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Tab for clout firefighter’s fight with Chicago cop: $1.6 million

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.

Chicago taxpayers have now spent more than $1.6 million as a result of a fight between a clout-heavy firefighter and a cop at a rescue scene five years ago, records show.

After years in court, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration recently agreed to settle a federal lawsuit that the cop, Joseph Smith, filed against the city and the firefighter, Mark Altman, whose father Edward Altman was fire commissioner under former Mayor Richard M. Daley.

But the legal wrangling isn’t over — and the city could end up paying even more.

Smith, 46, sued the city again in December, accusing the Chicago Police Department of wrongfully demoting him and cutting his pay soon after the judge signed off on his settlement with City Hall.

In the first court case, Smith accused the younger Altman, who was then a fire captain, of grabbing him and slamming him to the ground after the police and fire department were called to save two men who’d fallen into the north branch of the Chicago River in November 2011.

Smith went on disability leave after his run-in with Altman. He returned to work on light duty in September, less than two months after settling his case against the city and Altman.

“There’s no legal reason to demote him and decrease his salary,” says Smith’s lawyer, Blake Horwitz of Chicago. “The only reason you have is that it’s retaliation for having filed a lawsuit and won a lawsuit against a captain of the fire department. They’re messing with him.”

A spokesman for Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Law Department says City Hall will contest the new suit. “We are looking forward to vigorously defending against this lawsuit and are confident it will be found meritless,” Bill McCaffrey says.

Mark Altman.

Mark Altman.

Under the settlement in the original case, the city agreed to pay $1,122,449 in compensatory damages to Smith, who suffered back injuries in the altercation with Altman. The city also was on the hook for nearly $480,000 for Smith’s attorney costs and fees, court documents show.

“This case was settled in the best interest of taxpayers,” McCaffrey says.

Altman, 54, paid $5,000 in punitive damages under the deal.

Though Smith’s boss wanted to arrest Altman, the firefighter ended up not being charged with any crime.

Nor did the fire department take disciplinary action, according to city personnel records.

In 2013, while he and the city were still fighting Smith in court, Altman was promoted from captain to battalion chief.

Altman is now paid $149,502 a year.

A Chicago Fire Department spokesman declined to comment.

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

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

The incident involving Altman and Smith took place at night. Smith was part of the police marine unit that responded to a call that two men were in the river near Goose Island, about 100 yards from the North Avenue bridge. The two men survived.

But in his personal-injury suit, Smith said Altman told him to “get the f— out of here and “get the f— back.”

“Without provocation, Captain Mark Altman from the city of Chicago grabbed [Smith] and threw him down to the ground,” according to the lawsuit.

Smith’s supervisor, Sgt. Eduardo Beltran, testified that he believed “a battery did occur” and that he went to Altman’s firehouse to arrest him.

But Beltran said other firefighters tried to dissuade him, and he left the firehouse without Altman after getting a call telling him that “higher-ups” in the police department wanted him to drop the matter.

Then-Fire Cmsr. Edward Altman with Mayor Richard M. Daley at a news conference in 1999. | Sun-Times file photo

Then-Fire Cmsr. Edward Altman with Mayor Richard M. Daley at a news conference in 1999. | Sun-Times file photo

Though a medical expert who was a witness for the city testified that Smith’s injuries were “relatively minor,” the officer underwent two operations, including a spinal fusion, and has worn a back brace.

In 2014, a federal court jury awarded Smith more than $1.3 million. The following year, U.S. District Judge Sara L. Ellis slashed that to under $400,000, calling the jury award “shockingly large.”

Another trial was scheduled for last year solely to determine the amount of compensatory damages.

Before that happened, the case was settled for nearly as much as the jury wanted Smith to get.

The total paid to Smith included $600,000 for pain and suffering, $300,000 for “loss of normal life” and $162,490 for lost wages, records show.

Smith’s attorney says the city has paid what it promised.

“The case settled for a reasonable amount,” Horwitz says. “It’s justice for Joe.”

He says that Smith, who declined to comment, “has physical limitation due to his injuries” and can never again be a diver in the police marine unit.

The lawyer also says Altman “should have been criminally prosecuted” and the fire department “should have engaged in a legitimate internal investigation” of Altman’s behavior that night.

“They would have determined that he used excessive force,” Horwitz says. “That’s what a jury found. He battered a Chicago Police Department officer while on duty and caused him to undergo two surgeries. It’s horrible.”

RELATED STORY: THE WATCHDOGS: Clout-heavy firefighter’s ‘shove’ proves costly to city taxpayers, Nov. 1, 2015