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Gwinnett police — slowly — rolling out body-worn cameras

The Gwinnett County Police Department continues to slowly roll out body cameras for its officers.

It will likely take another six months or so for the department to be covered as planned, a department spokeswoman said this week. At that point, it will have been nearly two years since the controversial traffic stop that helped spark a fresh push for the devices at one of metro Atlanta’s largest law enforcement agencies.

“We didn’t want to do it all at once,” Cpl. Michele Pihera said, “so that we could make sure the transition went smoothly with regards to wear, device, and data storage.”

Pihera said this week that about 250 Gwinnett officers are now equipped with body worn cameras, the technology that criminal justice advocates and law enforcement groups both believe has the potential to increase accountability and improve relationships between police and the community. Another 200-plus officers will receive cameras — and the necessary eight hours of related training — in the coming months, Pihera said.

New recruits are issued cameras straight out of the academy, she said. She characterized the overall process as a “slow roll-out.”

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Gwinnett, which has an approved staff of nearly 800 officers, first started looking at body cameras in the aftermath of the controversial 2014 police shooting of an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Mo., and several similar fatal shootings by police across the country. The push for the widespread use of cameras in Gwinnett was renewed following an April 2017 incident in which two county officers hit and kicked a black motorist, Demetrius Hollins, during a traffic stop.

The officers — Sgt. Michael Bongiovanni and Master Police Officer Robert McDonald — were fired and charged only after bystander cellphone videos of the incident surfaced.

Christine Koehler, a local defense attorney, believes the police department should’ve had body cameras “years ago,” to protect both police officers and those they come into contact with.

“Body cams protect officers against false accusations of misconduct,” Koehler said, “and they protect motorists like Mr. Hollins from officers like Michael Bongiovanni and Robert McDonald. Can you imagine the outcome for Mr. Hollins if someone hadn’t recorded his encounter with Officers Bongiovanni and McDonald?”

The criminal case against Bongiovanni and McDonald is still pending. A motions hearing is scheduled next month.

Following the incident, Gwinnett County police Chief Butch Ayers said body cameras could be expected by the end of 2017. The county’s Board of Commissioners approved the purchase of body cams last September, and Ayers said at that time his department would be up and running in the “first or second quarter” of 2018.

The five-year, $4.4 million contract approved by the commission included 570 cameras for the police department (folks like detectives and administrative officials don’t necessarily need cams full-time, Pihera said). The contract also included 280 cameras for the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office, which runs the local jail and serves arrest warrants, and another 124 cameras for the Gwinnett Department of Corrections, which runs the county prison and work detail programs.

In other Gwinnett news: 

Senior students Darion and DeAndre Nelson speak about their party promotion business, Youngest Doin It', at South Gwinnett High School in Snellville, Monday, August 13, 2018. In June 2018, the twin brothers were awarded $2,500 at the inaugural Youth Entrepreneurs Summit Big Idea National Competition. This competition took place in Wichita, Kansas. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

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