Updated: Jan. 17, 8:05 p.m. | Posted: Jan. 16, 5 p.m.
A St. Paul police officer has been indicted by a federal grand jury for alleged use of excessive force.
Federal prosecutors announced the indictment against officer Brett Palkowitsch on Wednesday. According to a news release, the Minneapolis FBI, which investigated the case, said the indictment states that Palkowitsch used excessive force in 2016 when he kicked 53-year-old Frank Baker at the scene of a reported fight. Baker, who is African-American, was also bitten and gravely hurt by a police dog, and the incident was captured on video by a camera in a police car.
The indictment, sought by the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division, includes one count of deprivation of rights under color of law, which carries a maximum 10 years in prison.
"We are disheartened by the federal prosecution that was initiated out of Washington, D.C.," Palkowitsch's attorney Deborah Ellis said Thursday in an email to MPR News.
Palkowitsch was one of the St. Paul officers who responded to the report of a fight on the city's East Side, possibly involving a gun, in June of 2016. Squads arrived and officers found Baker sitting in a vehicle near the scene of the call, and ordered him to get out. Officers said Baker didn't respond to an order and one of the officers released his dog, which bit Baker on the leg and gravely injured him.
Squad car video captured Palkowitsch kicking Baker as he lay on the ground. He was later determined to have suffered broken ribs and a collapsed lung.
"The arrest at issue was the subject of multiple proceedings at the local level. All matters were resolved. No crimes were committed," Ellis said. "Officer Palkowitsch has served the St. Paul community as a respected member of the St. Paul Police Department for over five years and our defense team intends to vigorously fight the federal charge."
Palkowitsch wrote in a subsequent report that a crowd had come out of 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.
Baker was cited for obstruction of the legal process — a charge that was later dropped. An investigation found that Baker had nothing to do with the original fight call and had not been armed, nor was a gun found in his vehicle. He had apparently only happened to have been at the scene. Baker's attorney, Bob Bennett, later said his client had merely been coming home from work when police happened upon him.
Bennett reported his client was hospitalized for two weeks after the incident and that his medical bills ran into six figures.
St. Paul police Chief Todd Axtell, who had taken the department's top post just the day before the incident, suspended the K-9 officer and ultimately fired Palkowitsch. Palkowitsch appealed, however, and won his job back in a ruling by an arbitrator in 2017.
Baker's attorney filed a federal lawsuit suit against the city in February of that year, and won a $2 million settlement from St. Paul.
Bennett told MPR News that federal investigators had spoken to his client ahead of the indictment, so it wasn't a surprise.
"I certainly considered it a very reasonable possibility. I never get too excited, a lot of my clients are questioned by the FBI, and the FBI only takes cases they are dead serious about proving," Bennett said.
Palkowitsch had been returned to duty after the arbitrator's decision, and had been working as a patrol officer in the city's Western District when he was indicted on Wednesday. Police spokesperson Steve Linders said Palkowitsch has been placed on paid administrative leave. Court records don't yet indicate his case has been set for a hearing. He could not be reached for comment.
Monique Cullars-Doty, an organizer with Black Lives Matter Twin Cities metro, said other officers at the scene should have been indicted too. But she's hopeful the felony charge will send a message.
"Anytime you stand by and you see someone who's being attacked, being stomped, I don't care who the person is, and you are in a position of authority to intervene and you do not, then why are they there?" Cullars-Doty said.
St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, through a spokesperson, declined comment on the indictment. The St. Paul Police Federation, which represents St. Paul officers and provides them with legal counsel, did not respond to an MPR News request for comment.