Firing of Gwinnett cops: Decisive justice or rush to judgment?

Videos that surfaced Thursday showing two white Gwinnett County police officers punching and kicking an African-American suspect came as no shock to those who believe excessive force by law enforcement is a major problem. But what happened next surprised just about everybody.

Gwinnett Police Chief Butch Ayers fired Sgt. Michael Bongiovanni and Master Officer Robert McDonald almost immediately after the videos went viral, saying there was there was "no excuse for behavior like this."

Attorney Mawuli Davis, who has represented several clients who lost their lives at the hands of police, said the chief’s decisive response was a welcome change from how such cases are normally handled.

How unusual was Gwinnett's swift response? On the same day the incident involving Bongiovanni and McDonald occurred, video of an encounter between a suspected jaywalker and a Sacramento police officer also went viral. There, the suspect was thrown to the ground and struck in the face at least a dozen times by the officer. Amid protests demanding his dismissal, the officer instead was placed on paid administrative leave pending an internal investigation — a common reaction by law enforcement agencies, including in Georgia.

“Things have been so out of balance that when a police chief does the right thing we’re expected to applaud,” Davis said. “He was just doing his job. We need some more police officials to do the same thing.”

Others cautioned against a rush to judgment. Atlanta lawyer Lance LoRusso, who has represented many officers in police shooting cases, said the camera doesn’t always tell the whole story.

“Any type of confrontation is never going to look good on video,” LoRusso said. “I get very nervous when careers are at risk and people act so quickly. I don’t see what the rush is, unless it’s to get good publicity.”

A County in Flux

That the racially-charged incident played out in Gwinnett County is perhaps not surprising. Gwinnett is a poster child for a changing South. It is the most diverse county in Georgia and among the most diverse in the Southeast. In 1990, Gwinnett was nearly 90 percent white. Today, whites account for about 39 percent of the population. And by 2050, experts believe the county will be just 14 percent white. An influx of Asians and Hispanics have helped fuel that transformation. And with that change has come tensions.

County Commissioner Tommy Hunter has been targeted by sustained protests after calling U.S. Rep. John Lewis "a racist pig" in a Facebook post back in January. In Sept. 2015 Sheriff Butch Conway courted controversy when he called protesters decrying excessive use of force "hate groups" and "domestic terrorists with an agenda." 

“I’m angry that the fringe groups who started the culture of police hatred have widened the racial divide in our country by alleging that officer involved shootings stem from racism,” Conway wrote.

But Ayers, a 30 year veteran of the force before he was named chief in 2014, is a far less combative leader than Conway. And his decision was helped along by video evidence which left little doubt about what happened at that traffic stop near Lawrenceville.

In each video, the suspect, Demetrius Hollins, did not appear to be resisting arrest. Hollins was pulled over shortly after 4 p.m. Wednesday for not having a license plate and changing lanes multiple times without signaling, according to an incident report. Hollins’ did not pull over but his car eventually stalled out.

Bongiovanni punched Hollins shortly after the 21-year-old emerged from his vehicle with his hands up. He was handcuffed and on the ground when McDonald kicked him in the head.

“The threat has been stopped. There was no need to continue using force,” said retired Atlanta Police deputy chief Lou Arcangeli.

Hollins’ lawyer, Justin Miller, told The AJC that Bongiovanni also punched Hollins during a traffic stop last August.

When Bongiovanni pulled Hollins over Wednesday, Hollins remembered him, his attorney said, and reached for his cell phone to record their interaction.

“The truth would never have come to life without these videos,” Hollins said Saturday. “No one would have believed that I did nothing to provoke an assault I suffered at the hands of these two Gwinnett County police officers. Even now, there are still many people who see me as a criminal, not as a college student or as a son.”

Plaudits for the chief

In Gwinnett, the decision to fire the officers was widely lauded.

“You can’t minimize what a big deal this is in helping restore trust in the police,” said attorney Christine Koehler. “It was unusual for (Ayers) to move this quickly but it was welcome.”

Relations between the county’s African-American community and local law enforcement have been “lukewarm,” said Gwinnett NAACP President Renita Hamilton Edmondson.

But Edmondson said Ayers’ swift response sent a message that police “can get it right.” The chief declined The AJC’s request for an interview.

“This is a step in the right direction,” Edmondson said. “We have a chief who made it clear that this type of racial injustice will not be tolerated.”

Still, some wonder if McDonald and Bongiovanni would still have their jobs if not for the video shot by witnesses. Gwinnett is one of the last metro area departments to be equipped with body cameras; Ayers expects that will happen by year’s end.

Bongiovanni had 67 use-of-force incidents in his 18 years with Gwinnett police. Until this week, none had resulted in any sanctions. Until this week, none had been captured on video.

“If someone didn’t videotape it I guarantee this would be just another case that we wouldn’t have heard anything about,” said Chris Stewart, an Atlanta attorney who has represented families of the victims in several high-profile police shootings.

His clients have included the family of Walter Scott, a black North Charleston man shot from behind by a white police officer. Video of the incident stirred worldwide outrage and the officer, Michael Slager, was immediately fired and charged with murder. Despite the footage, a jury could not reach a verdict in Slager’s trial late last year.

Video has also figured prominently in the Jan. 26th fatal shooting of Deaundre Phillips outside an Atlanta police annex. Surveillance cameras clearly contradicted the initial account attributed to Officer Yasim Abdulahad, leading Stewart, who represents Phillips' family, to call for his dismissal.

“What happened in Gwinnett shows that action can be taken quickly,” Stewart said. “You don’t have to drag these cases out for months and months.”

Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields said Phillips’ shooting is still being investigated by the GBI “and therefore the department has not had an opportunity to review the evidence related to this incident in its entirety.”

“Following the conclusion of the GBI investigation, the department will conclude its internal investigation, which will include a statement by Abdulahad,” Shields told The AJC this week. “Any discipline which may result from this incident will be based on the aforementioned.”

‘Different out on the streets’

Bongiovanni took no responsibility for punching Hollins, according to Ayers. In fact, his attorney, Mike Pugliese, said he didn't even throw a punch.

“It was an elbow strike, an FBI-taught defensive tactic,” Pugliese told Channel 2 Action News.

Semantics aside, some worry that a rush to look responsive when video footage is involved shortchanges law enforcement and their right to due process.

But Arcangeli, the former APD deputy chief, said the videos capturing Bongiovanni’s punch and McDonald’s kicks placed the burden of proof squarely on the officers.

“(Ayers) seemed to have the benefit of clarity,” he said. “Video is not always that cut and dried.”

For his part, Ayers was blunt and unapologetic about his decision.

At a press conference Thursday he characterized the beating of Hollins as “an embarrassment” and spoke about the need to repair trust with the community.

“This is not what we expect from our officers, and we aren’t going to put up with it,” Ayers said.

-Staff Writer Dan Klepal contributed to this report

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