plaintiffs citing that decision to buttress future cases. Instead, it wants U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve to set aside the Nov. 13 judgment.

For Obrycka, it’s a tempting bargain. She gets the money now without having to wait for an appeal to drag through the courts or risk losing in the end and winding up with nothing.

The city gets something, too. If the judge plays along, the deal could protect against similar claims. To prevail in a future case, a plaintiff would have to prove the existence of a police code of silence all over again instead of merely citing the Abbate example.

But the city’s lawyers don’t represent just the Police Department and the taxpayers. They represent every person who might encounter the police. If there is — or, OK, was — a code of silence, let’s not whitewash the ugly truth.

The city argues that since the Abbate case, a new mayor and police superintendent have made significant reforms. The much-criticized Office of Professional Standards has been replaced by the Independent Police Review Authority, even if critics are not sure that’s much of an improvement. And Corporation Counsel Stephen Patton says the city is constantly working with the Police Department to refine procedures and guard against actions that could lead to future lawsuits.

If the city really has ended the code of silence, fine. The city’s lawyers will have nothing to worry about, then, when defending the police. But that’s one remarkably fast transformation.

As we’ve written before, we understand the roots of every police department’s code of silence. Officers face grave dangers on the street and must have each other’s backs.

But let’s not pretend there is no such code. And the next victim of the next Abbate shouldn’t have to prove it all over again.

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