Former Gwinnett County police Sgt. Michael Bongiovanni (left) and Master Police Officer Robert McDonald. (Credit: Gwinnett County Police Department)
Photo: Gwinnett County Police Department
Photo: Gwinnett County Police Department

OPINION: For former cop on trial, ex-mentor becomes tor-mentor

As former Sgt. Michael Bongiovanni might tell his one-time apprentice, “Your lessons are now complete, grasshopper. Sorry how they turned out. And now I must go.”

Bongiovanni is the hulking former Gwinnett County cop who’s a prosecution witness against former Officer Robert McDonald, now on trial for stomping a motorist in the head while the man was handcuffed on the pavement.

The elder cop, with 19 years on the force, was the younger officer’s mentor and taught him the ways of policing until things went sour for them on April 12, 2017, the day they beat up a young black man after a traffic stop. Things might have gone well for the two, but a couple of videos from pesky citizens surfaced.

At the time, then-Police Chief Butch Ayers asked Bongiovanni why his report said one thing and the videos showed something else. The veteran cop told him, “It’s different on the streets.”

Yes, indeed, it is different on the streets. But things go really haywire once they move into court. Then it becomes every man for himself. In his parting lesson, Bongiovanni demonstrated to McDonald that it’s better to get on the bus first and cut a deal with prosecutors than leave it to the vagaries of a jury.

Bongiovanni last year pleaded no lo contendre to charges of felony aggravated assault and misdemeanor battery. He received six months of work release, then five months of watching Judge Judy at home, and will someday have his charges expunged as a first offender.

Michael Bongiovanni entered the plea without admitting guilt.

McDonald, meanwhile, faces the possibility of a stint in real prison.

Moreover, Bongiovanni sees himself as the victim here.

As he testified, McDonald’s defense attorney Walt Britt asked him, “Are you telling this jury you didn’t do anything wrong? That you pled simply to help your family out?”

“That’s exactly what I’m saying,” Bongiovanni said.

“And that’s what the state of Georgia allowed you to do, correct?” asked Britt.

“Yes, sir,” said the former cop.

The defense attorney then spun around and sat down, hoping the jury would soak in the disparity of punishment here.

Former Gwinnett County police Sgt. Michael Bongiovanni testifies in court at the trial of former officer Robert McDonald. (Video feed from trial.)
Photo: Video feed from trial

In one case, the veteran cop, the teacher — who delivered a brutal forearm shiver to the head of a man who had his hands up in surrender — was able to spend months watching TV at home. In the other case, the student, who stomped that same motorist seconds later, faces prison time.

Justice is not even-handed, as just about every criminal knows and as the student learns all too late.

Former Gwinnett County officer Robert McDonald in court last week. (Video feed from trial.)
Photo: Video feed from trial

The whole incident was a lesson in the absurd and also an exclamation point as to why body cameras are needed.

It all started on April 12, 2017, when Bongiovanni pulled over Demetrius Hollins, then 21, for having no license plate and not using a turn signal. The officer said that Hollins, whom he knew from a previous arrest, started struggling when he tried to get him out of the car.

Bongiovanni wrote in his report that he pulled Hollins from the car, spun him around, shocked him with a Taser, and then used a “leg sweep” to bring him to the ground, where he was then handcuffed.

McDonald then trotted up, gun in hand, grabbed Hollins’ open car door for balance and leverage, and immediately delivered a stomp to Hollins’ noggin.

Former police officer Robert McDonald and former police Sgt. Mike Bongiovanni caught on video striking and stomping a man during a traffic stop.
Photo: WSB-TV

The next day, after a video of the stomp surfaced, Chief Ayers held a news conference to announce that McDonald had been fired. The video had been shot by a motorist who sat in his vehicle behind the incident.

During the press conference, Ayers commended Bongiovanni’s honesty, mentioning four different times that the veteran cop told superiors of McDonald’s actions. And, the chief kept pointing out, the department’s investigation into the stomp was underway before the video surfaced.

So, Bongiovanni was playing by the book, except for one little thing — he somehow forgot to mention that he’d smashed Hollins in the face with his forearm as Hollins held his hands up. (Hollins testified this week in a jail uniform because he’s been arrested on felony stalking charges in an unrelated case.)

As the chief’s April 13, 2017, press conference came to a close, the second video — taken by another motorist — emerged of Bongiovanni going all Hulk Hogan. Soon, he, too, was an ex-cop.

During his recent testimony, Bongiovanni said he didn’t mention the face strike because he was up on duty for 14 hours writing reports and hadn’t gotten a chance to collect his thoughts about the incident.

At the time, Gwinnett hadn’t yet employed body cameras. They do now.

Christine Koehler, a local defense attorney, has had cases involving Bongiovanni and once told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that what her clients told her and what the cop said in his reports were often two different things.

“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?”

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Cameras do work both ways. Last week, I wrote about how body cams corroborated the Marietta Police Department’s version of events during the arrest of City Councilman Reggie Copeland, who repeatedly ignored cops’ requests to show his driver’s license, and who complained about police tactics and attitudes.

It turns out that Bongiovanni, who was like a heat-seeking missile for justice, had 66 use-of-force incidents — whether they be hands, knees, spray, Taser or metal baton — during his career. All of them were deemed justified.

Coincidentally, his 67th, the traffic stop of Demetrius Hollins, was going the same way. In fact, he was being commended as a stand-up guy.

Until the video knocked him down.

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