Man beaten by Gwinnett County police files suit

Attorneys Justin Miller (left) and Chris Stewart speak to members of the press as Demetrius Hollins (right) stands next them at Stewart Miller Simmons Trial Attorneys Offices in Atlanta on Wednesday, September 22, 2021. It’s been nearly three years since Robert McDonald and Michael Bongiovanni, both white, were caught on tape forcibly arresting Demetrius Hollins, who is African American. The officers were subsequently fired and criminally charged. Bongiovanni reached a plea deal last summer, agreeing to testify in McDonald’s trial in order to avoid prison. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Attorneys Justin Miller (left) and Chris Stewart speak to members of the press as Demetrius Hollins (right) stands next them at Stewart Miller Simmons Trial Attorneys Offices in Atlanta on Wednesday, September 22, 2021. It’s been nearly three years since Robert McDonald and Michael Bongiovanni, both white, were caught on tape forcibly arresting Demetrius Hollins, who is African American. The officers were subsequently fired and criminally charged. Bongiovanni reached a plea deal last summer, agreeing to testify in McDonald’s trial in order to avoid prison. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Demetrius Hollins says he wants his lawsuit to send a message to police.

On Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Atlanta, the Gwinnett County man sued the county, the former police chief, and the two cops who assaulted him in 2017.

Sgt. Michael Bongiovanni had pulled Hollins over for a license plate issue, and shortly after Hollins exited the car with his hands up, the sergeant punched him in the face, bystander video showed. As Hollins lay facedown, apparently not resisting, officer Robert McDonald ran up and stomped Hollins’ head.

“I don’t want anyone else to experience the pain and horror I did,” Hollins said. “My hope is that this lawsuit serves as a reminder that members of law enforcement need to treat people with respect. I shouldn’t be receiving justice simply because of a video.”

The video tore across the internet with people throughout the U.S. holding it up as an example of brutality against Blacks by white police.

The lawsuit accuses Gwinnett police leaders of ignoring a pattern of excessive force and falsified reports that should have raised alarm about both officers, particularly when they worked together.

“(Then-Police Chief Butch Ayers) and the county had knowledge that Bongiovanni and McDonald had a history of using excessive force when responding to calls together,” the lawsuit says, “but nevertheless took no action to provide additional training, counseling, or discipline to either officer, and further took no action to restrict either of them from responding to calls together.”

The Police Department didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Former police chief Ayers, now executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, sent this statement: “Although I disagree with many of the allegations made in the complaint, the matter is under litigation and as such, I am not able to provide any further comment at this time.”

In Bongiovanni’s 18 years at the agency, the suit alleges, his use-of-force reports often portrayed him deploying his Taser or punching people in the face to “gain compliance” — even when it wasn’t clear why the person was considered a physical threat. Still, he was never disciplined.

For him, McDonald and others, Gwinnett police leadership “rubber-stamped” questionable use-of-force instances for years, according to the lawsuit, filed on Hollins’ behalf by civil rights attorney L. Chris Stewart.

In another case, according to the lawsuit, McDonald, at a supervisor’s suggestion, claimed in a report that a man had been injured when police found him. But officers had, in fact, beaten him severely, the lawsuit says.

Bongiovanni and McDonald were fired after the video of Hollins’ assault went viral. The chief called it disturbing.

A grand jury subsequently indicted both officers.

Bongiovanni pleaded no contest in 2019 to aggravated assault and was sentenced to six months in a jail work-release program, followed by five months of house arrest.

McDonald was convicted by a jury and sentenced to 10 years’ probation with the first 11 months on house arrest.

Hollins’ lawsuit asks for a jury to determine what he’s owed in damages.

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