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Former lawyer for Chicago police testifies about department’s reaction to bartender beating

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012 9:57 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — CHICAGO — Within days of an off-duty Chicago police officer attacking a female bartender in February 2007, the department’s brass gathered in a conference room to watch a videotape of the beating captured by a security camera inside the Chicago bar.

The group, including two deputy superintendents, the chief of staff, director of media affairs and heads of Internal Affairs and the Office of Professional Standards, described the now-infamous images to then-Superintendent Philip Cline by speaker phone since he was out of town, according to testimony Monday at a federal trial.

“We told him you can’t even describe it,” Sheri Mecklenburg, then the department’s top lawyer, who was also at the meeting, recalled telling Cline about the beating inside Jesse’s Short Stop Inn. “We were just disgusted. We were revolted. We were angry.”

Mecklenburg, called to the stand by attorneys for the city, was among the final defense witnesses at the trial that has put a spotlight on an alleged police code of silence at the center of the lawsuit brought by Karolina Obrycka, the bartender. Closing arguments are scheduled to take place Tuesday. Lawyers for Obrycka allege that police, including higher-ups, tried to protect the officer, Anthony Abbate, from punishment before the videotape was publicly released.

Mecklenburg, who is now a federal prosecutor, testified that Cline said he wanted the head of IAD to assist OPS, the agency then charged with investigating police misconduct, in the investigation. Cline also asked that department officials speak with officials from the Cook County state’s attorney’s office about criminal charges.

Mecklenburg testified that she understood that to mean that Cline believed felony charges should be sought. He also wanted Abbate fired, she said.

“The decision was made to go see the state’s attorney’s for felony charges,” Mecklenburg said. “ … It was clear we were to move quickly.”

Cook County prosecutors, including a supervisor of a unit that investigates criminal accusations against cops, have already testified at the three-week trial and told a much different story.

Thomas Bilyk, the supervisor of the state’s attorney’s professional standards unit at the time, testified that he met with police officials but never indicated how the office would proceed with charges. Only later, he testified, did he learn that Chicago police had gone to Obrycka’s house and had her sign a misdemeanor complaint. He called the move “shocking” and said it could have jeopardized later efforts to upgrade charges against Abbate to felonies.

But Debra Kirby, then the head of OPS and still a high-ranking member of the department, told the jury that she told Bilyk during a phone call that she wanted Abbate charged with a felony. Bilyk denied any such call. And a Chicago police detective testified that Bilyk had indicated that misdemeanor charges were appropriate for Abbate.

The misdemeanor charges against Abbate were eventually upgraded to felonies at about the same time that the videotape was made public by Obrycka’s lawyers. Abbate was later found guilty but spared prison by a judge who sentenced him to probation for two years. He was subsequently fired from the department.

The city’s attorneys also called Matthew Hickman, an expert on use of force by police who formerly worked for the U.S. Department of Justice as a statistician. Hickman challenged an expert witness for Obrycka who said the Chicago Police Department’s rate of finding wrongdoing with officers accused of excessive force paled by comparison with national averages. Hickman said the expert, however, had “cherry-picked” national data to compare with Chicago figures.

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