CHICAGO | A Chicago police detective and his one-time commander contradicted each other in dramatic testimony Tuesday at a potentially landmark trial focused on whether there's a secret code in the department dictating that officers rally around fellow officers accused of wrongdoing.
The contradictory testimony revolved around a central question at the federal civil trial in Chicago: Did higher ups in the department try to soft-pedal a Feb. 19, 2007, beating of a female bartender by off-duty police officer Anthony Abbate?
The trial, now in its second week, stems from a lawsuit filed against Abbate and the city by Karolina Obrycka, who was tending bar at Jesse's Shortstop Inn when the hulking Abbate flung her to the floor and then punched and kicked her.
The attack was captured on a surveillance video and weeks later went viral, becoming a major embarrassment for Chicago police.
Abbate was convicted of aggravated battery in 2009 and sentenced to probation. One issue at the civil trial is whether Abbate and the city are liable for damages to compensate Obrycka for any pain or distress she suffered.
Her attorneys allege police sought to downplay and cover up the beating, in part, out of an ingrained but shadowy culture among police of protecting their own. In their openings, they suggested contradictory stories from police would bolster that claim.
Attorneys for the city said at the outset of the trial that proper procedures were in place for investigating an officer accused of wrongdoing and that the fact Abbate was eventually convicted proved the point.
Debra Kirby, who headed the department's internal affairs division at the time, testified Tuesday she recommended in a Feb. 22, 2007, phone call to a Cook County assistant state's attorney that Abbate be charged with a serious felony.
Pressed by Obrycka attorney's, Terry Ekl, about whether she told the prosecutor she actually thought a misdemeanor battery charge was appropriate, Kirby emphatically denied it.
"Absolutely incorrect," she said firmly.
But less than an hour later, Joseph Stehlik, who was an internal affairs detective under Kirby's command, said he was next to his boss at the time of the call. Stehlik testified Kirby did recommend the lesser charge to the prosecutor.
The detective went on to say that during the call to the prosecutor Kirby also downplayed the beating she viewed on video earlier that day.
But when the prosecutor in question, Tom Bilyk, took the stand at the end of the day Tuesday, he offered yet another twist about Kirby's testimony: He told jurors the call never happened. He said he never talked with Kirby about charges, on the phone or at any other time.
"I didn't get any such call (from Kirby)," he said.
Just a few days into the investigation of the incident, he said, it would have been too soon to contemplate specific charges.
"There was a long way to go before there was any thought to charges," he said.