Two white Gwinnett County police officers fired for punching and stomping a black motorist following a traffic stop had a run-in with the same man last summer, records reviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution show.
The records paint a more complex portrait of the brutal interaction between the three men, which was captured Wednesday on separate cell phone videos that have been viewed tens of thousands of times.
OVER THE LINE: Police shootings in Georgia
Master Officer Robert McDonald and his supervisor, Sgt. Michael Bongiovanni, had arrested Demetrius Hollins in August for obstructing an officer and possessing less than one ounce of marijuana, a police report shows. Hollins’ lawyer Justin Miller told The AJC that Bongiovanni, who was shown on video punching his 21-year-old client in the face on Wednesday, also struck Hollins during that first encounter.
According to Bongiovanni’s report on the Aug. 2016 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.
He made no mention of punching Hollins. But Bongiovanni’s personnel file reveals 67 incidents involving use of force in nearly two decades with Gwinnett police. He was involved in 19 use of force cases in his first three years on the job. Many of those involved Taser use. None were upheld.
Gwinnett attorney Christine Koehler said she handled several cases involving Bongiovanni over the years and was not surprised by Wednesday’s events.
“His stories didn’t match up to what people told us,” Koehler said. “But without video, it was always the citizen’s word versus the officer’s word.”
Bongiovanni neglected to mention punching Hollins during their latest encounter both in his incident report and when interviewed by internal affairs.
“In this case, what we saw on video, that punch was unreasonable and unnecessary,” Gwinnett Police Chief Butch Ayers said.
When asked about the discrepancies between his account and the video evidence, Ayers said Bongiovanni told him, “It’s different on the streets.”
Bongiovanni’s attorney told Channel 2 Action News that what was seen on the video is not excessive force.
“He (Bongiovannit) says, ‘I don’t recall throwing a punch.’ Because he didn’t throw a punch. It was an elbow strike, an FBI-taught defensive tactic,” attorney Mike Pugliese said.
As a result of the high-profile firings, Gwinnett’s solicitor general dismissed 89 cases worked by Bongiovanni and McDonald. Rosanna Szabo said Friday she is dropping all cases in which they were either the principal officer or a necessary witness. Sixty-three cases were dismissed in Gwinnett County Recorder’s Court and 26 in Gwinnett County State Court. All were traffic or misdemeanor offenses.
The two officers worked together frequently. McDonald, in his third year with Gwinnett police, was involved in three use of force cases before Wednesday — two of them with Bongiovanni, his supervisor.
Miller said his client remembered Bongiovanni when he was pulled over Wednesday. Fearful of another violent confrontation, Hollins reached for his cell phone to record their interaction, Miller said.
Events then escalated rapidly. When Bongiovanni pulled Hollins over near Lawrenceville, Hollins remembered him, his attorney said, and reached for his cell phone to record their interaction.
“That was the catalyst for everything,” Miller said, adding that his client and Bongiovanni were jostling for possession of the phone when the sergeant pulled him out of the car.
According to Miller, Bongiovanni told his client, “If you live to be 100 years old you’re going to remember my face.”
The punch was shown in a second video released late Thursday afternoon. Earlier that day, McDonald was fired after a video was posted on social media that showed him kicking Hollins in the head. Hollins was handcuffed and lying on the ground at the time.
“He wasn’t resisting at all (on Wednesday),” Miller said.
Initially, Bongiovanni was not accused of wrongdoing and was, instead, praised for reporting McDonald’s actions. But he was fired within two hours after the second video surfaced.
“We’ve put a lot of money into recruiting, training and equipping them, and there is literally no excuse for behavior like this,” Ayers said. “This is not what we teach in the academy. This is not what we expect from our officers, and we aren’t going to put up with it.”
Koehler said the incident underscores the importance of police body cameras, which Ayers said his department will be equipped with by year’s end.
“For Gwinnett to not have them has really been a problem,” Koehler said.
Bongiovanni was nearly demoted in 2014 after an internal misconduct investigation found that he was leaving his team, charged with highway interdiction, to exercise or to visit his wife. According to his 2013-14 evaluation, Bongiovanni often went home early without prior approval.
He was suspended 15 days and prohibited from moonlighting for 45 days.
“By his actions, and possibly by his words, he portrayed to (his team) that the rules do not apply to some people and they are flexible,” Bongiovanni’s supervisor wrote.
Miller said he is waiting for the Gwinnett police investigations into McDonald and Bongiovanni’s conduct to conclude before filing a civil lawsuit. Both officers face possible criminal charges.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.