I love Atlanta. I moved here when I was 17 years old to attend Morehouse College. I got married here, my kids were born here, I bought my first house here, and it’s where I really became a man and a leader. Except for a few quick stops in California and New York, I’ve spent my entire adult life in Atlanta.
That’s part of why I am incredibly proud to see the Gwinnett County Police Department, which is here in metro Atlanta, move swiftly last week to fire two brutal police officers, Sgt. Michael Bongiovanni and Officer Robert McDonald, for assaulting a young black man, Demetrius Hollins, during a routine traffic stop.
Both Bongiovanni and McDonald took turns punching and kicking Hollins. The brother was not armed. He was not resisting arrest. He was not wanted on some violent warrant. When he was punched with a brutal blow to the face, his hands were in the air and when he was stomped in the head he was handcuffed and laying on the ground.
Had two different bystanders not thought to park their cars and film the entire encounter, I am 100% sure neither officer would’ve been fired. They would’ve concocted some story about how Demetrius Hollins resisted arrest or frightened them and how they had to use the force to protect themselves. That would’ve been a lie.
But here’s why I’m really sure these officers would’ve kept their jobs had it not been filmed – 12 different citizen complaints have been filed against Bongiovanni throughout his career that the department actually upheld. Those are 12 different times people had the courage to actually report his behavior, the department determined the complaints were valid, and the man still kept his job.
How many complaints were filed, but not sustained? His personnel files show that he has admitted to using force at least 67 times while an officer with the department, but here’s the thing – on his reports with this case, he never even reported that he bloodied Hollins’ face. He left all of that out.
In fact, after the first video of the arrest from this past Wednesday was released, and it just showed Officer McDonald kicking Hollins, the department celebrated Bongiovanni for handling the arrest appropriately. Little did they know that another person was filming the first stages of the arrest where Bongiovanni, who has been with the department for over 20 years, was brutal himself.
So much about the videos are deplorable, but what shocks the conscience is that Hollins truly didn’t do anything to warrant even any tough behavior from the officers. They began brutalizing him for no good reason moments after they pulled him out of the car. And they did so like two men who knew good and well that they could and would get away with such behavior. If anyone thinks that Demetrius Hollins is the first black man these two officers has brutalized, I have a bridge to sell you. They were so cavalier with their actions, it almost seemed fun to them.
But firing these two officers is simply not enough. They must be arrested for assault, battery, falsifying records, and anything else that applies to their actions. What they did was not simply a violation of department policy, what they did was criminal.
So few officers are ever held accountable for their most brutal actions that it could give the nation the wrong impression that officers are actually allowed to do what these two men did. They aren’t. When police officers are wearing their uniforms and assault someone, particularly in the flagrant and unnecessary way that they did to Demetrius Hollins, that’s a crime. Plain and simple. A badge does not give officers permission to commit a crime.
I’ll close with this thought…
The Gwinnett County Police Department did what few departments do. They fired two bad cops. They should’ve been fired for other incidents a long time ago, but the department did the right thing here, it’s just not enough – not at all. The men and women hired to uphold and enforce the law, should be held to the absolute highest standards of the law. When they break the law, they must be arrested, tried, and convicted – just like everyone else.
Nothing justifies what these two men did and until they are fully held accountable, just will be incomplete.