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Opinion: Making the right call in viral assault by ex-Gwinnett cops

The now-viral assault of a motorist by Gwinnett police was addressed quickly — and properly — by the decision to fire two officers. This action reflects well on a noble, embattered, profession.

Gwinnett County Police Chief Butch Ayers obviously internalized the term “peace officers” – a once-common name for law enforcement’s practitioners.

At least partly as a result, perhaps, a relative calm still reigns over metro Atlanta in general, and Gwinnett County, in particular. This even as protesters regularly continue to peacefully, if boisterously, rail against a county commissioner who exercised his right of free speech to call a U.S. Congressman a “racist pig.”

Ayers, a 30-year veteran of the Gwinnett police, deserves high praise for acting rapidly and decisively to fire two of his officers who were caught on video abusing a 21-year-old motorist pulled over for an alleged traffic violation. Rather than hem and haw while waving a blanket of administrative due process, conducting a wink-wink “investigation” or otherwise stalling for time in hopes things would blow over, Ayers stepped up – and did the right thing.

The entire episode, from the first video’s appearance to the subsequent firings, took barely more than 24 hours.

The scenario is now known nationwide. A video enters the public realm of then-Sgt. Michael Bongiovanni punching Demetrius Hollins as he emerged from a car with his hands up. Conveniently, Bongiovanni’s official report made no mention of the suspect’s compliance.

Worse yet, 18 years with the department had apparently provided supervisor Bongiovanni with enough street savvy to try and cover his badge by attempting to throw a subordinate under the bus. That opportunity presented itself when then-Gwinnett Master Officer Robert McDonald ran up to a handcuffed-and-prone Hollins and proceeded to kick him in the head – behavior captured on the video which surfaced first.

Bongiovanni’s report duly snitched on McDonald, but made no mention of the sergeant’s earlier use of force against Hollins. That didn’t come to light until a later video revealed that behavior to authorities.

Chief Ayers, to his great credit, dismissed both officers. Good for him.

Ayers’ well-justified disgust at his officers’ abuse of power was evident from comments made in a press release and during a news conference.

“The suspect was lying down, he was clearly handcuffed, he was clearly not resisting,” Ayers said at a news conference. “He wasn’t a threat to anyone. Any further application of use of force was unnecessary and excessive.”

In a statement released after Bongiovanni’s behavior came to light, Gwinnett police wrote, “The video was contrary to what was reported by Michael Bongiovanni.” “We are fortunate that this second video was found and we were able to move swiftly to terminate a supervisor who lied and stepped outside of his training and state law.”

During a press conference, Ayers said that, “”One thing that we will not tolerate in this police department is providing false or misleading information.”

Ayers’ actions reflect well on a department and leadership that seem to be trying to do a tough job well. His judgment and actions are those worthy of a 21st-century police department, not one better-suited for a bygone age.

That’s very important in a demographically evolving county like Gwinnett, one of the most-diverse places to live and work in the metro area.

We’re sure that the fired officers have their share of supporters, too. They, and we, recognize that policing is not for the timid or faint of heart. Law enforcement is too-often deadly, violent and dangerous work. Officers put themselves at great risk each day, attempting to “protect and serve” an often-ungrateful and apathetic, if not downright hostile, public.

Given that two of four members of this Editorial Board were reared by big-city cops, we get all that. Good law enforcement officers – and that’s the vast majority of them, we believe – deserve society’s gratitude and support.

The bad ones – and there are some, unfortunately – at minimum deserve the first response delivered by Chief Ayers’ termination notices.

It is appropriate that the Gwinnett County District Attorney’s office is investigating whether criminal charges should be brought against McDonald and Bongiovanni. That effort should be thorough and conducted as expeditiously as possible, given that the video evidence is solidly convincing.

The accreditation of the former officers should also be called into question, with an eye toward weighing whether their certification should be yanked. Given their behavior, we’d lean toward that heavy sanction, but believe that due process should run its course first.

Lastly, nothing herein should be taken as excusing the risky behavior of a motorist who should have stopped quickly when Bongiovanni attempted to make a traffic stop. Hollins aroused both suspicion and police adrenaline by not pulling over. He did so only after his car stalled out.

Even so, Hollins’ poor decisions do not justify what befell him next. Police are called to a higher standard – with good reason.

Thanks to Chief Ayers for decisively doing his part to help keep that the case.

Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board.

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