Former Gwinnett officers indicted for traffic stop beating

Former Sgt. Michael Bongiovanni, left, and former officer Robert McDonald

Former Gwinnett County Police Department Sgt. Michael Bongiovanni, who was seen on video beating an unarmed black man during a traffic stop in April 2017, will not serve jail time for the assault, but will spend six months in Gwinnett’s work-release program.

Bongiovanni pleaded nolo contendere to aggravated assault and battery Tuesday, more than two years after the April 12 incident. He and his co-defendant, former Master Police Officer Robert McDonald, were indicted in February 2018.

According to prosecutors and previous reports by the Daily Post, the April 12, 2017, events unfolded after Bongiovanni stopped Demetrius Hollins, who was driving a red Acura on Sugarloaf Parkway.

“Bongiovanni put out on police radio communications that the Acura did not have a tag. Minutes later, former Sgt. Bongiovanni requested additional police officers to respond and subsequently transmitted that he was involved in a fight,” prosecutors said. “Approximately 12 seconds after Bongiovanni put out that he was in a fight, he radioed that he was okay and the subject was in custody.”

In his report, Bongiovanni wrote that Hollins had not stopped the car immediately, though once he did and Bongiovanni approached him, he “began acting strange.”

“Sgt. Bongiovanni reported that he recognized Mr. Hollins was in a previous incident in August of 2016 involving marijuana and a gun in the car. He claimed that is why he called for backup,” prosecutors said. “Sgt. Bongiovanni reported ordering Mr. Hollins from the vehicle but that he refused to get out of the car. Sgt. Bongiovanni reported that he pulled Hollins out of the car by his shoulder and that he put his hands up.”

Bongiovanni said in the report that Hollins resisted arrest, refusing to put his hands behind his back and allegedly trying to push Bongiovanni away, prosecutors said.

“Sgt. Bongiovanni reported that he tasered Demetrius Hollins and conducted a leg sweep. Sgt. Bongiovanni further reported that he ordered Hollins to put his hands behind his back after the taser cycle but Hollins refused, rolled over and attempted to get up,” prosecutors said. “Sgt. Bongiovanni reported handcuffing Demetrius Hollins. Former Officer Robert McDonald had arrived, but his action were not mentioned in Bongiovanni’s report.”

What Bongiovanni didn’t mention in the report was that as Hollins had his hands up, he hit the man in the face. He also failed to mention that McDonald allegedly ran up to the men with his gun drawn, stomped Hollins in the head and then put his gun to Hollins’ head.

McDonald has maintained his innocence and his trial is pending.

Shortly after Hollins’ arrest, residents started calling the Gwinnett County Police Department’s 911 center, complaining about use of excessive force by an officer, prosecutors said.

“Witnesses calling 911 reported seeing the officer strike the motorist while the driver had his hands up. These witnesses were interviewed by Gwinnett County Police Department (investigators),” prosecutors said. “Witnesses reported seeing the motorist being struck by an officer, later identified as Sgt. Bongiovanni. Witnesses also reported seeing the second officer, later identified as McDonald, running up with his gun drawn, stomping Hollins in the head with his foot and then placing his gun to Hollins’ head.”

Residents who filmed the beating later posted the videos on social media, which contradicted some of what Bongiovanni had written in his report.

Gwinnett County Police Chief A.A. “Butch” Ayers fired both the men a day after the incident, saying at the time that he was “sick” about the events that occurred.

“I’m literally sick about it,” Ayers said. “Literally sick. These aren’t the standards that we have and this is not the culture that we promote within this department.”

Bongiovanni and McDonald were initially charged with battery and violation of oath of office, though Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter added the aggravated assault charge in the February 2018 indictment.

That charge stemmed from McDonald pointing a gun at Hollins, the indictment said. The bill also included violation of oath of office charges, a “false official certificate of writing” charge against Bongiovanni for allegedly lying about the incident and several battery charges against both men for kicking Hollins while he was handcuffed on the ground.

By entering the nolo contendere plea, whereby a defendant accepts punishment as if it was a guilty plea but does not admit guilt, Bongiovanni avoided the other charges.

Gwinnett County Superior Court Judge Warren Davis sentenced Bongiovanni to 10 years probation with six months to be served in work release followed by five months in home confinement for the aggravated assault charged, and 12 months probation to be served concurrently for the battery charge.

Bongiovanni will spend his work release sentence at the Gwinnett County Comprehensive Correctional Complex, where he will spend his days at work and evenings at the facility. The program is a “cost effective semi-incarceration” alternative to jail time, the county’s website says.

Bongiovanni must testify against McDonald if that case goes to trial, and will have to wear an ankle monitor while on house arrest.

In recommending the sentence, prosecutors “weighed multiple factors including the defendant’s 19-year career with law enforcement, the injuries to Demetrius Hollins and the need for justice for Hollins and the citizens of the County.”

Crime Reporter

Isabel is a crime and health reporter for the Gwinnett Daily Post. She graduated from Emory University in 2016 with a B.A. in international studies. She is originally from the Boston area.