St. Paul officer describes unwritten police 'code of silence' during federal civil rights trial

Tyrone Terrill views the Frank Baker footage.
Left to right: Pastor Darryl Spence, Tyrone Terrill and Nick Khaliq view the police footage showing Frank Baker being bit by a St. Paul police K-9 as well as kicked by an officer in November 2016 in St. Paul.
Sam Harper for MPR News 2016

Updated: 5:17 p.m.

A St. Paul police officer described an unwritten “code of silence” during a federal trial on Wednesday.

Brian Ficcadenti testified during the trial of fellow officer Brett Palkowitsch, who is charged with violating the civil rights of Frank Baker. In 2016, Palkowitsch kicked Baker as he 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.

Ficcadenti, who released the K-9 on Baker, testified that he regrets his actions that night and his silence until now. He was a new K-9 handler on the night of June 24, 2016. He testified that looking back on the incident now, he wouldn't have released the dog, named Falco, so quickly to apprehend Baker, who was suspected of carrying a gun. Baker was later found to be unarmed.

Frank Baker, 53, has reached a tentative settlement with St. Paul.
Frank Baker, 53, in the offices of his attorney on March 27, 2017.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

Ficcadenti testified that he felt like Baker was not a threat while he was in the jaws of the dog. And he said he felt like Palkowitsch's three kicks were not necessary.

However, Ficcadenti has been reluctant to criticize Palkowitsch until now. Ficcadenti said he feared that if he spoke out, other officers would retaliate against him for breaking an unwritten code of silence.

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However, defense attorneys asked Ficcadenti about another possible reason why he is coming forward with this criticism now: immunity from prosecution.

A copy of an immunity agreement between Ficcadenti and the government was displayed in court. According to the agreement, Ficcadenti is immune from prosecution by the feds, as long as he testifies truthfully in this trial. Without the deal, attorneys say Ficcadenti faced seven to nine years in prison.

Defense attorney Deborah Ellis said both Palkowitsch and Ficcadenti were the targets of a criminal civil rights investigation. However, now Ficcadenti is not in criminal jeopardy.

Tension in the courtroom

Ficcadenti was visibly uncomfortable when he was asked about his decision to agree to cooperate with the investigation and get immunity. One exchange was especially tense.

“It’s not a comfortable position to be in?” asked Ellis.

“No,” Ficcadenti responded.

“More comfortable than being over here?” Ellis asked, pointing to Palkowitsch sitting at the defense table.

Ficcadenti shifted uneasily and said, “Could be.”

“Being there you’re not facing time away from your family?” Ellis added.

“No,” Ficcadenti responded.

In 2017, Baker sued the city and settled the lawsuit for $2 million — the city’s largest ever police misconduct payout.