Jury finds St. Paul officer Palkowitsch guilty in excessive force trial

A man is flanked by two women as they walk in a skyway.
St. Paul police officer Brett Palkowitsch leaves the Warren E. Burger Federal Court Building on Nov. 15, 2019 in St. Paul. On Tuesday, Palkowitsch was found guilty of violating the civil rights of Frank Baker in June 2016.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Updated: Thurs. 9:24 a.m.

After more than a day of deliberation, a federal jury Tuesday found St. Paul Police Officer Brett Palkowitsch guilty of violating the civil rights of Frank Baker — an unarmed African-American man.

Baker was mauled by a police dog and suffered a punctured lung and seven broken ribs after Palkowitsch kicked him while he was on the ground. Palkowitsch was convicted of one count of deprivation of rights under color of law. The maximum possible sentence is ten years.

The incident is at the center of a civil rights case prosecuted by the U.S. Department of Justice’s civil rights division from Washington, not the Minnesota U.S. Attorney’s office, which handles most federal criminal cases.

In June 2016, Baker had just gotten off work and returned to his apartment on East Seventh Street to find police in the parking lot. They went there on a report of a crowd of people with bats or clubs who were fighting. Police were told a man with dreadlocks and a white T-shirt was in the area and had a gun. Baker was unarmed, he had no connection to any crime.

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Police apparently thought he matched the description. Baker, who was 52 at the time, wore his hair in dreadlocks. While in his Jeep talking on a cellphone, Baker was ordered to get out with his hands up. Video shows him out of the car, but then suddenly down on the ground.

But police said Baker didn't respond to an order and one of the officers released his K-9, which mauled Baker’s leg. Squad car video captured Palkowitsch kicking Baker as he lay on the ground, screaming from the dog’s bites. He spent two weeks in the hospital. His medical bills ran into the six figures. In 2017, Baker reached a record $2 million settlement with the city of St. Paul.

Police Chief Todd Axtell suspended the K-9 officer and ultimately fired Palkowitsch. But Palkowitsch returned to the force after an arbitrator ruled that he be reinstated. He’s been on paid administrative leave since he was indicted last January.

The government told jurors that in his incident report, Palkowitsch downplayed the level of force he used against Baker and exaggerated the threat he believed Baker posed. He checked a box on the report falsely noting that Baker was armed and listed hands/feet/fists under “other weapons,” even though Baker never fought back.

Prosecutor Christopher Perras said Palkowitsch bragged about kicking Baker. Perras said those are the actions of a bully, not an officer acting in good faith. The prosecution pointed to the testimony of three police officers who were at the scene, all of whom said Baker did not pose a threat.

Axtell — who started the top job the day before the incident — testified for the prosecution that he expected to hear "ownership and remorse" but said Palkowitsch showed no compassion.

Defense attorney Kevin Short said in closing argument that prosecutors lied in presenting their case. Short said his client was not the only officer who perceived Baker to be a threat.

He played squad camera video of the incident at half speed and noted that the other officers at the scene reacted to Baker's movements, noting that three immediately moved toward Baker as he appeared to sit up.

He said that is proof that at the time, they saw Baker as a threat despite the fact that officers Anthony Spencer, Joseph Dick and Brian Ficcadenti testified that they didn't consider him one.

Palkowitsch, on the stand in his defense, said that he did not know that Baker was unarmed. He said he kicked Baker a third time because he thought the man’s hands were moving to his waist. Palkowitsch also testified he felt “terrible” that Baker had been injured.

Palkowitsch sat at attention as the verdict was read. Supporters could be heard weeping in the gallery.

Prosecutors argued the officer should await sentencing in custody. But Judge Wilhelmina Wright said extraordinary conditions would be required to ensure his safety in prison.

In a statement, Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband for the Civil Rights Division praised the “officers who came forward and brought about the opening of the investigation.” FBI Minneapolis Special Agent in Charge, Jill Sanborn said in the statement, "When an individual officer’s actions violate that trust, he or she should be held accountable which the jury confirmed with today's verdict."