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Video: Man bitten by K-9, kicked by St. Paul cop; chief apologizes

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Screen grab from dash cam video
This screen grab from dash camera video shows a confrontation between officers, a police dog and an African-American man. It's the subject of an internal investigation focusing on two officers.
St. Paul Police

Updated 5:54 p.m. | Posted 10:09 a.m.

St. Paul police Friday released video showing a June 24 arrest in which a 53-year-old African-American man was bitten by a police dog and kicked by an officer.

The man, Frank Baker, spent two weeks in the hospital after suffering severe wounds to his legs and feet with the K-9 tearing "hunks of flesh" and biting "down to the bone," said Baker's attorney, Robert Bennett. "It's certainly one of the most serious non-fatal attacks I've seen."

The video, shot from a squad dashboard camera, shows police surrounding Baker as they responded to an emergency call about a fight in the area. Baker can be heard shouting in pain.

The video has language that may offend some, and it may be difficult to view.

The incident led St. Paul police chief Todd Axtell to apologize to Baker

"I'm disappointed and upset by what the video shows," Axtell told reporters Friday afternoon. "This simply isn't the St. Paul way."

He said he visited with Baker in the hospital and again on Friday. Asked why he apologized, Axtell said, "Because he's a human being and I'm a human being ... When we don't get things right we have to own it, we have to be transparent and we have to apologize."

St. Paul police chief Todd Axtell speaks to the media.
St. Paul police chief Todd Axtell speaks to the media after releasing the squad car dash cam video.
Sam Harper | MPR News

The officers at the center of the controversy, five-year veteran Brian Ficcadenti and three-year veteran Brett Palkowitsch, were not available to respond. Palkowitsch is on an unpaid leave that began Thursday and faces an investigation.

The department said that Ficcadenti on Thursday received a 30-day suspension. Axtell said the police civilian review board had recommended 10 days but he upped it to 30.

In a letter to Ficcadenti detailing his suspension, Axtell took the officer to task for his tactics, listed multiple violations of department policy and called the officer's decisions and conclusions that night "troubling." 

Failure to control the K-9 led to "serious injury and permanent disfiguration of the citizen's leg," he added.

According to police reports, officers were called to the 1800 block of E. 7th Street shortly after 10 p.m. that night in June on a report of a fight, including people wielding bats, golf clubs and a gun.

Responding officers didn't find a fight in progress, but did spot a man in an SUV nearby matching the description of the person with a gun — a black male with dreadlocks and wearing a white T-shirt. "I believed Baker to be the male the caller was referring to as the male with a gun in his hand," Ficcadenti wrote in an arrest report.

Frank Baker, who was attacked by K-9 and kicked by police.
Frank Baker spent weeks in the hospital after being bitten by a police dog and kicked by police officers.
Courtesy Andrew Noel

Ficcadenti got his K-9 partner, Falco, out of his car and ordered Baker to get out of the vehicle, which he did. But Ficcadenti reported Baker hesitated and wouldn't raise his hands where the officer could tell if he was armed. 

"It was my belief at that moment that Baker was about to pull a firearm on me," Ficcadenti wrote in the report.

Ficcadenti reported he released his dog and it bit Baker's leg, but Baker wouldn't comply with orders to put his hands behind his back as he lay on the ground. Another officer reported that Palkowitsch "delivered several kicks to the male, and he handcuffed the male."

Palkowitsch later wrote that a large crowd had gathered from a nearby apartment building and he feared that some of them could be armed. "I wanted this now progressively evolving use of force encounter on a gun call to end as fast as possible for the safety of the scene," he wrote.

A St. Paul Fire Department paramedic was called to the scene and took Baker to Regions Hospital with Baker complaining he was having difficulty breathing and that his ribs and right leg were hurt. 

Baker was later cited for obstructing legal process, a misdemeanor.

On Friday, however, the department acknowledged that no gun was located on Baker or in the surrounding scene.

The leader of the city's police union spoke up for the officers while acknowledging the video is difficult to watch.

"Things were omitted from that video," said St. Paul Police Federation Dave Titus. "They showed how the officers acted in good faith and they have very good morals and good work history. But the fact that this is on video — it's ugly."

Police use of force, he added, "will always be ugly. But it doesn't mean that use of force wasn't necessary. It comes back to compliance. If this individual, if this person who became the arrestee would have complied from the start, we would not be talking about this, period."

Bennett, Baker's lawyer, dismissed the initial police report and said he's discussing options with his client, including a lawsuit.

"If that report were true, (the officer) wouldn't be getting the discipline he's getting," he said.

The lawyer also described in gruesome detail the injuries Baker suffered in the incident.

"They improperly set the dog on Mr. Baker without any reason to. They allowed a prolonged act without any reason to. They let the dog eat — for lack of a better term — a portion of his leg, and tear off hunks of flesh, biting it down to the bone," he said.

The rib kicks led to collapsed lungs, "all without any probable cause to believe Mr. Baker had committed any crime whatsoever," he said.

Wounds to Frank Baker's legs after K-9 attack.
Frank Baker spent weeks in the hospital after suffering what a police report called "severe lacerations" to his legs and feet, according to his attorney, Robert Bennett.
Courtesy Andrew Noel

Baker had "six figure hospital bills" and was in the hospital for 14 days, he added. 

Bennett said his client kept quiet after the incident because he didn't want large protests or violence. The attorney praised Axtell for his response to the incident, which happened the day after Axtell took over as chief. 

"The citizens ought to be very happy that a chief finally had the courage to do something about it," he said. "He [Axtell] deserves credit for doing the right thing. He didn't do it with anyone pressuring him. He just did the right thing."

In a statement, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said he was "deeply disturbed by what I saw on the video" and said he has full faith that Axtell was handling the situation properly "and that appropriate discipline will be taken." 

African-American leaders called for both officers to be fired even as they praised Axtell for his actions to date.

"This man was not treated like a human," said Tyrone Terrill, who chairs the St. Paul African American Leadership Council.

The video, he said, called up memories of black people being attacked by police dogs in Alabama during the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Axtell said the department's put into place new training as a result of the incident and that history will show "that this investigation was done right."  

Department leaders, he added, would "do everything in our power to make sure that this doesn't happen again in the city of St. Paul."

In a brief interview, Baker said he hadn't asked for an apology from the chief but appreciated it. He called Axtell a "good guy" and said he believed the apology was sincere. 

Recalling their meeting while he was hospitalized, Baker said Axtell "kept saying I wish this had never happened."

Authorities acknowledged the police confrontation with Baker on Friday following a Data Practices Act request by MPR News seeking the video. Police spokesperson Steve Linders said earlier in the day that "in the interest of trust and transparency, the department was already planning to release the video today."

MPR News reporter Brandt Williams contributed to this report.