Brookings police officer suspended for throwing man against a wall

October 26, 2023

John Hult

SIOUX FALLS — A Brookings police officer will be suspended for a year after throwing an intoxicated man against a wall without warning when the man insulted him.

Damien Weets, a 12-year police veteran in Brookings, will be eligible for recertification as a South Dakota law enforcement officer in a year, provided he undergoes a psychiatric evaluation, completes training on topics including conflict de-escalation and use of force, and passes a “fit for duty” exam.

John Hult with South Dakota Searchlight reports the Law Enforcement Officers Standards and Training Commission voted unanimously on Wednesday at the Ramkota Inn to censure Weets for conduct unbecoming of an officer, and for conduct that adversely affects morale or public confidence, for his behavior toward Esai Kaiyou on April 30.

The commission split 6-4 on full revocation, however, with the minority supporting it. Lincoln County State’s Attorney Tom Wollman argued that the officer’s conduct casts a pall on law enforcement.

“The health of our communities is measured by how we protect the most vulnerable,” said Wollman. “Mr. Kaiyou deserved a measure of care that night that was not provided to him. We have other Mr. Kaiyous in other neighborhoods throughout this state, and how we respond to them needs to be met with absolute professionalism. That was not the case here.”

University of South Dakota Knutson School of Law Dean Neil Fulton, who voted for the yearlong suspension, said it is not “a diminution of what happened that night” or Weets’ response to it.

“The conditions of the suspension are intended to be a road map back into law enforcement, and that’s far from a sure thing, from my perspective,” Fulton said.

Kaiyou settled a civil lawsuit against Weets this fall for an undisclosed sum, but Wednesday’s hearing was more consequential for Weets.

Jim Leach, Kaiyou’s lawyer, said insurance covered the cost of the settlement. A revocation could have ended Weets’ career in law enforcement.

The commission heard nearly six hours of testimony in the case against Weets, who maintains that he hadn’t “thrown” Kaiyou, but rather attempted to stand him up to perform a search for weapons, and to protect a jailer from being spat upon.

That jailer, however, was one of two who turned Weets in for excessive force on May 1, the day after the incident.

Kaeley Dixon told the commission that Weets’ sudden actions came with no warning of an impending search or signal of immediate danger.

Dixon had been working to convince Kaiyou to take a breath test for alcohol, as the Brookings County Detention Center requires anyone with a blood alcohol content higher than 0.3 – more than triple the limit to drive – to see a doctor before being admitted to the jail.

Kaiyou, who landed at the detention center several times a month for alcohol-related offenses, sometimes had a breath test reading that high or higher.

Leah Hendrickson, who now works for Avera but was a Brookings correctional officer at the time of the altercation, testified that Kaiyou typically refused breath tests at least a few times before relenting.

“He just needs some coaching,” Hendrickson said.

On the day of the incident, Dixon was “mid-sentence” with a seated, handcuffed Kaiyou when Weets simultaneously ordered him to stand up and grabbed him by the sweatshirt to force him to his feet.

Kaiyou, she said, wasn’t behaving much differently than he had on his frequent previous visits to the jail.

“I felt more threatened by Officer Weets’ actions” than by Kaiyou, Dixon said.

“It felt so wrong,” she said.

Division of Criminal Investigation Agent Guy DiBenedetto handled the inquiry into the April 30 incident and testified to the facts he gathered through interviews with multiple officers and reviews of bodycam, hospital and jail footage.

Kaiyou had passed out in an aisle at the Brookings Walmart after the store had closed. Weets arrived after two South Dakota State University police officers, and Kaiyou struggled with them as they tried to turn him over to cuff him and remove him from the store.

Weets found a pocket knife in Kaiyou’s backpack, but did not perform a full search before taking him to jail for criminal trespassing.

Dixon held a breath test in Kaiyou’s face three times, and Kaiyou turned his head away each time. The third time, Dixon started trying to talk him into taking the test. Within seconds of that third attempt, Kaiyou called Weets a “f*cking liar.”

The jail video shows Weets grabbing Kaiyou’s shirt, pulling him to his feet and shoving him across the room. Kaiyou’s head slams against a wall and appears to hit a doorway before Weets pulls him back onto the concrete bench where he’d just been sitting.

Dixon told commissioners that Kaiyou lost consciousness.

