The trial of a St. Paul police officer charged with violating a man's civil rights began in federal court Wednesday.
In 2016, officer Brett Palkowitsch repeatedly kicked Frank Baker while Baker was being bitten by a police dog. Federal prosecutors say Palkowitsch used excessive force.
Palkowitsch has pleaded not guilty. He is on paid administrative leave.
In opening statements, prosecutors said after Palkowitsch kicked Baker, breaking several ribs and collapsing his lungs, Palkowitsch bragged about it. They said he texted a picture of Baker in the hospital to another officer. They also said Palkowitsch ignored his training, which instructed officers to not use force when a K-9 is biting someone.
Yet in her opening statement, defense attorney Deborah Ellis said Palkowitsch actually saved Baker from possibly losing his leg by stepping in when the K-9 handler failed to take control of the situation. She said Palkowitsch focused his attention on Baker’s hands moving towards his midsection, fearing he had a gun. No gun was found.
Former St. Paul police officer Joseph Dick, who now works for the FBI, testified that he believed Palkowitsch was an officer who often escalated situations that did not need to be escalated. He said he wished that he had told Palkowitsch to back off the night of June 24, 2016.
Police were responding to a report of a fight, and told that a man with dreadlocks and a white T-shirt was in the area and had a gun.
Baker, who wore his hair like that at the time, was in a Jeep nearby talking on his cellphone when police ordered him to get out with his hands up. A police car dash camera shows a police dog dragging Baker to the ground, as Baker screams in pain. At the same time, officers are shouting commands at Baker to turn over and put his hands out.
When Baker was not complying, an officer, later identified as Palkowitsch, can be seen delivering three kicks to Baker.
SPPD Sgt. Jason Brodt, who trains K-9 officers, testified that officers are trained not to apply force to someone who is being bitten by a police dog. However, under cross examination, the trainer said there are exceptions. If a person being bitten by a dog pulls a gun, surrounding officers would be authorized to use force.
In 2017, Baker sued the city and settled the lawsuit for $2 million — the city’s largest ever police misconduct payout.
Testimony in Palkowitsch’s trial is expected to last into next week.
Correction (Nov. 13, 2019): A previous version of this story had incorrect information about what defense attorney Deborah Ellis said during her opening statement. This version has been corrected.