A Gwinnett County police officer fired after video appeared to show him punching a man during a traffic stop will file a formal appeal to get his job back, his attorney told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“He maintains he was following proper policy,” said lawyer Mike Puglise, who represents former Gwinnett Police Sgt. Michael Bongiovanni, fired after 19 years on the force after video surfaced last week of his physical encounter with Demetrius Hollins.
Hollins, 21, was pulled over on April 12 for not having a license plate and changing lanes multiple times without signaling, according to an incident report. Hollins refused to stop until his car eventually stalled out, the report states.
Puglise said what looked like a punch from Hollins was actually an elbow strike, “an FBI-taught defensive tactic.”
Bongiovanni wanted to “turn (Hollins) around to see if he had a gun,” Puglise said. He had arrested Hollins in August for obstructing an officer and possessing less than 1 ounce of marijuana, a police report shows.
According to Bongiovanni’s report on the August 2016 arrest, Hollins had a .380 gun with one bullet underneath his seat.
Puglise said he didn’t immediately recognize Hollins but added, “(Bongiovanni) did not understand the situation he was dealing with,” he said. “(Hollins) was not obeying commands.”
Hollins’ lawyer Justin Miller told The AJC that Bongiovanni also struck Hollins during that first encounter.
As for the April 12th incident, the suspect was handcuffed and on the ground when Master Officer Robert McDonald kicked him in the head. Both encounters were captured on video and went viral, leading Gwinnett Police Chief Butch Ayers to fire the officers almost immediately.
“They became political pawns,” Puglise said.
Bongiovanni has 15 days to file a formal appeal with the five-member Gwinnett County Merit Board. It’s unclear whether McDonald will do the same — though, according to Ayers, McDonald had taken responsibility for his actions and was sorry that they occurred.
Bongiovanni offered no apologies, according to Ayers.
“It’s different out on the streets,” Ayers said Bongiovanni told him. Bongiovanni doesn’t recall saying that, Puglise said.
Both officers could face criminal charges. An internal investigation by Gwinnett police is almost complete; District Attorney Danny Porter is expected to receive their findings next week.
“In this case, what we saw on video, that punch was unreasonable and unnecessary,” Ayers said last week.
Puglise said he is confident Bongiovanni’s appeal will be successful, adding he has received numerous calls of support from colleagues in law enforcement.
“He wouldn’t have made it this far if he was a rogue officer,” Puglise said, pointing to his client’s record that includes 67 incidents involving use of force.
Bongiovanni was accused of excessive force on five separate occasions, including Wednesday’s incident, but never found guilty by Gwinnett’s internal affairs department. He also received numerous commendations from Gwinnett police, including a Purple Heart medal for pulling a family from a burning car.
McDonald, in his third year with Gwinnett police, was involved in three use-of-force cases before last week — two of them with Bongiovanni, his supervisor.
Bongiovanni told his shift commander that McDonald kicked Hollins. But didn’t mention his own tussle with the suspect.
“It did not dawn on him that what he did was a punishable offense,” Puglise said. Bongiovanni noted McDonald’s conduct because “he saw an officer do something that needed to be reported,” his attorney said.