Wrong guy bit by police dog, beaten receives apology from St. Paul police; officer suspended
ST. PAUL—Frank Arnal Baker was simply a man returning to his St. Paul home after a day at work.
Suddenly, he was surrounded by St. Paul police officers. A police dog bit his leg, holding on for 70 seconds and inflicting permanent injuries. Another officer delivered three kicks to the 53-year-old's ribs, and he was hospitalized for two weeks with his lungs collapsed and ribs broken.
Officers said Baker matched a report of a male with a gun in the area on the city's East Side and, because they said he wasn't complying with their orders, they feared he was armed.
When police took him into custody, they learned Baker was not their suspect and he had no gun.
On Thursday, Police Chief Todd Axtell suspended the K-9 officer involved for 30 days and placed on unpaid leave the officer who kicked Baker.
The incident occurred June 24, one day after Axtell became police chief. As it happened, Baker met Axtell on the day of his swearing-in and he congratulated the new chief, according to a police spokesman.
On Friday, Axtell released information about the case, including video from a squad car's dashboard camera, after the internal investigation into one of the officers had been completed and because he said he wanted to be transparent.
"As St. Paul police chief, I'm disappointed and upset by what the video shows," said Axtell, who has formally apologized to Baker for the incident. "As a person who deeply cares about this community and our department, I am profoundly saddened. ... I want you to know that the content of this video does not reflect the way we strive to do our job — day in, day out."
Mayor Chris Coleman said he was "deeply disturbed" by what he saw in the video, and community leaders on Friday condemned what happened to Baker.
"They should both be terminated," Tyrone Terrill, president of the African American Leadership Council, said of the officers. "They should have no place in St. Paul as police officers. ... For almost 60 seconds (seen in the video), that dog chewed on a human being. And you can hear the officer saying 'Good boy.' "
But the union representing officers says the video doesn't tell the whole story of the situation as officers responded in a high-crime area to a man they thought was armed.
"There was no intent to injure someone here," said Chris Wachtler, an attorney representing the St. Paul Police Federation. "No one wants to see somebody hurt, ever ... but from the Federation perspective and from the perspective of the officers in this case, had this individual simply just complied with lawful orders and done what he was asked to do, he wouldn't have suffered these injuries."
Baker's attorney doesn't see it that way.
"They had the wrong guy," Bennett said. "There was no reason to pursue him at all for anything. They were looking for a black male with dreadlocks and a white T-shirt on the East Side of St. Paul at night. Now, how many people do you think that covers? ... 10,000? He was coming home from his work to his apartment, which was two buildings down from where they were called."
The bites from the dog "went down to the bone," Bennett said. He said Baker needed multiple surgeries for them. He received skin grafts and has "horrible scarring," Bennett said.
BIT BY A POLICE DOG
On June 24, just after 10 p.m., police were called to East Seventh Street near Hazel Street on a report of a fight outside an apartment building. An anonymous caller said 13 people were involved, they had bats and golf clubs and at least one had a gun, according to police reports.
It was a dangerous situation, said Wachtler and Dave Titus, president of the Police Federation. The area had seen "recent gun play calls, guns recovered, a person shot in the chin," Titus said. "This is a very hot area, and they go to that call knowing the dangers of everything that's going on here and that there are real victims in this area to all this gun play."
K-9 officer Brian Ficcadenti, a St. Paul officer for five years, saw a large group scatter when he pulled up. In an alley, he spotted a man in a vehicle talking on a cellphone.
"I believed Baker to be the male the caller was referring to as the male with the gun in his hand as he fit the description in every way that was described," Ficcadenti wrote in his report.
Ficcadenti ordered Baker to get out of his Jeep and put his hands up. Baker stepped out slowly and put up one hand, Ficcadenti wrote. He said he continued to tell Baker to put his hands up and walk out toward him to see if he had anything in his hands, but the man did not.
The initial confrontation was about 10 seconds and Ficcadenti wrote he quickly decided he needed to use his dog Falco to attempt to control Baker and prevent a "lethal force encounter" because he believed the man was "about to pull a firearm" on him.
