Two Georgia cops were fired on Thursday after video emerged of them very clearly appearing to brutally assault a black motorist. The videos themselves are shocking alone for the amount of pure unprovoked violence the two officers displayed, but there’s more to the story.
First, you have to understand that violence, though:
Here is video of Gwinnett County Police Sgt. Michael Bongiovanni punching Demetrius Hollins in the head with no apparent justification during a traffic stop on Wednesday.
As you can see, Hollins—who had been stopped previously by Bongiovanni during an incident in August of last year—had his hands up when the Sgt. attacked him.
And here is footage (at the 50-second-mark) of Officer Robert McDonald kicking Hollins in the head when he was on the ground.
Perhaps the most troubling part of this entire incident is that without the video footage, these two officers would still be on the beat instead of facing a criminal investigation. Indeed, Bongiovanni’s false police report—along, potentially, with his own lengthy record of unpunished misconduct charges—points to how the “blue wall of silence” keeps criminally bad police officers on the job often at the expense of the civil rights of minorities.
Let’s start with the false report. Here is Bongiovanni’s telling of what happened:
I ordered Hollins out of the car. He refused, grabbed his phone and literally started to scream “help me” in the phone. I drew my taser and again ordered him out. He was yelling about his mother and still ignored my verbal commands to exit. At this point Hollins had ignored my lawful commands and obstructed my investigation. I then said, “Get out. You are under arrest. Do it now or I will tase you!” Hollins turned away from me and I feared he would reach for a weapon or try to start the vehicle and drive off. In my previous encounter he reached for a loaded firearm that was under his seat.
I quickly reached into the vehicle and grabbed Hollins by his shoulder. I pulled him out and at first he put his hands up. I turned him away from me and tried to pin him between the door and the car. I ordered him to place his hands behind his back and I removed my handcuffs. Hollins refused to place his hands behind his back, spun around and began to actively resist arrest by bending at the waist and trying to push me away. I then shoved him to create distance and deployed my taser. The taser prongs struck him in the middle of his back. The prongs were close together so I touched the taser to his upper right leg to create a third point of contact. This allowed for a greater arc distance and Hollins' body locked up. I then performed a leg sweep directing him to the ground.
As for McDonald’s participation, here is how Bongiovanni described it:
Officer McDonald #1633 arrived as I backed up to catch my breath. See his supplemental for further.
With a throw-away line, Bongiovanni acknowledged Hollins’ injuries without explaining how they actually happened:
I then stood Hollins up and removed the taser prongs. Hollins had a bloody lip and nose.
Had it not been for the video, Bongiovanni’s fiction about his and McDonald’s actions would have almost certainly held up as the official account. Indeed, you need only look at Bongiovanni’s misconduct and use of force record to see how the police account is almost always the one to be believed.
The Gwinnett County Police Department released files showing that Bongiovanni had at least 67 use of force incident reports, 12 citizen misconduct complaints, and four administrative conduct investigations in the nearly 20 years he was an officer. In all of those times, he was apparently sanctioned just once. And that one time, wasn’t even for an act of misconduct against the public. (He was recommended for a demotion and ultimately a 15-day suspension in 2014 for the administrative crime of “failure to supervise and lead those under his command.”)
Looking through those internal affairs investigations into Bongiovanni's alleged public misconduct—all of which ultimately exonerated him—as well as his use of force reports makes for depressing and infuriating reading.
In multiple of the use of force reports stretching back to 1999, Bongiovanni admitted to punching suspects in the head (each event was considered lawful).
The actual misconduct complaints are even more troubling.
- In 1999, a black man alleged that Bongiovanni said this to him when he asked for the officer's name during an incident: “Here is a card, you can report me you [dumb] mother fucker get your Nigger ass out of here.” The man's account of Bongiovanni's use of the slur was backed up by another witness. (The man also said this in his official statement: “The police officer[‘s] job is to serve and protect. This officer was very rude, aggressive, boisterous, and [did] not have the right mind nor heart to be a police officer on the streets.”) Bongiovanni wrote it up differently. The complaint against Bongiovanni was not sustained.
- Earlier that same year, an unarmed Haitian man accused Bongiovanni of choking him and accused Bongiovanni's partner of choking the man’s mom after they had entered a private residence. Multiple witnesses described in almost the exact same way how one of the men had begun to use a racial epithet before cutting himself off. “God is my witness, that man almost said ‘nigger,’ I know he did,” one witness said of the incident. “He said ‘nig’ and stopped himself. He said ‘I’ll take you ni—in the house,’ just like that.” Another witness described things similarly: “He said ‘[…] I’ll arrest every, every, every, every nig’ and he, he corrected [himself], he was about to say 'nigger.'” Bongiovanni and his partner wrote it up differently. The allegations of the choking and the racial slurs were determined to be “unfounded.”
- In 2001, a Hispanic man who was never charged with a crime in the incident accused Bongiovanni of brutality after he had to go to the hospital. Bongiovanni wrote it up differently. The internal investigation found him to be exonerated.
- In 2002, a white woman who was in a car with her black boyfriend accused Bongiovanni of fondling her inner thigh with the inside of his hand during a stop frisk, pulling the elastic band on the back of her sweatpants, and breaking a purse during a search. (“He didn’t pull them far,” she said. “He, you know, he pulled enough to where you could see the top, leg part of my underwear.”) Bongiovanni and his partner wrote it up differently. The internal investigation found him to be exonerated.
- In 2003, a black man accused Bongiovanni of striking him and choking him with a baton. Bongiovanni wrote it up differently. The internal investigation found the complaint was not sustained.
- In 2004, a black man who was eventually arrested on a drug charge claimed that he had his hands on the roof of his car when Bongiovanni punched him in the head and said “don’t look at me, or I’ll shoot you.” Bongiovanni wrote it up differently. The internal investigation found him to be exonerated.
- In 2006, a black man who was being arrested claimed that Bongiovanni choke slammed him on a car, punched him twice in the face, and elbowed him twice in the head. He also claimed that Bongiovanni said “I’ll fuck you up nigger.” Bongiovanni wrote it up differently. The internal investigation found him to be exonerated.
There are more, but those are the highlights. The question is now this: If Bongiovanni was willing to lie about this misconduct incident, how many others did he lie about and how many of those “exonerations” by Gwinnett County’s internal affairs were the result of just more cases of bad cops covering for each other?