In November, a federal jury ordered the City of Chicago to pay $850,000 in damages to Karolina Obrycka, a bartender who was beaten in 2007 by off-duty Chicago police officer Anthony Abbate. The beating had been captured by surveillance video: Abbate pushed Obrycka to the ground and repeatedly punched and kicked her after she stopped him from going behind the bar.
The video was sensational enough, but the incident attracted media attention for the Chicago Police Department’s alleged attempt to downplay and cover up the beating.
According to court documents, officers who responded to the incident that night allegedly failed to report Abbate’s last name and occupation, let alone the existence of surveillance video. Abbate and at least one fellow police officer also allegedly threatened to falsely arrest Obrycka for cocaine possession, and a bribe was offered with the promise that her medical bills would be paid, provided she remained quiet.
In 2009, Abbate was convicted of aggravated battery and sentenced to probation. He was then fired by the department.
As he reflected on the case in November in his Columbia College office, Wilfredo Cruz said the story was all too familiar. “The more things change, the more they stay the same,” said Cruz, author of a 1982 story that examined the code of silence.
“Rogue cops do bad things, and the department doesn’t do anything. They just get a slap on the wrist, and the city pays out a huge settlement. Thousands and thousands of dollars a year,” said Cruz, now an associate professor of sociology and director of the Latino and Latin American Studies Minor program at Columbia. “But the question is that, if these cops aren’t doing bad things, then why are they doling out all this money?”
Back in 1982, the tactics of the Chicago Police Department may have seemed harmless enough at first glance. Police were conducting sweeping arrests, often after perceiving an increase in gang activity, and charging disorderly conduct. The problem: Many of those arrested were not actually committing crimes: They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, in a heavily populated area. Arrestees would spend a night in jail because they could not make bail. The next day, their cases would be dismissed because officers failed to show up to court. The department used these sweeps as a form of gang control and to “prevent serious crimes from happening,” Cruz found.
But others saw it as a form of harassment, as those arrested had to lose a day’s work and the charge remained on their record.
Cruz found that during the first six months of 1982, the number of disorderly conduct arrests “jumped sharply” and mostly took place in minority police districts. The increases also coincided with the arrival of Joseph McCarthy as the deputy police superintendent. He was viewed as highly qualified and efficient by many, and Gestapo-like by others. During his earlier tenure as commander of the 13th District, disorderly conduct arrests shot up 41.6 percent in the span of one year, from 8,724 in 1980 to 12,358 in 1981.
As sweeps became more common, it became precarious to stand on a street corner, Cruz said. He saw it himself while living in Humboldt Park in the ‘80s.
A few months after Cruz’s story was published, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class-action lawsuit, seeking an injunction against future arrests. “They only needed the leverage. They had been getting complaints for a long time, but when my article came up, they had some ammunition,” Cruz said.
The city eventually agreed to stop making disorderly conduct arrests.
“If you know anything about the Reporter, it prides itself on being very well-documented,” Cruz said. “The statistics are there. This isn’t hokey-pokey stuff.”