Dustin Burnikel was visiting Des Moines for an Iowa high school state wrestling tournament in 2013 with his family.
After he watched his nephew finish his match late in the evening, Burnikel went out to El Bait Shop with his cousin and a friend for a couple of beers.
Around 1:30 a.m., while waiting for a cab in the taxi line on Court Avenue, Burnikel said he saw a man throw a woman to the ground.
When he approached him and asked, “Why are you hurting her?” the man turned his attention to him and he was pepper-sprayed in the face. Another man also approached and pepper sprayed him as well.
Burnikel would soon find out that the men were officers with the Des Moines Police Department, and both of them, Sgt. Greg Wessels and then-Officer Michael Fong, had a history of excessive force violations.
Despite Wessels’ long history of discipline at Des Moines police, he remains employed as a sergeant overseeing the detective unit.
His continued employment at Des Moines police came under recent scrutiny as activists have called on the police department to reform and hold officers accountable for excessive force as part of the Black Lives Matter movement.
During a Des Moines City Council meeting last month when a racial profiling ordinance passed, members of the public questioned why Wessels was still working for the department. They cited his employment as a reason they want to create a citizen review board to oversee the police department.
On Feb. 16, 2013, when Burnikel encountered Wessels and Fong, they were working off-duty as security at the cab stand. After they pepper sprayed him, Burnikel said both men beat him, punching and kneeing his abdomen, testicles, nose, sides, back and knees.
He was handcuffed and dropped on his face, suffering eight cracked teeth, one broken tooth, black eyes and injuries all around his body.
It was the violent start to a years-long court battle to be acquitted of his charges and win an $800,000 settlement after he was charged with public intoxication, interfering with official acts and resisting arrest.
But the one thing he ultimately wanted hasn’t happened: Wessels’ firing from the Des Moines Police Department.
“What’s it going to take for this guy to lose his job?” Burnikel said, during an interview with Iowa Capital Dispatch.
A decades-long history of discipline
More recently, a confrontation between Wessels and Khy’La Williams, a 17-year-old Black Des Moines student, resulted in a $75,000 settlement, after Wessels was accused of racial discrimination and using excessive force in 2018.
But prior to Williams and Burnikel, Wessels had been disciplined by three previous Des Moines police chiefs.
Internal disciplinary records of sustained investigations show Wessels’ violations have ranged from watching porn at the police department to punching handcuffed prisoners.
Despite his long history of infractions, Wessels continued to receive positive performance reviews, praising him for being “compassionate.”
“I don’t know what it’s going to take, but you would think they would do something,” Burnikel said during a recent interview with Iowa Capital Dispatch.
Since he was employed by the Des Moines Police Department more than 30 years ago, Wessels has been disciplined at least nine times following internal investigations.
The most recent accusation of excessive force stems from a 2018 incident involving Khy’La Williams, who was a Des Moines public schools student.
Williams was at the downtown DART bus station with her younger sister on Feb. 28, 2018, when police responded to a rumor of a fight that was planned there after school.
Wessels told Williams and her younger sister they needed to leave the station, while they were waiting for the bus to take them home, according to plaintiff documents filed in a lawsuit against Wessels and the City of Des Moines.
They declined, saying they needed to catch the bus.
When Williams continued to refuse to leave, the situation escalated with Wessels pushing Williams away from the buses, grabbing her arm, pepper-spraying her face and throwing her to the ground.
Later, both she and her younger sister spent the night in juvenile detention, according to plaintiff documents.
A video that circulated on social media at the time showed Wessels taking Williams down to the ground.
The City of Des Moines ultimately settled the lawsuit in 2020, but noted the settlement was not an admission of guilt. It’s unknown whether Wessels was disciplined at the Des Moines Police Department for the altercation.
Since 2008, Wessels has been disciplined for excessive use of force four times, according to internal disciplinary records from Des Moines police.
Two lawsuits have resulted in the City of Des Moines paying out nearly $1 million.
On May 27, 2008, Wessels was verbally reprimanded after he took a handcuffed suspect to the ground, resulting in face injuries. The incident occurred March 17, 2008.
“Your decision to forcibly place a handcuffed prisoner to the ground under these circumstances and with two officers present is inappropriate,” wrote David Bowen, who was a lieutenant overseeing Wessels at the time. “(He) … was forced to the ground with no way to protect himself from the impending impact of the ground.”
A month after he was disciplined for the May incident, Wessels struck a handcuffed prisoner in the face, according to internal documents. He also took the prisoner to the ground, resulting in a bloody nose and abrasion, wrote former Police Chief Judy Bradshaw.
“This is the second incident within 10 months where Officer Wessels has used inappropriate force against a handcuffed prisoner with other officers present,” Bradshaw wrote.
He received a one-day suspension on April 21, 2009, according to internal disciplinary documents.
