Mar 24, 2021 - News

Des Moines sergeant with history of force leads de-escalation training

Photo of Des Moines sergeant Michael Fong

Sgt. Michael Fong from 2013. Photo via court documents.

A Des Moines police sergeant with a history of excessive force is leading the department's de-escalation training β€” a move that activists say is tone deaf to community concerns about overpolicing.

  • Why it matters: De-escalation training can teach officers how to defuse a confrontation before resorting to force, but who teaches it can influence public trust.

What's happening: Sgt. Michael Fong has led the department's de-escalation training since 2020, along with Lt. Rodrigo Santizo.

He was named in an excessive force lawsuit that cost the city $800,000 in 2018 β€” stemming from an arrest in 2013.

  • A jury found Fong and Sgt. Greg Wessels used excessive force and committed battery when they beat, punched and kneed a man before arresting him in downtown Des Moines in 2013.
  • Documents show he was also suspended for five days after an internal investigation determined he used excessive force during an arrest in 2007.

What they're saying: DMPD said selecting Fong as an instructor was based on his "complete career performance" β€” not just a "fraction of it," according to a statement emailed to Linh.

  • DMPD listed Fong's commendations including a 2019 federal victim service award, demonstrated leadership in Des Moines and serving as an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps.

The other side: Choosing Fong to lead the training hurts community trust, especially when de-escalation is an important part of resident interactions, said Sharon Zanders-Ackiss, donor relations specialist at Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement.

  • An external and objective instructor should be chosen to ensure internal and systemic biases are addressed, she said.

"When you decide to make decisions like this, you minimize the true concern of the community," Zanders-Ackiss said.

Flashback: Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a bill last year requiring de-escalation and implicit bias training for law enforcement statewide.

This story first appeared in the Axios Des Moines newsletter, designed to help readers get smarter, faster on the most consequential news unfolding in their own backyard.


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