A St. Paul police officer has been suspended and a second placed on unpaid leave after an arrest that left a man hospitalized for two weeks and prompted an apology from the city’s police chief.
Chief Todd Axtell released a graphic dashcam video of their actions on Friday — more than four months after the June 24 arrest — following a use-of-force review and internal affairs investigation. It shows Frank A. Baker, 53, of St. Paul, writhing and screaming as a police dog named Falco bites down on his right leg.
“As St. Paul’s police chief, I’m disappointed and upset by what the video shows,” Axtell said at a news conference. “I’m profoundly saddened. I’m releasing this video today because it’s the right thing to do.”
The video shows six officers standing around Baker, whom they believed matched the description of an armed suspect. Officer Brett Palkowitsch kicks Baker in the midsection three times as Baker is given orders and cursed at.
“Get him, buddy,” an officer says at one point, presumably to Falco. “Get him, buddy. Good.”
Police reports released Friday said the officers were called at 10:08 p.m. that day to the 1800 block of 7th Street E. on a report of people armed with bats, golf clubs and at least one gun. They arrived to find several people standing outside some apartment buildings, but “none of the people appeared to be alarmed, arguing, or fighting,” said a report written by officer Joe Dick. “None of the people were holding bats, golf clubs, or guns.”
Brian Ficcadenti, the first officer to encounter Baker in a parked car behind a building and the one who deployed Falco, was put on a 30-day suspension beginning Thursday.
Ficcadenti wrote in his report that he ordered Baker out of the car because he matched the description of an armed suspect. Baker obeyed. When he ordered Baker to put his hands up, Baker put one hand up and then down and shifted “back and forth” toward his vehicle and another to his left, said Ficcadenti’s report.
“Because of this I was unable to determine if he had anything in his hands or if he was reaching for anything,” Ficcadenti wrote. He said Baker refused to walk to him, so he released Falco. The dog gripped Baker’s leg for about 70 seconds, said a settlement letter written by Axtell.
In the Nov. 3 letter, Axtell wrote that Ficcadenti’s actions violated seven department policies. “Once you did engage [Baker] verbally, you gave him less than 20 seconds to completely comply before releasing your K-9 and running toward the citizen,” Axtell wrote. “This decision created unnecessary risk and was not consistent with policy or training.”
Ficcadenti will not be allowed to return to the K-9 unit. Palkowitsch was placed on unpaid leave starting Thursday. Police confirmed that he is the subject of an ongoing internal affairs investigation. State law prohibits the department from divulging more, said police spokesman Steve Linders.
Palkowitsch wrote in his report that he kicked Baker in the midsection two times because he was moving and stopped complying with Ficcadenti’s orders.
“Again I fully believed that Baker was armed with a firearm and I wanted this now progressively evolving use of force encounter on a gun call to end as fast as possible for the safety at the scene,” Palkowitsch wrote.
Baker stayed prone after the second kick, then reached toward the dog, Palkowitsch wrote, so he delivered a third and final kick.
Along with Dick, the other officers at the scene were Brian Nowicki, John Raether and Anthony Spencer. Spencer is on personal leave, and the others are actively assigned to the Eastern District.
Baker’s attorneys, Robert Bennett and Andrew Noel, said their client is innocent. No gun was recovered. Baker was cited for misdemeanor obstructing the legal process, a charge dismissed three months later.
“No reasonable officer could have mistaken Baker for a suspect,” Noel said.
The officers said in their reports that the armed suspect was described as a black male with dreadlocks wearing a white T-shirt.
Baker, who is black, spent 14 days in Regions Hospital.
“He’s terribly injured,” Bennett said. “It’s an absolute abomination ... He didn’t do anything wrong, and he’s missing a bunch of leg tissue.”
Baker underwent skin grafts, and suffered broken ribs and collapsed lungs from being kicked, Bennett said.
Axtell said he met with the injured man and apologized.
“I assured him that a full review was being conducted and I assured him — as I assure you — that we will learn from this — and we already have,” he said in a written statement issued before Friday’s news conference.
Broad range of reaction
Police Federation President Dave Titus and attorney Chris Wachtler said the officers had to use force to detain the man because he matched the description of an armed suspect, and did not comply with police orders. “It is unfortunate that he sustained injury, but there was never an intention to create injury,” Titus said. “There was only reasonable and necessary force used to take custody of the arrestee.”
Leaders of the St. Paul NAACP, the African-American Leadership Council and the St. Paul Black Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance called for Ficcadenti and Palkowitsch to be fired and for the other officers to be disciplined for not stopping the arrest.
“It’s gut-wrenching … that in 2016 I’m being reminded of Montgomery, Alabama, Birmingham. …” said Tyrone Terrill, president of the Leadership Council.
The leaders said they appreciated Axtell’s actions, but called for systemic change and for officers to report such use-of-force incidents and to intervene if they witness them. They said it was unreasonable for the officers to expect Baker to remain still or obey commands while being bitten by the police dog.
“I am above and beyond disgusted,” said Sasha Cotton of the Leadership Council. “It will happen again until there’s a shift in policy from the City Council and the police department about police conduct. Everything about this video was disgusting, right down to the language.”
In a statement, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said he was “deeply disturbed” by the video. “I have full faith that the chief is handling this case appropriately and that appropriate discipline will be taken,” he said.
Another video surfaces
Across the river, Minneapolis authorities were mostly silent about a video of the Oct. 26 arrest of a black man by city and Metro Transit police officers that surfaced on the Facebook page of Black Lives Matter Minneapolis. It shows officers striking the man at a downtown light-rail platform.
Police said that the man was being arrested on suspicion of violating a no-contact order. He was taken to a hospital to be treated for injuries sustained in the arrest. A spokesperson said the department is aware of the “edited video,” but that footage from officers’ body cameras “provides a clearer view of the suspect’s resistance.” Department officials declined further comment.
Staff writer Libor Jany contributed to this report.