A U.S. district judge upheld a November 2012 jury ruling that the Chicago Police Department (CPD) follows a “code of silence” protecting fellow officers, thanks in part to the efforts of a UChicago Law School professor.
UChicago’s Craig Futterman and Northwestern University’s Locke Bowman filed a motion in December defending the original verdict that claims the existence of the code of silence against opposition from the City of Chicago and Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
The case in question is that of CPD Officer Anthony Abbate who was caught on a surveillance video beating bartender Karolina Obrycka in 2007. The decision came to a close in November with the jury voting in favor of Obrycka and awarding her $850,000 in damages to be collected from the City. The jury also ruled that an unofficial policy within the police department protected Abbate from punishment until the videotape became public.
A month after the decision was handed down, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the City of Chicago bargained to throw out the code of silence ruling. This is when Futterman decided to take action.
Over the course of the five-year-long Obrycka v. City of Chicago and Anthony Abbate trial, Futterman said he watched the case from the outside, intrigued but never formally involved. However, when it was announced that a joint motion had been filed to have the judgment against the City vacated, he felt the need to intervene.
“It was outrageous. And I was far from the only one outraged,” he recalled. “It’s unfair that the City can buy itself out of a verdict. It simply doesn’t belong to them anymore.”
The terms of the joint motion proposal, agreed upon by the mayor’s office and Obrycka, was that the code of silence verdict against the city be voided, with a guarantee from the City that it would immediately pay all damages and fees from the case and not seek further appeal.
“One of the issues is, because it’s a joint motion, there’s no one who would be representing before the judge the public interest,” Futterman said. “Unless someone intervened, those arguments and those positions wouldn’t be aired.”
Futterman asked Bowman (J.D. ’82), a friend and colleague who runs a clinic similar to Futterman’s, to help him file and defend a motion opposing the City’s proposal. Ultimately, it took a team of volunteers to put together the brief defending their arguments to U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve.
In her ruling, St. Eve accepted Futterman and Bowman’s arguments. Though the City’s lawyers argued that the code of silence decision could cost the City millions in future lawsuits, St. Eve upheld it on the basis that “it has a social value to the judicial system and public at large,” she said in her ruling.
Futterman believes that the initial verdict and St. Eve’s subsequent defense of it is a step in the right direction.
“If the City’s successful in being sure that their practices are never subject to scrutiny, there isn’t sufficient incentive to change.”
He said he believes that addressing systemic sources of injustice in the police system, like the code of silence, not only benefits the victims in cases like the Obrycka case, but will also help good officers do their job better and create better relationships between police and the people they serve.
Though Futterman acknowledges that Emanuel and current CPD superintendent Garry McCarthy were not responsible for creating the code of silence, he does blame them for “continuing a policy of denial that has allowed officers like Abbate to proceed with impunity for far too long.”
“There was a political opportunity here to say, ‘Hey, we’re reformers and here are some lasting problems that need to be addressed,’” Futterman said.
He said he wishes that Emanuel and McCarthy had used the Obrycka case as a chance to correct problems of police brutality, rather than evade them.
“I was hopeful before and I remain hopeful, but what they did here was wrong.”