The Chicago Police have been having a bad time in the media.
You probably already know about the first incident: Officer Anthony Abbate attacked Karolina Obrycka, a 24-year old bartender at Jesse’s Shortstop Inn, because she wouldn’t serve him any more drinks. I should probably say “allegedly,” but there’s video of the incident so I feel pretty confident. Everyone in the world can watch a drunken off-duty Chicago cop beat down young woman in a bar.
To my mind, however, the worst part of the incident is getting very little press. It is rumored that some cops offered Obrycka a bribe if she would back off, and then threatened to plant drugs in the bar and in Obrycka’s car if she didn’t back off. I suppose this could be anti-police spin put out by someone with a political motivation, but if there’s any truth to it, this a very bad thing.
When Abbate attacked Obrycka, he wasn’t on duty, he wasn’t doing police work, and he wasn’t using police powers. He was just a drunk jerk that beat up a woman, and he happened to also be cop. With 13,000 cops in this city, there are always going to be a few troublemakers. To borrow a phrase from the Rodney King trials in California, it appears Abbate didn’t commit any of his crimes under color of authority. In a sane world, his barroom brawling has nothing to do with Chicago police in general.
But if Abbate’s buddies really are trying to bribe and intimidate witnesses, we’re no longer talking about one guy with a bad attitude. We’re talking about a criminal conspiracy within the police department: They’d have to steal the drugs from somewhere, plant them on innocent people, and then perjure themselves to explain how they found them, all of this under color of authority. (And if word of this gets out in a big way, every defense attorney in the city will be telling the jury that the police framed their client.)
The attempted cover-up, if it’s real, is a much bigger story than the original beating, but there’s no video so it won’t be making the national news.
There’s also the question of why it took so long—about a month—for Abbate to be charged. My first thought was that the officers who took the complaint from Obrycka were understandably reluctant to investigate and charge one of their own. But that can’t be right, because these kinds of incidents are investigated by the Internal Affairs unit (or maybe it’s the Office of Professional Standards) which exists only to investigate and charge other police officers.
So what took so long? Well, for Superintendent Phil Cline and the rest of the Chicago police brass, the incident at the Jesse’s Shortstop Inn was not about an injured woman. It was about an embarrassment to the department.
I think they were waiting to see how embarrassing it would be. The more press it got, the more severely Abbate would have to be punished to prove the department was tough on bad cops. Given that there’s video of the incident all over the Internet, I think officer Abbate is in for a world of hurt.
Shortly after the Shortstop Inn video hit airwaves, the charges against Abbate were upgraded from a misdemeanor to a felony. Is that because police were trying to soft-pedal his crimes but couldn’t get away with it once the video came out? Or is it because once the video came out the police brass wanted to show how tough they were by smacking Abbate around a bit more?
(I might even feel sorry for the guy. If something stressful happened in his life—divorce, death in the family—and if this was an isolated incident in response to that stress, it’s possible he could be rehabilitated and returned to duty after punishment, treatment, and restitution. Possible.)
Speaking of smacking Abbate around, when Superintendent Cline was on a local talk radio show a few days ago, he had this to say:
He’s been charged criminally, and we’re moving to fire him and if I could hit him with a baseball bat, I would. But I can’t.
Oops. I think maybe it’s poor public relations to talk about beating an officer under his command with a baseball bat while trying to reassure the public that he won’t tolerate police brutality.
Tom Needham, Abbate’s lawyer, could use Cline’s comments to paint the department as the villain, but that’s not where he went with his response:
Needham also says he admires Superintendent Phil Cline and understands the frustration that apparently led to the comments Cline made on WLS radio.
“When people make comments like that, I think it emboldens other people to make comments like that, but I don’t think the superintendent meant that literally,” Needham said.
My, how gentlemanly of him. Of course, there’s an inherent conflict of interest when it comes to investigating police misconduct: The more misbehavior they find, the worse the department looks. I think Needham was just reminding Cline that they have common interests.
There’s still more confusion related to this case: When Abbate appeared in court, police ticketed press vehicles and blocked access to the parking lot. Superintendent Cline responded by relieving the commander, which makes it sound like he was running press interference for a bad cop. However, the courtroom is located at Area 5 police headquarters, and the commander there has a responsibility to keep order. So maybe he was just keeping the police lots clear for police business, and Cline scapegoated him when the press started complaining. Or maybe not. I don’t know how I can tell.
Meanwhile, another bar fight has come to light, this time at the Jefferson Tap. Apparently, a bunch of cops beat up a bunch of businessmen. This has taken a lot of twists and turns. Some people are saying the businessmen were well-known for making trouble, and that they made fun an officer who was crying because his father had just died.
I don’t know a lot about the social protocols of the barroom, but I think that’s probably the equivalent of walking up to the cops and saying “Hey, let’s fight!” It’s kind of unsporting for the losers to complain about it afterwards.
To add to the confusion, another version of events has surfaced in which an employee at the bar asked the officers for help throwing out the unruly businessmen. This could completely exonerate the officers involved and maybe even stick the businessmen with a charge of aggravated battery, but I’m suspicious that this story took so long to emerge.
The story continues (if I’m getting this right) that someone at the bar called 911, but when the patrol units arrived, they found an off-duty supervisor at the scene who told them they weren’t needed. Now, because they trusted the word of a fellow officer, they’re being sucked into the investigation.
So, were the cops jerks? Were they provoked? Or were they doing their duty? And why did the responding police leave? Does it matter that their unit is rumored to have some heavy clout working for them? We may or may not get a good answer, but supposedly Internal Affairs has video tape of the incident.
It has taken me several days to write this post for various reasons, and events have been passing me by.
First, Mayor Daley returned from an out-of-town trip, and shortly thereafter Superintendent Phil Cline announced his resignation. Is Cline a political schemer who went to far? A scapegoat for the Daley administration? Or is he a loyal underling who just took one for the team? In this town, I can’t begin to guess.
Second, the media is now reporting that officer Anthony Abbate’s brother Terry Abbate beat up an out-of-town cop in O’Callaghans bar on Hubbard street. And yes, they say there’s video of that too.
Third, in non-bar-fighting bad news for the Chicago Police, there are rumors of more indictments in the corruption scandal in Special Operations Section.
When the bartender at the Shortstop Inn told Anthony Abbate she was cutting him off, he is reported to have yelled “Nobody tells me what to do!” The joke here, the irony, is that Abbate is a police officer. He probably tells a lot of people what to do every day and expects to be treated with respect. Still, I know how he felt. I don’t like people telling me what to do either. That’s why I’m so wary of the police.
Law enforcement is one of the most important functions of government, second only to national security. We trust police officers with a lot of power, because it’s necessary to keep our city safe and secure. Police officers who betray that trust—whether by corruption, police brutality, or outright criminality—betray us and betray their fellow officers, and it is right that they should be subject to prosecution and public ridicule.
If by any chance a Chicago Police officer reads this, I know you’re not all like the the bad cops I’ve been writing about, and I know the resulting loss of respect for the police has hurt you all. I hope things get better soon. When I’m out and around in the city, I’m still glad to see you all out there.