In The News

Chicago police ‘code of silence’ alleged in federal lawsuit

BY JASON MEISNER – Chicago Tribune Reporter – January 10, 2014

3 women say they were abused by off-duty cop in 2007 road rage incident

1.10.14_Fuery

Attorney Dana Kurtz, from left, with two of her clients Debra Sciortino and Kelly Fuery. Sciortino, Fuery and Nicole Tomaskovic are suing Chicago over an alleged road rage incident involving a police officer. (Photo by Terrence Antonio James, Chicago Tribune)

The three friends were on their way home from the Gay Pride Parade more than six years ago when an alleged road rage encounter with an off-duty Chicago cop began.

“You wanna fight?” Officer William Szura could be heard saying to the women in a 911 call he made from the shoulder of the Stevenson Expressway, where he had forced their vehicle to a stop, according to court records.

In a federal lawsuit filed after the June 2007 incident, the women alleged that Szura, red-faced and acting drunk, physically attacked them, hurled anti-gay slurs and drew his gun without identifying himself as a police officer. A passing motorist told emergency dispatchers he almost hit one of the women with his car after a man knocked her into a lane of traffic.

The harrowing scene unfolded just four months after video of off-duty Chicago cop Anthony Abbate drunkenly beating up a petite female bartender went viral on the Internet, embarrassing the city and making headlines around the world.

But no video captured the alleged attack involving Szura, and the incident attracted no public attention. However, the suit filed by the women made a nearly identical allegation as the bartender did in Abbate’s case: that the city’s system for investigating and disciplining police officers was so broken that it allows rogue cops to act with impunity because they know they’ll go unpunished.

A police expert hired by the attorney for the women has filed a scathing report in U.S. District Court that concluded that the changes made in the wake of the Abbate fiasco — most notably the disbanding of the dysfunctional Office of Professional Standards and creation of the Independent Police Review Authority —- have fallen woefully short. IPRA is staffed by the same investigators operating under largely the same set of rules as OPS, leading to shockingly few sustained allegations against the police, the expert found.

“Once again true reform was substituted for smoke and mirrors to fool the public,” Joseph Stine, a former Philadelphia police captain and training expert, wrote in his 85-page report. “It is my opinion that this sorry state of affairs has been permitted to continue because the city of Chicago does not want it fixed.”

That’s a charge vehemently denied by Scott Ando, a former U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent in Chicago who was promoted to IPRA’s chief administrator from its No. 2 post by Mayor Rahm Emanuel last month. Ando said that Stine’s report was based on investigations started under OPS in 2006 and 2007 and does not take into account the many improvements made by IPRA over the past six years. He also maintained that Stine’s report skews the numbers to make it appear that the agency is giving favorable treatment to cops.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the city created IPRA because they wanted to fix what they saw was wrong. And we are getting there,” said Ando, who called Stine’s work “irresponsible and reprehensible because it is totally inaccurate.”

Ilana Rosenzweig, who headed IPRA from its inception before leaving last year, said in an interview with the Tribune that she pushed to retrain investigators, worked with local and federal prosecutors on allegations of police wrongdoing that might warrant criminal charges, and ended the practice of relying on police detectives interviewing witnesses in its investigations.

“There is always room for improvement, but IPRA has made significant advances in its efficiency and ability to conduct quality investigations,” Rosenzweig said by telephone from Singapore, where she moved after her husband took a job overseas.

Szura, 56, a longtime mounted police officer who has since retired from the force, did not respond to calls seeking comment. He has denied wrongdoing, alleging in court papers that one of the women pushed him first and then all three — Kelly Fuery, 42, Debra Sciortino, 38, and Nicole Tomaskovic 31 —– attacked him even though he announced that he was a cop.

In October 2011, more than four years after the incident, IPRA ruled the women’s claims of abuse could not be sustained, court records show. Ando, barred by the police union contract from disclosing much about the investigation, said he was “confident that a thorough investigation was done.”

Dana Kurtz, the women’s attorney, said most of the internal police investigative reports analyzed by Stine were not completed until long after IPRA had taken over.

“They continue to do the same thing the same way,” she said. “Nothing has changed.”

Holes in Szura’s account

Szura had worked crowd control at the Gay Pride Parade on the North Side on June 24, 2007, and was off-duty and headed to his girlfriend’s home when he said he saw Fuery throw something at his vehicle as they tailgated him. Szura testified in a deposition he hit the brakes, then pulled to the shoulder of the expressway just west of downtown to calm down, court records show.

In her deposition, Fuery said Szura forced her off the road by staying in front of her car and slowing to a stop. The two got out of their vehicles and a confrontation ensued that quickly spiraled out of control.

Fuery alleged that Szura — without identifying himself as a police officer — drew a handgun and stuck it in her midsection. According to her deposition, she said to Szura, “What are you going to do, shoot me?” Szura then is alleged to have struck Fuery in the face and knocked Sciortino down when she tried to intervene. Tomaskovic, who had been following in another vehicle, ran up to help but Szura slammed her against a car and concrete barrier so hard it ruptured two discs in her back that later required surgery, court records show.

As the melee continued, a motorist called 911 to report seeing a woman knocked into a lane of traffic.

