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THE WATCHDOGS: Clout-heavy firefighter's 'shove' proves costly to city taxpayers

Officer Joseph Smith,, right, with his father, James Smith, as the officer received the Chicago Police Department's Lifesaving Award in 2010 at police headquarters.

The situation at the downtown firehouse was like something out of a crossover episode of TV’s “Chicago Fire” and “Chicago P.D.,” with this heavy dose of reality thrown in:

Taxpayers will end up footing the costly bill.

On a November morning in 2011, a sergeant from the Chicago Police Department marine unit went to arrest a clout-heavy firefighter for allegedly grabbing a police diver and slamming him onto a riverbank a few hours earlier during what, fortunately, was the successful rescue of two men who’d fallen into the north branch of the Chicago River.

But the sergeant later testified that he left the firehouse without taking the firefighter into custody after being called and told “higher-ups” wanted him to drop the matter.

Then-Fire Capt. Mark Altman — whose father, Edward Altman Jr., headed the Chicago Fire Department for three years in the 1990s — has said all he did was give a “light shove” to the police diver, Officer Joseph Smith.

Mark Altman.

Altman never was charged. Nor do public records give any indication he ever was disciplined by the city over the incident.

But Smith — who had spinal-fusion surgery and hasn’t returned to work since his run-in with Altman — filed an excessive-force lawsuit against Altman and the city in federal court and won, with a jury deciding last year to award him more than $1.3 million.

Now, a judge has decided the jury was overly generous. In a ruling Sept. 21, U.S. District Judge Sara L. Ellis slashed the figure the city should pay Smith to under $400,000, calling the jury’s award to Smith “shockingly large.”

But Blake Horwitz, Smith’s lawyer, says the final judgment still could end in the millions of dollars because after the trial, it became clear that Smith, 45, will never be able to return to work as a police officer.

There will be a new trial just to determine the amount of compensatory damages the city must pay him.

Horwitz says Altman’s attack has had such a devastating impact on his client’s life that justice wouldn’t be fully served by even a big check.

“Why wasn’t he criminally prosecuted?” Horwitz says of Altman. “My client is a police officer who was seriously injured and debilitated to the extent that he can no longer work.”

Police and fire officials and Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Law Department — which defended Altman in the civil case — all declined to comment.

Court records and other public documents detail how what apparently began as a turf dispute between a cop and a firefighter turned into a costly court fight.

Early on Nov. 1, 2011, firefighters and the police marine unit responded to a call to rescue two men from the north branch of the river near North Avenue.

As Smith looked for the men in the river, he encountered Altman on on the west bank of the river about 100 yards from the North Avenue bridge, near Goose Island.

In his lawsuit, Smith said Altman told him to “get the f— out of here, get the f— back” and that, “without provocation, Captain Mark Altman from the city of Chicago grabbed [Smith] and threw him down onto the ground.”

When Smith’s supervisor, Sgt. Eduardo Beltran, got there, Smith told Beltran that Altman had pushed him and told him to back away from the river’s edge.

Smith “said he then identified himself, that he was a police officer, and that the fireman said, ‘I don’t give a f— who you are,’ and pushed him again to the ground,” according to a deposition Beltran gave in the federal case.

Beltran testified that other police officers who saw what happened “all pretty much said essentially the same thing” as what Smith told him.

“It was clear to me that, yes, from what they were telling me, that a battery did occur,” Beltran testified.

Scene where an incident took place in 2011 — North Avenue and the north branch of the Chicago River. | BRIAN JACKSON Jackson / Sun-Times

The sergeant decided to go to the firehouse where Altman was assigned and “place him under arrest,” records show.

“The firemen knew that I wanted to arrest Altman and they didn’t want me in there,” Beltran testified.

He said a firefighter he knew took him aside and asked if there was some way to work things out without arresting Altman.

“I told him . . . this is something that he needs to be arrested for,” Beltran said.

He said Altman defended his actions to him, saying the incident was “a misunderstanding” and that his contact with Smith was “like a light shove.”

Beltran testified he needed his supervisors’ OK before making the arrest “because it was a uniformed fireman” and that he soon got word via another officer that he had “gotten the wave-off.” Beltran said the officer told him to return to marine unit headquarters at Navy Pier.

“They were told from higher-ups that they didn’t want an arrest made,” Beltran said, adding that he didn’t ask who made that call.

Meanwhile, Smith, complaining that the pain he was feeling at the back of his head was worsening, asked to go to the hospital.

Smith, who joined the department in 1997, hasn’t worked a day since, taking disability leave.

His base salary was nearly $85,000 a year before he went on “duty-disability” leave on Nov. 1, 2012. That was after a year on medical leave with full pay. Since then, Smith has received about $67,000 a year in disability benefits, according to the police pension fund — 75 percent of his police salary.

The orthopedic surgeon who treated Smith testified that he performed two operations on him, including a spinal fusion in February 2013. Smith has worn a back brace since, court records show.

A medical expert called to testify by the city during the trial, though, said Smith’s injuries were “relatively minor and should only have required limited physical therapy and physician visits.” The city’s expert also testified that the pain Smith reported suffering as a result of the incident with Altman “could not have been linked to the portions of the neck and back … targeted for the surgeries.”

But after a trial in October 2014, the jury ruled in Smith’s favor. The jury award included $600,000 for pain and suffering and $300,000 for loss of normal life.

Jurors also ordered Altman to pay $5,000 in punitive damages to Smith.

Smith declined an interview request.

Two weeks after the incident with Altman, before he sued, Smith told the Chicago Sun-Times and the Better Government Association the attack left him “in shock.”

“I have no idea where this came from,” he said then. “I’ve never had any problems with the fire department.”

“He had a lot of pride in what he did,” says Horwitz, his lawyer. “He was a well-muscled, well-trained marine unit officer who would dive in to help people. Now, he has difficulty turning his head. He has to wear a corset to keep his back straight. “

The lawyer says Smith hopes one day to return to desk duty.

“He has pain every day, and he will never work as an officer again,” Horwitz says.

Altman couldn’t be reached for comment. In a deposition he gave in the case, Altman said he pushed Smith once out of concern that Smith was too close to the river’s edge, “endangering himself,” other rescue workers and the two men in the water. Altman also testified he thought Smith was a firefighter and that he only learned later, after the rescue operation on his way back to his station, that Smith was a police diver.

Altman, 52, has been with the fire department for 25 years.

His father was fire commissioner under former Mayor Richard M. Daley until Altman’s father and also his brother were forced to resign in 1999 as the result of fallout from a videotape of a fire department retirement party.

The videotape showed firefighters drinking beer, using racial slurs and mooning the camera. Altman’s brother, Edward Altman III — who was head of internal affairs for the fire department — was accused of waiting months before telling his superiors what happened.

In 2013, Mark Altman was promoted to battalion chief. City records show that last year he was paid nearly $178,000, including overtime and other bonus pay.

Contributing: Tim Novak