A few years later, in a case that went public, Wessels fired his gun at a fleeing suspect’s rear tire, resulting in a two-day suspension in 2014. A suspect who was accused of assaulting a woman by choking her and hitting her in the head with a hammer attempted to drive away from the scene when Wessels fired his gun, stopping the car.
By this point, Wessels had been promoted from senior officer to sergeant in 2012.
“Shooting the tires of a fleeing vehicle, regardless of the distance, is not an acceptable practice,” wrote Dana Wingert, who was a major at the time. “It goes without saying that the risk of ricochet or missing and striking an unintended target presents a danger that is far too great to consider this as a reasonable tactic.”
Wessels’ longest suspension based on available records came in 2014 when he punched a handcuffed prisoner in the jaw and failed to document his action and report it to the police department.
Though the prisoner was “somewhat” verbally and physically uncooperative, a report reviewing video from the prison transport vehicle noted he was secured in handcuffs.
Two other officers who were with him also did not document Wessels’ use of force in their arrest reports.
“Your actions in the video appear to be punitive in nature, as though you lost your temper in front of your officers,” Bradshaw wrote in a disciplinary review letter.
“Your previous experience as a Senior Police Officer shows you are capable of making good decisions, which earned you the right to the rank of Sergeant. However you are in a critical point in your career as a new Sergeant,” Bradshaw wrote in her disciplinary recommendation. “Any future incidents of misconduct of any kind will result in further discipline, up to and including demotion or termination.”
Wessels said during the internal investigation he was “surprised” to learn that his use of force was documented on video inside the van.
He was suspended for four days.
Following 2014, it’s unknown based on publicly available documents whether Wessels faced any more internal discipline or accusations of excessive force, aside from lawsuits filed against him and the City of Des Moines.
In 2020, he was assigned to the police department’s detective bureau. His brother, Capt. Mark Wessels, also works for Des Moines police. Sgt. Paul Parizek, spokesperson for Des Moines police, said Mark Wessels does not oversee his brother and commands the Community Outreach and Protective Services Bureau of the Operations Division.
Categories in the performance reviews included his interactions with the public, colleagues and suspects. It also included work judgment and compliance with rules.
Up to 2013, only one of his performance reviews that was available for viewing had a category marked lower than “meets standards.” That 2008 review referred to his working relationship with other officers, citing a time he was disciplined for being insubordinate and walking out of a training class.
How excessive force complaints are handled
Complaints about Des Moines police officers are internally investigated by supervisors, Parizek said.
Each investigation begins with a review of the complaint by the employee’s immediate supervisor and their recommendation for discipline if it’s warranted. The review is repeated through the chain of command, ending with the police chief for final review and discipline recommendation.
An employee may appeal the final decision, Parizek said.
Discipline ranges from verbal counseling up to termination. Each policy violation is evaluated on the facts and the severity of the offense, Parizek said.
“Many use of force complaints come out of very dynamic situations where split-second decisions are made. That uniqueness is taken into consideration,” Parizek said. “A significant part of the DMPD disciplinary philosophy is designed to be corrective, not only punitive. If a violation occurs, we want to make certain that we have done everything possible to prevent it from occurring again.”
Parizek did not answer specific questions about Wessels’ employment or the criticisms from the public. Wessels was not made available for an interview with Iowa Capital Dispatch.
Training on use-of-force and internal investigations
Police officer recruits in Iowa are required to attend the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy and go through 625 hours of training, which includes everything from unbiased policing to addressing mental health, said Bradshaw, who has been the academy’s director since 2015.
Four hours of training are dedicated to use of force and Iowa’s code, which is meant to educate officers on what they are legally allowed to do, Bradshaw said.
Each law enforcement agency has its own “force” policy that defines procedures and what is reasonable, Bradshaw said. Those are shaped by models such as recommendations from the International Association of Chiefs of Police and state laws.
When it comes to discipline, Bradshaw said each Iowa agency has its own guidelines. If there is a police union, discipline may be addressed in contracts, including levels of discipline.
Officer training continues to “evolve,” due to society’s demands, Bradshaw said. She pointed to the recent police reform bill signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds. The academy is gearing up to help police departments teach implicit bias training as required by the new law.
The new law also requires the decertification of officers who are fired or quit because of charges of excessive force or other serious misconduct on the job, so they can’t be rehired.
That provision of the law does not affect Wessels, who is still employed by Des Moines.
Bradshaw, who served as the police chief during six of Wessels’ disciplinary actions, said the police department’s internal affairs office conducted their own investigations.
For the case involving the shot fired at the tire, Bradshaw said a shooting review was conducted by the city attorney. A legal review considered if the state code and police department’s policies were followed.
The two-day suspension was recommended by the city’s legal advisor and the assistant chief, who presented their findings to Bradshaw.
‘Cops are supposed to serve and protect’
When Burnikel, who was 32 at the time, approached Wessels and Fong that night in Court Avenue, he said he was trying to stick up for the woman on the ground.
“I live in a small town where none of our cops would ever do that to a girl,” Burnikel said, who lives in Lime Springs, Iowa.
