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Police de-escalation trainer’s background raises concerns

April 18, 2021 GMT

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Des Main police are facing pushback after putting a sergeant who has been disciplined for excessive force on a five-person team that leads de-escalation training.

City Manager Scott Sanders defended the decision to make Sgt. Michael Fong a trainer this past week in an email that the Des Moines Register obtained through a records request. He wrote that he and Police Chief Dana Wingert met privately with “sincerely concerned residents,” but he told the mayor and council members in the email that he didn’t find their arguments persuasive.

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Members of the advocacy group Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and others have repeatedly and publicly asked that Fong and another officer, Sean O’Neill, be removed from their roles in the department’s de-escalation training. O’Neill was named in a racial profiling lawsuit that the city paid $25,000 to settle in 2018.

Fong began conducting de-escalation training last year, said Des Moines Police spokesperson Sgt. Paul Parizek.

In 2018, a civil court jury found that Fong and another sergeant used excessive force and committed battery in 2013 when they pepper-sprayed and beat a white northeast Iowa man in downtown Des Moines before dropping him on his face while he was handcuffed. Des Moines paid $800,000 to settle its portion of the lawsuit. The victim, Dustin Burnikel, was awarded $200,000 in damages.

In the email to city officials, Sanders argued that it would be inaccurate to “assign the $800,000 settlement, or even a significant portion of it” to Fong because Burnikel was “interfering with a valid arrest which even the jury found valid.” A jury acquitted Burnikel of all charges, including interfering with official acts.

Records made public in Burnikel’s case revealed that in 2007 Fong was suspended for five days after striking a handcuffed suspect.

“He did have an incident in 2007 in which he struck a detainee who was physically agitating the situation by forcefully shoulder checking Fong into the wall,” Sanders wrote city officials. “Fong admitted the mistake and accepted the consequences.”