Recently released cellphone videos showing two Gwinnett County police officers hitting a man in the face and kicking him in the head while handcuffed set off a firestorm of criticism and condemnation.
The first cellphone video that went viral clearly showed a non-resisting man on the ground with the supervisor who had just finished applying handcuffs. Then, a second officer, presumably his backup, arrived and runs over to the prone man and literally stomps on his face. The second video that went viral showed the supervisor removing the man from his car. The man is seen to place his hands above his head when the supervisor strikes him in the face with his forearm.
Here, the videos of the Gwinnett incident were clear and presented compelling evidence for the police chief to act decisively and without delay. The information both officers wrote in their reports about their use of physical force, coupled with the cellphone videos is imperative to understanding the police chief’s reasoning for taking firm, necessary and quick action to terminate the employment of both officers. With the above facts known, the chief commenced an independent criminal investigation into the actions of the two officers.
The actions taken by Chief Ayers of the Gwinnett County Police Department were administrative and involved departmental policies, procedures, and employment rules. The burden of proof in administrative cases is a “preponderance of the evidence”. This is a much-lower threshold than that required in the prosecution of a criminal case, which is “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
When any chief has clear and convincing evidence of a serious policy violation or violations of the law, they must act swiftly in administrative situations that may cause termination or reprimand. Therefore, the public should understand that not every case of alleged police misconduct can be handled as quickly as it occurred in the Gwinnett case.
A criminal investigation will generally take longer than an administrative or internal affairs investigation. Videos must be more closely examined for they may or may not accurately depict the entire circumstances of the police/citizen encounter. Also, with criminal investigations, witnesses and officers must be interviewed and an investigation once completed is reviewed by a prosecutor.
Using force, even lawful use of force, is not the desired approach law enforcement prefers to use. However, force is lawful when it is necessary, reasonable and furthers a legal police objective. If a person resists a lawful arrest, the officer may then use force to overcome that resistance. Once the resistance stops, the officer’s use of force must also stop.
The swift action and statements made by Chief Ayers clarify that such behavior is outside policy and will not be tolerated. The actions taken by Chief Ayers is one reason the Gwinnett County Police Department is deemed to be an outstanding Nationally Accredited and State Certified law enforcement agency.
Police officers in Gwinnett and in countless number of departments across the nation are doing their jobs in a professional and ethical manner. I encourage you to praise our 21st-century centurions for their commitment to professional policing and to the citizens they serve.
Frank V. Rotondo is executive director, Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police.