“I had to swerve and almost … hit her,” a transcript of the call in court records quoted the motorist as saying.

Less than a minute later, Szura called dispatchers and requested backup for “two DUIs” who had run him off the road. “(Expletive) bitch,” Szura could be heard saying at the outset of the call before threatening to “knock your (expletive) head,” according to court records.

An emergency call went out over police radios signaling a “10-1” — an officer needed immediate assistance. When state troopers and Chicago police responded to the scene, Fuery told them that the man with a gun had beaten them up and made no mention that he was a police officer, court records show. The women were handcuffed and taken to the Chicago police Central District station, where they claimed they sat for hours while Szura chatted and laughed with officers. Fuery said that her multiple requests to press charges against Szura fell on deaf ears.

State police instead pursued felony charges against the three women, but a Cook County prosecutor rejected them, records show. In the end, based on a sworn complaint filed by Szura, a Central District watch commander approved charges of misdemeanor battery.

At their criminal trial in 2008, Judge Thomas Donnelly acquitted all three women, citing holes in Szura’s account of what happened and essentially accusing him of lying about wounds he received during the incident in order to collect injury pay.

The judge also took issue with the testimony of a police colleague and friend of Szura’s who claimed he happened by the altercation while driving on the Stevenson and backed up Szura’s account. The state police had no record of the officer coming forward at the time.

“He claims that he told somebody, but he doesn’t know who, that he was a witness. … Yet his name does not appear in any report,” Donnelly said in his ruling. “His testimony cannot be believed.”

Wrongdoing found in few cases

In his report, Stine said the IPRA investigation of Szura fit the pattern he found in his research. Case after case he reviewed was closed as “not sustained, unfounded or exonerated” as long as the accused officer denied the allegation and colleagues backed him up. IPRA found wrongdoing by an officer in 9 of 314 files from 2006 and 2007 that Stine reviewed, just under 3 percent, he said.

IPRA’s Ando contended that experts hired by plaintiffs in police lawsuits often distort the numbers by counting all the complaints filed, even those in which the accuser decides for whatever reason not to follow up. If those cases aren’t counted, Ando said, IPRA’s sustained rate improves to just below 7 percent, closer to the norm for police departments nationwide.

Ando acknowledged the agency continues to grapple with a deep-seated public mistrust of its work. IPRA has made a sustained effort to reach out to communities, attend beat meetings at local police districts and try to affirm with residents its independence from the Police Department, he said.

“No matter what we do, there’s always that suspicion,” Ando said.

Stine said that investigators for OPS and IPRA often allowed cases to drag on even for years, frustrating accusers who found the courage to come forward and allowing officers to skate by, claiming they couldn’t remember details of long-ago incidents. He also said investigators routinely failed to locate and interview witnesses to alleged abuse and allowed accused officers to respond to questions in writing, giving them an opportunity to get their stories aligned with fellow officers.

Those failures helped foster a culture in which Szura thought his colleagues and superiors would have his back no matter how atrocious his behavior, Stine concluded.

“A professional police officer knows that they should not get involved in altercations that arise out of traffic incidents,” Stine said. “He allowed his judgment to be impaired by his road rage.”

The women’s lawyer made Stine’s report public in response to an effort by the city to be removed as a defendant in Szura’s lawsuit. The city argues it is not liable because Szura was off-duty. U.S. District Judge Elaine Bucklo is expected to rule next month.

Code of silence

Similar arguments were made in the lawsuit against Abbate, but U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve allowed the case to go to trial. In a landmark verdict last year, a federal jury ruled that a “code of silence” in the Chicago Police Department protected rogue officers. The city was ordered to pay $850,000 to Abbate’s victim, Karolina Obrycka, a former bartender.

After the trial, the city tried to strike a deal to pay Obrycka immediately in return for the judge vacating the “code of silence” judgment, citing a concern it could be used in other lawsuits alleging the existence of a culture in which cops lied to protect their own. But St. Eve refused, noting intense public interest in the case and a verdict that had ramifications for society at large, “not just the city’s litigation strategies.”

But Obrycka’s lawyer, Terry Ekl, said the Abbate case will likely have limited legal consequence going forward, because the jury found that a code of silence existed only at the time of Obrycka’s beating in 2007.

In Szura’s case, though, the women’s lawyer might be able to bring in evidence of the Abbate jury’s decision because the two incidents occurred within months of each other, he said.

Ekl, who also relied on the testimony of a paid police expert in fashioning his case against the city, said proving such a widespread conspiracy allegation is extraordinarily difficult and requires much more than just video from the scene. The Abbate trial featured dozens of witnesses and other evidence demonstrating how Chicago police tried to cover up the beating, beginning with friends of Abbate’s on the force and extending all the way to department brass, he said.

Craig Futterman, a University of Chicago professor who specializes in police misconduct issues, said the city has shown it will “go to great lengths to avoid scrutiny of its potentially unconstitutional pattern and practices.”

The ripple effects are huge, especially in crime-ridden areas of the city where distrust of police is already high, Futterman said.

“Is it any wonder we have one of the lowest clearance rates (for murders) in these neighborhoods, that no witnesses will come forward?” he said.

jmeisner@tribune.com

To view the original article at the Chicago Tribune website, click here.

Making a difference every way we can.