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Chicago Police Dept. handling of excessive-force complaints is lacking, expert testifies

Published: Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012 9:42 a.m. CDT

(Continued from Page 1)

(MCT) — CHICAGO — The Chicago Police Department doesn’t pursue officers accused of excessive force as aggressively as other large departments, an expert testified Wednesday at a federal trial over the beating of a female bartender by an off-duty officer.

Dr. Steven Whitman, an epidemiologist at Mount Sinai Hospital, told the jury that the city of Chicago sustained just 2.7 percent of the excessive-force complaints filed against officers from 1999 through 2004, well below the 6 percent national average in 2002 for departments with at least 1,000 officers.

“They are not just different by chance,” said Whitman, testifying on behalf of bartender Karolina Obrycka, who has sued former Officer Anthony Abbate and the city. “...There is some kind of real phenomenon that is causing it.”

Obrycka’s attorneys argue that the department’s failure to discipline all but a relative few officers accused of excessive force is evidence of a broad “code of silence” that protects even rogue cops from punishment.

After a day of heavy drinking, Abbate beat and kicked Obrycka in 2007 after she tried to stop him from coming behind the bar at Jesse’s Short Stop Inn on the Northwest Side. Abbate was charged with only a misdemeanor, prompting Obrycka’s lawyers to release videotape from the bar’s security cameras. The violent footage went viral and led to a firestorm of criticism for the department.

Charges against Abbate were upgraded to felonies and he was later convicted of aggravated battery, sentenced to two year’s probation and fired from the department.

Whitman’s testimony shifted the trial’s focus to the city’s alleged liability for what happened to Obrycka as her attorneys sought to portray a Police Department that fails to punish its wayward cops.

In the two-year period before the beating, not a single officer assigned to the Grand Central police district, where the bar is located, was disciplined despite 147 excessive-force complaints filed by citizens, Whitman testified.

But attorney Matthew Hurd, representing the city, challenged Whitman’s comparison of statistics from Chicago to national averages, questioning potential discrepancies in how data were collected and complaints investigated.

Hurd quoted a warning from the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, where Whitman had gathered his national data.

“This cautions against comparing national data with local data, doesn’t it?” Hurd loudly asked before peppering Whitman with questions about how Chicago collects data differently than other cities.

“You don’t know how the Chicago Police Department collects complaints, do you?” he pressed.

Hurd also asked if Whitman had analyzed the kind of police work done by officers with the most complaints. One officer had more than 50 complaints during the five-year period.

“Is he out there arresting people every day?” Hurd asked. “... Anyone can make complaints, right?

Whitman acknowledged he didn’t have a criminologist review his work, but he stood by his comparison to national averages.

In other testimony Wednesday, Michael Duffy, the acting head of the department’s Office of Professional Standards at the time of the beating, described his reaction after viewing the incendiary video for the first time.

“I looked at this and I was like, ‘OK, I gotta start getting other people involved,’ ” said Duffy, who has since retired.

Duffy testified that then-Superintendent Philip Cline wanted Debra Kirby, then head of the Internal Affairs Division, to assist Duffy with his investigation. But Obrycka’s attorneys maintain that Kirby downplayed the beating with prosecutors — an allegation the city disputes.

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