Falco bit Baker in the lower leg and the man fell to the ground. Ficcadenti continued ordering Baker to put his hands behind his back, but he did not, wrote Ficcadenti and other officers who responded.
KICKED THREE TIMES
Another officer who responded, Brett Palkowitsch, wrote in his report that he kicked Baker because he "fully believed that Baker was armed with a firearm and I wanted this progressively evolving use of force encounter on a gun call to end as fast as possible for the safety at the scene."
He said after the first two kicks, he loudly ordered Baker to stay on the ground and put his hands out, but the man turned over and brought his hands toward his waistband area.
"I did not know if Baker was attempting to retrieve a weapon or was just continuing to move around and not comply with commands so I delivered one more kick," Palkowitsch wrote. Officers were then able to get him handcuffed.
But some questioned how Baker could have complied under the circumstances.
"This is going to cost the city a half-million dollars," said Rashad Turner, a member of the African-American Leadership Council. "You hear an officer saying don't move ... with a dog biting you?"
After the incident was over, Wachtler said the officers gave the man water and made sure he received medical assistance.
He said the officers involved in the case are "well respected by their peers. No disciplinary history. These aren't rogues, these aren't thugs, these are good cops."
Paramedics brought Baker to Regions Hospital, and Ficcadenti cited him for obstructing legal process. Prosecutors dismissed the charge in September, writing they'd determined there was "insufficient evidence to support a conviction."
Baker's attorney said he's still gathering information about what happened and has not filed a lawsuit.
Axtell said he visited Baker in the hospital, apologized and told him a full review was being conducted.
Police didn't release a timeline of the review Friday, but it appears Aug. 27 was a critical point because the main officers involved were both reassigned that day. Ficcadenti was moved from the K-9 unit to the department's family and sexual violence unit and Palkowitsch was moved from patrol to the technology unit, a place where he wouldn't have contact with the public.
The investigation into Ficcadenti is complete, and information about it is public under state law. A police spokesman said he could only confirm there is an open investigation involving Palkowitsch, saying state law does not allow him to provide details. Palkowitsch has been a St. Paul officer for three years.
If a public employee is disciplined in Minnesota, the information becomes public after a final decision is reached, which can include going to an arbitrator.
In Ficcadenti's case, the Police-Civilian Internal Affairs Review Commission recommended he be suspended for 10 days. Axtell notified Ficcadenti by letter that he intended to terminate him but offered to meet with him to discuss the case, which the officer agreed to, according to a Thursday letter from the police chief.
After the meeting, Axtell decided to suspend Ficcadenti for 30 days.
"The decisions and conclusions you made are troubling," Axtell wrote to Ficcadenti on Thursday, also saying the officer had "failed to control" his K-9 partner. "You responded to anonymous information about a fight and man with a gun. No witness ever identified this citizen or his vehicle as being involved to you or any other officer and he was three apartment buildings away from the original call location."
The case has resulted in additional training for officers, Axtell said.
"We have continuing de-escalation training, in addition to training specifically about how officers make arrests during a dynamic encounter with a K-9 involved," he said. "Those are highly dynamic situations as you can see from the video ... so we're taking a more specific approach on how we go about that in the future."
Community leaders who spoke out Friday about the video thanked Axtell for imposing a greater punishment for Ficcadenti than what had been asked for by the police-civilian review commission, and they urged the department to discipline the other officers in the video for not intervening.
"They're standing there looking at it, live in person, watching someone getting their leg tore off, and they're not even reacting," said Jeff Martin, St. Paul NAACP president.
Axtell met with Baker again Friday, during which the chief said he apologized again.
The Pioneer Press could not reach Baker for comment Friday, but he told KSTP-TV that he accepted Axtell's apology "because he was genuine about it.
"I appreciate it. He's a good guy and we just want things to be peaceful."
Frederick Melo and Tory Cooney contributed to this report.