Two former Gwinnett County police officers are facing prison time after being charged Wednesday for punching and kicking a motorist after a traffic stop. And Gwinnett’s top prosecutor says more charges could soon follow.
Sgt. Michael Bongiovanni and Master Officer Robert McDonald have each been charged with misdemeanor battery and violating their oath of office, a felony which carries a minimum sentence of one year in prison.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a situation where both officers appeared to act without justification,” Gwinnett District Attorney Danny Porter said Wednesday.
The ongoing investigation appears most focused on Bongiovanni, who was McDonald’s supervisor.
“There’s a lot more going on in Bongiovanni’s case,” Porter said.
Bongiovanni’s attorney, Mike Puglise, said his client maintains his innocence and “vigorously stands by his conduct” during the April 12th arrest of 21-year-old Demetrius Hollins. A citizen shot video of Bongiovanni punching Hollins shortly after the 21-year-old emerged from his vehicle with his hands up. He was handcuffed and on the ground when McDonald was captured on another camera phone kicking him in the head.
McDonald’s attorney could not be reached for comment.
Gwinnett Police Chief Butch Ayers promptly fired the two officers, saying there was “no excuse for behavior like this.”
Justin Miller, Hollins’ attorney, said he is hopeful additional charges will be forthcoming, adding “there were multiple violations of my client’s civil rights.”
Hollins, pulled over for not having a license plate and changing lanes multiple times without signaling, was interviewed by Gwinnett police investigators on Tuesday. Hollins told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Bongiovanni pulled out a Taser and told him to get out of the car after he reached for his cell phone.
“The only way I could protect myself was to have video footage because of the incident before,” he said Wednesday. Hollins said he recognized Bongiovanni soon after the sergeant appeared at his door.
“(Bongiovanni) grabbed me by the neck and pulled me out of the car and slammed me on my car,” Hollins said of the August interaction. “From my car, he picked me up again because (the vehicle) was rolling and that’s when he slammed me on his car and told me ‘stop resisting, stop resisting.’”
Bongiovanni and McDonald then came back with guns pointed in his face, threatening to break his jaw, Hollins said.
According to Bongiovanni’s report on the August arrest, Hollins had a .380 gun with one bullet underneath his seat.
“We both struggled to place Hollins in handcuffs as he twisted his body, pulled his arms from us and physically resisted arrest,” said Bongiovanni, referring to himself and McDonald.
Puglise said Bongiovanni insists Hollins was also resisting arrest during the April 12th incident.
Hollins tells a different story, one seemingly corroborated by the video. He recalled getting out of his car with his hands up when Bongiovanni hit him. (According to Puglise, his client did not punch Hollins but rather struck him with his elbow, “an FBI-taught defensive tactic.”)
“He hit me and from that hit he Tased me in the back,” said Hollins, who added that he was Tased a second time before McDonald, with his gun drawn, stomped him in the head.
During his 19 years with Gwinnett police Bongiovanni reported 67 use of force incidents, many of which involved his Taser or his fists. He was accused of excessive force on five separate occasions, including the April 12th arrest of Hollins, but never found guilty by Gwinnett’s internal affairs department until now. 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 four use-of-force cases — three of them with Bongiovanni.
Criminal charges against police officers are rare. And those that are charged face better than even odds of acquittal, said Bowling Green State University criminologist Philip Stinson, who maintains a database of arrested officers.
In Georgia, from 2005-2012, there were 275 cases involving law enforcement arrests for incidents on duty and off (such as incidents of domestic violence). Of those cases, only 36 percent resulted in convictions, Stinson said.
Omnipresent video has changed the equation somewhat, he said, but not as much as you’d think.
“Police no longer own the narrative,” Stinson said, but still get the benefit of the doubt.
Bongiovanni and McDonald turned themselves in to the Gwinnett County jail Thursday and bonded out. Bond was set at $15,000 each.