When Butch Ayers took over as chief of the Gwinnett County Police Department — about two months after the powder keg in Ferguson, Missouri, exploded — he knew he needed to focus on accountability and building better relationships with the community.
He wanted to build trust, particularly with Gwinnett’s many minority communities. He made outreach a priority. He began rolling out body cameras and asked the GBI to handle the investigation of any officer-involved shootings. He felt like progress was being made.
The ugly scene on April 12, 2017, could’ve wiped it all away.
Bystanders with cellphones captured video of two Gwinnett officers assaulting an unarmed black motorist during a traffic stop on Sugarloaf Parkway. One struck Demetrius Hollins in the face. The other kicked Hollins in the head as he lay on the ground.
As the video began circulating on social media and made its way to the department, Ayers was faced with a decision — and a chance to practice what he’d been trying to preach.
He quickly fired Sgt. Michael Bongiovanni and Master Police Officer Robert McDonald.
“We did the right thing and we didn’t hem and haw about it. We held our people accountable,” Ayers said this month, a few days before his retirement. “I think that maintained that level of trust within the community.”
Plenty of people were plenty mad that the incident happened, and understandbly so — but the way it was handled said a lot about the direction of the Gwinnett County Police Department.
The most vital mission for Ayers’ replacement, Tom Doran, will be continuing the work of building a better relationship with Georgia’s most diverse citizenry.
“We can’t do it without the support of the community,” said Doran, a longtime GCPD veteran who took over as chief Nov. 15. “And I think respecting and understanding that that is fragile, that we have to constantly maintain that trust and that support, those are the things that are not going to change.”
A change at the top
State Rep. Pedro Marin, a Democrat from Lawrenceville and one of the first Latinos ever elected to Georgia’s legislature, called Ayers’ work as chief “tremendous in a time like this.”
“He went out to the community,” Marin said. “He got his officers to go and do ‘coffee with a cop.’ They went to different establishments, Latino, Asian, Korean bakeries. That’s a testament of the kind of vision that the chief had.”
In addition to the regular “coffee with a cop” and “pizza with police” programs, GCPD has hosted citizen police academies for clergy and young people. It helps host an annual multicultural festival and the county’s public safety fall festival.
Ayers has spoken to just about every community group that will have him. He and Doran alike say they encourage officers to think of any encounter with the public as a chance to make a positive impression.
“Not to disparage any previous chiefs, but I think in the past it was just business as usual, let’s keep it moving,” said Curtis Clemons, who spent 30 years with GCPD before retiring as an assistant chief earlier this year. “Sometimes you have to stop and take a look at yourself and your department and say, ‘What can we do to better serve our community?’”
None of that is to suggest that things are perfect. Relationships between law enforcement and their communities will always be a work in progress.
Penny Poole, president of the Gwinnett County NAACP, is not apt to give the police department much credit for its response to the 2017 brutality incident. She’s more concerned about the fact that it happened at all.
“If those (bystanders) did not have their phones rolling when Demetrius Hollins was beat down in the street in Gwinnett, it would have been his word against theirs,” Poole said. “So before there’s any real change, root causes have to be addressed.”
The Hollins traffic stop happened before body-worn cameras were fully rolled out for Gwinnett officers. Every member of the uniform division with a rank of lieutenant and below now wears a camera, Ayers said.
That’s good and well, Poole said. But she believes incidents like the Hollins case show that a deeper look at things like implicit bias and outright racism still need to be addressed by law enforcement in Gwinnett and across the country.
“It’s not about black, white or blue, it’s about establishing a culture that will be tolerable of everyone,” Poole said.
Poole and Marin both said hiring officers that better reflect Gwinnett’s diverse population would go a long way toward creating a better culture within the department — and a better relationship with the world outside of it.
Under Ayers’ leadership, GCPD essentially doubled its overall hiring rate by ramping up recruitment efforts and securing a steady stream of pay raises. The now-former chief said the department has also made some headway in diversifying the force.
But as of early November, about 78% of Gwinnett’s 764 officers were white. The county’s population is only about 36% white.
Doran hopes to make more progress on that front, and to continue Ayers’ other community outreach efforts. He’s been with GCPD since starting as an officer in 1993, making him the fifth-straight Gwinnett chief to have risen all the way through the ranks.
He knows that good police departments are built from the ground up.
“I hope the citizens don’t even realize there’s a change at the top,” he said. “It’s not about the person that sits in this seat, it’s about the men and women that are out there doing the job. You’re only gonna be as good as your folks out there doing the job.”
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