“As soon as his head hit the wall, his body went limp,” she said.

DiBenedetto said that if Weets were concerned for Dixon’s safety, it wasn’t clear why from the video. Kaiyou wasn’t taking the breath test, but DiBenedetto and others testified that Kaiyou had the right to decline it.

“He wasn’t doing anything wrong by refusing the breath test,” the agent said.

Weets told the commission the insult had nothing to do with his decision to pick up Kaiyou and push him against the wall. He was trying to conduct a search, he said, and to protect Dixon from behavior he’d seen from Kaiyou in the past.

Weets said Brookings police saw Kaiyou several times a week before he moved away, typically passed out from intoxication. Weets and another Brookings police officer testified that Kaiyou’s belligerence typically began as passive aggression – refusing to stand or hurling insults – and progressed to spitting, biting or kicking.

Spitting is especially concerning, Weets said, because Kaiyou has HIV.

He hadn’t yanked him up to hurt him, Weets said, but because he saw warning signs that he might spit.

What Dixon, Hendrickson and DiBenedetto described as Weets throwing Kaiyou into a wall and back to the bench was necessary, Weets said.

Aside from perhaps taking Kaiyou to the hospital before the jail, Weets said, “I would handle it the exact same way.”

Kaiyou had been resisting at the jail, Weets told the commission, initially by refusing the breath test, then by refusing to stand up, and finally by thrusting his shoulder into the officer as he tried to take him to the ground to continue a search for weapons.

Instead of falling to the ground, Weets said, Kaiyou fell back on the concrete bench. Weets said Kaiyou was “dazed,” but had not lost consciousness.

Jeff Beck, Weets’ lawyer, noted that Weets immediately asked Kaiyou if he was OK and took him to the hospital. He also pointed out that Weets hadn’t yelled at Kaiyou or cursed at him, despite their frequent encounters.

Commissioners pushed Weets on his version of the facts and on his response to the situation. Wollman asked Weets if he really believed that Kaiyou fell into the wall, for example. Weets said yes.

Former Rapid City Police Chief Steve Allender challenged Weets on his assertion that he needed to pull Kaiyou to his feet for not following orders.

“It did not appear you gave him the opportunity to stand up,” Allender said.

Allender also pushed him on how quickly he reacted after the insult.

“Are you saying being called a liar had nothing to do with you grabbing him?” Allender asked.

“Sir, I’ve been an officer for 13 years,” Weets said. “If I let people that swore at me or yelled at me get under my skin, I’d have quit a long time ago.”

Allender pushed further, noting that “many of us in this room are seasoned law enforcement officers,” but the decision to grab Kaiyou came “within a second.”

“Would that be coincidental?” he said.

“It wouldn’t be out of anger,” Weets said. “It was because it was showing a pattern that was consistent with what I’d seen in the past.”

Division of Criminal Investigation Director Dan Satterlee wondered why Weets and his fellow officers hadn’t warned jailers about Kaiyou’s predilection for spitting and biting, or perhaps suggesting a spit mask. Rick Miller of the South Dakota Highway Patrol wondered why Weets hadn’t written anything about his fear for the jailer’s safety in the report on the incident. More than one commissioner asked why he wouldn’t have just asked Dixon to step back, rather than jump between her and Kaiyou.

“It’s easier for me to intervene,” Weets said, than to take those extra seconds and say, “‘Hey, would you please step back?’ Because there’s generally a conversation that starts like, ‘Why do I need to step back?’”

Weets was suspended with pay for about eight weeks after the incident, but reinstated after DiBenedetto concluded that Weets wouldn’t face criminal charges for his behavior. Brookings Police Chief Mike Drake told commissioners that the city chose to pass over Weets for a promotion as a result of the situation, but that any further action hinged on the outcome of the hearing.

The city will use the commission’s guidance on certification to point the way forward for Weets and the department.

“The city of Brookings takes this very seriously,” Drake said.

Commissioners voting for suspension were Allender, Fulton, Sisseton-Wahpeton Police Chief Gary Gaikowski, Clay County Sheriff Andy Howe, and civilian representatives Kathy Peterson of Rapid City and Jay Rasmussen of Sioux Falls. Tea Police Chief Jessica Quigley and Troy VanDusen of the Watertown Police Department joined Wollman and Miller in voting for revocation.