St. PAUL — After 11 hours of deliberation, a federal jury found St. Paul police officer Brett Palkowitsch guilty of using excessive force when he repeatedly kicked a man he thought was a suspect as the man screamed in pain with a police dog clamped onto his leg.
The jury reached its verdict Tuesday evening, Nov. 26, after a 10-day civil rights trial that saw several police officers, including the 32-year-old Palkowitsch, take the stand at the U.S. Courthouse in St. Paul. The conviction could bring a sentence of up to 10 years in federal prison.
Although Palkowitsch testified that he acted within the limits of the law and according to this training when he delivered three kicks to Frank Baker on June 24, 2016, in an attempt to control a man he believed to be an armed, uncooperative suspect, three fellow officers who were at the scene with Palkowitsch testified otherwise.
All of them, including the K-9 handler who released the dog on Baker, said Palkowitsch’s use of force was excessive and that none of them perceived Baker as a threat when Palkowitsch started kicking him.
Baker was writhing on the ground in pain at the time as the dog “mauled” on his leg with his hands clearly visible, according to statements federal prosecutor Christopher Perras made during Monday’s closing arguments.
And while Palkowitsch testified that he saw Baker move his hands toward his waistband, leading him to believe Baker was going for a gun, the other three officers said they never saw Baker grab for anything, though they acknowledged he was moving around at the time.
Palkowitsch and five other officers who went to the scene that day were responding to an anonymous report about a fight involving an armed man, who was described as black with dreadlocks and wearing a white T-shirt. Baker, returning to his East Side apartment, fit the general description but was unarmed and did not end up being the suspect.
K-9 handler Brian Ficcadenti encountered Baker first and made the decision to release his dog on him. Baker was on the ground with his leg in the dog’s mouth when Palkowitsch and his partner arrived on the scene.
After initially drawing his gun, Palkowitsch put it back in his holster and told Ficcadenti he had handcuffs before moving toward Baker. Palkowitsch’s partner stood by with his gun drawn as Palkowitsch went in to try to handcuff Baker
The incident was caught on police cameras and the footage was played repeatedly throughout the trial.
Baker can be heard screaming in pain while officers yell commands at him.
The 52-year-old had to be rushed to the hospital after the incident, where he was diagnosed with several broken ribs and a collapsed lung. He testified at trial about how he is still haunted by the encounter.
As part of the federal government’s case, prosecutors brought in officers who testified that Palkowitsch bragged about his actions afterward, with one reporting hearing him say he “got that (expletive) good,” in reference to Baker. Another officer testified that Palkowitsch sent her a picture of Baker’s injuries.
The actions showed Palkowitsch’s intent was willful, according to Perras, which the federal government needed to prove to win its case.
The prosecution also offered evidence that Palkowitsch doctored his police report of the incident to make his force look justified, describing Baker’s injuries as minor in the document and indicating Baker had a gun even though he knew he didn’t.
Palkowitsch explained in his testimony that he should have corrected the information about Baker’s injuries in his report once he found out their severity, and said he indicated a gun was present because he’d initially believed Baker had one when he arrived at the scene.
Palkowitsch’s defense attorney, Kevin Short, told jurors that the officers at the scene who testified against Palkowitsch shouldn’t be trusted as two of them had a problem with younger officers, including Palkowitsch, and one of them, Ficcadenti, was given immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony.
He also said it was bogus that the other officers didn’t perceive Baker as a threat and told jurors that playing the police footage at half speed showed two of them step in and a third reach out a hand as Baker sat up.
It was just after Baker sat up despite orders not to move that Palkowitsch kicked him, Short said, emphasizing that he only did so in accordance with his police training to control a tense scene that involved someone they all believed to be an armed suspect who wasn’t clearly listening to commands.
The prosecution offered testimony to suggest it is common for someone under duress to experience auditory exclusion, which impacts their hearing, though Palkowitsch said Baker didn’t appear to have trouble hearing at the time as he was following some commands and ignoring others.
Further, Short told jurors if any officer was to blame for what unfolded that day, it was Ficcadenti, as he was the one who determined Baker posed enough of a threat that he let his dog on him.
Had that not happened, Short said, Palkowitsch would have never assumed he was the armed suspect.
Perras countered that narrative in his questioning of other officers who said that it is the responsibility of police to investigate the merits of police calls before using force.
“You can’t (act) first and ask questions later … or in this case kick first and ask questions later,” Perras said.
In response to the verdict, Eric Dreiband, the assistant attorney general in the U.S. Justice Department’s civil rights division, said in a statement: “The behavior of the defendant will not be tolerated and the Department of Justice will seek to prosecute those who abuse their power. We commend the officers who came forward and brought about the opening of the investigation. We also thank our law enforcement partners who assisted in this case.”
Short, Palkowitsch’s attorney, could not be reached for comment on the verdict.
Palkowitsch was fired by Police Chief Todd Axtell but reinstated following an appeal and a ruling by a state arbitrator. He is now on paid administrative leave.
Axtell was called by the prosecution to testify during the trial. He reiterated from the witness stand that he stood by his decision to fire him.
“The chief is aware of the verdict and will immediately take the appropriate follow-up steps,” said Steve Linders, a St. Paul Police spokesman, said in response to the verdict.
Axtell suspended Ficcadenti for 30 days following the incident.
Palkowitsch faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in federal prison. A sentencing hearing will be scheduled after the completion of a presentence investigation by the U.S. Probation Office.
In 2017, Baker sued the city of St. Paul and settled the lawsuit for a record $2 million.
Mara H. Gottfried and Rubén Rosario contributed to this report.