Two suburban Atlanta police officers who were fired after cell phone footage captured them punching and kicking a motorist now face criminal charges.
Former Gwinnett County Police Sgt. Michael Bongiovanni, 42, and Officer Robert McDonald, 25, were charged Wednesday with violation of oath of office, a felony, and misdemeanor battery.
The felony charge is punishable by up to five years in prison.
The two officers turned themselves in to authorities on Thursday, as required by the Gwinnett County District Attorney’s office. They were both released after each posted a $15,000 bond.
“The police department and its employees will continue to serve the citizens while maintaining our core values and highest level of professionalism,” police Chief Butch Ayers said Wednesday in a statement.
The department, terminated the pair less than 24 hours after videos shot by witnesses emerged of the April 12 traffic stop.
Officer maintains his innocence
Bongiovanni’s attorney, Michael J. Puglise, said his client stands by his actions, and “maintains his innocence,” and plans to turn himself in Thursday.
“Anytime a fellow police officer is charged with a crime, it’s a disappointment. It is a stain on his 20 years of stellar performance of protecting and serving the citizens of Gwinnett County,” Puglise said in a statement. “He respects the District Attorney’s office and understand they have a job to do. He also respects rule of law, and Sgt. Bongiovanni will defend himself and actions regarding that day.”
Bongiovanni has appealed his termination. According to Puglise, Bongiovanni maintains that he followed proper police procedure he received during training.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether McDonald had an attorney. CNN tried to contact him after the charges were announced.
The incident began when Bongiovanni pulled over Demetrius Hollins in a routine traffic stop, according to Ayers.
Bongiovanni wrote in his report that the vehicle didn’t have a license plate and kept going as he tried to pull it over. The officer said the vehicle appeared to stall, and he got out to talk to the driver and could smell marijuana. He wrote that Hollins was acting strange and started yelling, “I need my mom.”
“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,” the officer wrote in the incident report.
The officer claimed he was forced to use his Taser on Hollins and handcuffed him while he was on the ground. He also wrote that he recalled detaining the same motorist in an earlier traffic stop and had recovered a loaded gun.
Second cell phone video
A cell phone video shot by a witness surfaced on April 12. In it, McDonald, who was assisting Bongiovanni, emerged from off screen and kicked Hollis while he was on the ground.
During the investigation, a second video shot from a different angle by another witness surfaced. It showed Bongiovanni approaching Hollins, who was still inside the car. As Hollins got out of the vehicle with his hands up, the officer punched him in the face.
As Hollins left jail with a bloodied face a day after the incident, he told CNN affiliate WSB-TV in Atlanta, “All I can say is, I wish this had never happened to me.”
The department’s internal affairs had questioned the officers about their actions, Ayers said at the time.
McDonald was forthcoming, saying he was wrong for kicking Hollins, officials said. But Bongiovanni said in written documents and in interviews that a struggle occurred between him and Hollins, the police chief said.
Bongiovanni was fired for his actions and lying to investigators, Ayers said.
Bongiovanni was a 19-year-member of the force. McDonald joined the force in 2013.
Shortly after they were fired, the county solicitor general dismissed 89 cases in which the two were the principal officers or necessary witnesses.