What if more police misconduct cases were caught on tape like Abbate’s?

What if more police misconduct cases were caught on tape like Abbate’s?
Our investigation found that just 1 percent of Chicago’s police force accounted for more than a quarter, or $11.7 million, of all damage payments stemming from police misconduct lawsuits. Photo by Joe Gallo.

It’s been five years since the video of off duty Officer Anthony Abbate brutally beating a bartender in a Chicago tavern went viral. But it wasn’t until this week that the courts finally settled the excessive force case filed by bartender Karolina Obrycka.

Taxpayers will pick up the tab for Obrycka's $850,000 settlement, along with her legal fees, to close an ugly case of police abuse that involved officers who colluded to cover up Abbate’s crime. While it was one of the biggest payouts for an excessive force lawsuit that the city has made over the past few years, the damages awarded to Obrycka are just a drop in the bucket when it comes to police abuse settlements.

Last spring, I dug into police misconduct lawsuits and found that the city spent $45.5 million in less than three years for cases that involved similar beatings, Taser attacks, unlawful detention and the list goes on. A shortlist of officers was behind the payouts. Here’s a recap:

Of 441 police misconduct lawsuits that led to city payments between January 2009 and November 2011, nearly a third—or 145—involved the “repeaters,” shows a Chicago Reporter analysis of federal and state court records. This small group—140 in all—proved costly. Despite making up 1 percent of the police force, they accounted for more than a quarter—or $11.7 million—of all damage payments incurred from police misconduct lawsuits. The city defended a good number of those officers in additional cases as well; nearly a third of the 140 officers were named in at least five misconduct lawsuits since 2000.

The most common case involved the same sort of excessive force that Abbate displayed at Jesse's Short Stop Inn that night back in 2007. Few made it to trial.

Had the incident not been captured on video, Obrycka's lawyers Terry Elk predicts that the case would never had made it through the courts. "If it became Karolina's word against Anthony Abbate," he told the Chicago Tribune, "this case would have gone nowhere."

Few of cases that I combed through had video evidence. Sure makes you wonder if the tab for settlements would be far higher if there was.

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