A jury acquitted him of all charges in May 2013.
Years later, in 2018, the city of Des Moines settled an excessive force lawsuit by Burnikel for $800,000.
But his reason to go to court wasn’t for money, Burnikel said. He said he knew he wasn’t guilty of the charges against him or of the allegations police claimed from that night.
Ultimately, he didn’t want anyone else to endure the same beating.
“I just wanted him fired,” Burnikel said.
Though juries favored Burnikel in both his criminal trial and his lawsuit, the physical and emotional toll he’s gone through since meeting Wessels and Fong stay with him to this day.
After he was beaten, everything from bending, sitting, lifting, walking and standing aggravated pain throughout his body .
It would hurt so badly, he would wake up in the middle of the night.
Doctors prescribed him hydrocodone, which he used to try to keep the pain away. He owned a tree-cutting business that required long hours of hard labor.
It led to an addiction. “My life just spiraled downhill,” over the next five years, Burnikel said.
He and his fiancée broke up.
He wasn’t allowed to coach students in wrestling, due to his criminal charges.
He tried to explain his case to people in town, but they believed the officers.
He couldn’t blame them.
After all, before that evening, he also was more inclined to believe cops, he said.
“It doesn’t matter if I’m innocent or not,” Burnikel said.
Counseling, rehabilitation and his kids have helped Burnikel get through the most difficult years of his life. Last October, he suffered a stroke, adding on to the hardships.
He’s working to move on, saying “it is what it is,” but Burnikel said he still can’t get over it.
On Friday, when he spoke with Iowa Capital Dispatch, he was on his way to the dentist, still dealing with damage to his teeth from that evening in 2013.
He doesn’t think that all cops are bad and he understands second chances.
Though Fong, who is now a sergeant, was also involved in his case, Burnikel said he didn’t believe he was “that bad of a guy,” saying he was truthful in his testimony in court and admitted to kneeing and punching him. Fong was disciplined once in 2007 for excessive force, after he punched a handcuffed suspect in the nose who “shoulder-checked” him.
But when Burnikel saw the news about Wessels using force against Williams, he struggled with feeling like he didn’t do enough to try and get him fired — to prevent his story from happening to other people.
At this point, Burnikel said he doesn’t know what else to do, other than to tell his story.
“Cops are supposed to serve and protect and that’s not the case anymore,” Burnikel said. “You have no idea what it did to my life.”
Timeline of discipline against Wessels from DMPD’s internal documentation
Below are the disciplinary actions that were taken against Wessels following sustained investigations by DMPD.
Wessels received a two-day suspension under former Des Moines Police Chief Bill Moulder after he was insubordinate. While on duty in uniform, he watched a basketball game at Veteran’s Memorial Auditorium and refused to leave after a warning from a captain on site. He returned to watch another basketball game off-duty the next day and was “disrespectful” to senior officers who questioned whether or not he had a ticket.
Wessels received a written reprimand under former Des Moines Police Chief Bill McCarthy for using profanity against a suspect and failing to report a confrontation between the two of them per police department procedures.
Wessels, who was a senior officer at the time, got into a “heated exchange” with the suspect who later claimed Wessels choked him. The choking claim was unfounded through eyewitness reports, according to an internal investigation.
Wessels was suspended from work for two days because he was watching pornography during work hours on Des Moines Police Department computers.
Wessels was orally reprimanded under former Police Chief Judy Bradshaw after he took a handcuffed suspect to the ground, resulting in face injuries because the suspect was unable to protect himself.
Another officer was present at the scene.
Wessels was suspended for three days because of “inappropriate conduct” toward his peers, which included walking out of a training class, missing on-call assignments and being “insubordinate to a supervisor.”
He was stripped of his special tactical unit duties and ordered to attend anger management classes.
Wessels was suspended from work for one day due to excessive force against a prisoner in 2008, just a month after he was orally reprimanded. He punched a handcuffed prisoner “with an open hand” and took him to the ground, causing “a bloody nose and abrasion.”
Wessels received a written reprimand after failing to write a police report after a citizen informed him of an assault. By failing to make a report, Bradshaw noted the identity of possible suspects, “will likely never be determined.”
Wessels was suspended for two days after he was found in violation of the police department’s policy regarding the use of firearms. On Dec. 2013, Wessels aimed and fired his gun at the tire of a fleeing suspect.
Wessels was suspended for four days after he was found in violation of regulations against excessive force after he punched a handcuffed prisoner in the jaw, who was seated in the back of a prison transport vehicle.
“In reviewing the audio and video from the prisoner transport vehicle, it is obvious that Mr. (Joshua) Farrell is less than cooperative,” Wingert wrote. “What is also clear is that the strike to the face is unwarranted, as there was more than enough officers present to gain/maintain control of Mr. Farrell in this particular situation.”
Two other officers who saw the confrontation were present at the scene. Wessels failed to report his use of force to the police department and neither did the other officers. The officers said they believed Wessels would report it himself.