It's now up to a jury to decide whether a St. Paul police officer should be held criminally culpable for repeatedly kicking an innocent bystander in the chest, causing serious injuries while a K-9 mauled the man's leg.
Federal prosecutors and defense attorneys presented closing arguments Monday in the culmination of a nine-day trial that included graphic video of the incident, testimony from St. Paul officers — including the police chief — and allegations that a "code of silence" deterred some from speaking up.
The officer, 32-year-old Brett Palkowitsch, was indicted in January on one count of deprivation of rights in connection with the 2016 incident, which left Frank Baker, an unarmed 52-year-old black man, with seven broken ribs and two collapsed lungs from the kicks and other injuries from the dog bites.
Neither side disputes that Palkowitsch kicked Baker, and neither argued that Baker was the armed suspect police were looking for. Rather, the jury will be instructed to weigh whether he used "more force than a reasonable officer would use under the circumstances."
Prosecutors for the U.S. Attorney's Office portrayed Palkowitsch as a "bully" who willfully defied academy training and seemed to take pleasure in kicking an innocent man already being ravaged by a dog. They say Palkowitsch later bragged about putting Baker in the hospital and tried to cover it up by falsely saying in his police report that Baker had a firearm and fought back against the officers.
"These are not the actions of an officer acting in good faith," said Christopher Perras, trial lawyer for the U.S. Attorney's Office. "Those are the actions of a bully."
Kevin Short, attorney for Palkowitsch, said his client arrived on what appeared to be a dangerous scene and acted clearly and reasonably when he kicked Baker, who he believed had a gun.
"That's for everyone's benefit, including Mr. Baker's," said Short. He said the dog may have done more damage, or another officer may have used deadly force, had Palkowitsch not acted.
The case marks a rare example of a police officer in Minnesota being charged for using force on the job. The city previously settled a lawsuit with Baker for a record $2 million. Palkowitsch remains on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of the case. Chief Todd Axtell fired Palkowitsch, going beyond the discipline recommended by the Police Civilian Internal Affairs Review Commission, but by law had to rehire him after an arbitrator ruled in 2017 that Palkowitsch should get his job back.
In testimony Friday, Axtell said he "absolutely" stands by his decision to fire Palkowitsch, saying he didn't believe Palkowitsch appeared sorry for what he'd done in a meeting after the incident.
On June 24, several St. Paul officers responded to an anonymous 911 caller reporting a group of people fighting near an apartment building on the city's East Side. The caller said one man, who he described as African-American with dreadlocks and a white T-shirt, was carrying a gun.
Officers Joseph Dick and Anthony Spencer, both of whom have since left the department, were the first to arrive on the scene. They found no evidence of a violent mob, which Dick reported back to dispatch and the other squads en route. They saw Baker in a white Jeep in a parking lot nearby but didn't deem him a threat.
Shortly after, K-9 officer Brian Ficcadenti found Baker in the Jeep and asked him to step out. When Baker hesitated, Ficcadenti released his dog, Falco, who tore into Baker's leg. Squad video from Dick and Spencer's car shows several officers standing around Baker, shouting contradictory commands, as Baker screams and flails on the ground. While his partner aims an assault rifle at Baker, Palkowitsch kicks him three times.
Dick testified earlier in the trial that he was "disgusted" at Palkowitsch's actions and called a meeting with his supervisor the next day. Some of Palkowitsch's fellow officers said they heard him boasting about kicking Baker. One testified that Palkowitsch sent her a photo of Baker in the hospital, in what she interpreted as bragging.
Short called the prosecutors liars, saying Palkowitsch followed police protocol when he saw Ficcadenti had sicced a dog on Baker, who he presumed was the suspect from the call. Short said Baker tried to sit up and appeared to be moving his hands toward his waist, an action officers are trained to perceive as going for a gun.
"Everybody believed he had a gun," said Short.
The jury was expected to begin deliberations Monday night.
Andy Mannix • 612-673-4036