Two white police officers in Gwinnett County, Georgia, were kicked off the force Thursday, after videos surfaced showing them beating a black motorist during a Wednesday traffic stop, CNN reported.
The videos show Sgt. Michael Bongiovanni punching Demetrius Hollins as he exited his vehicle with his raised above his head. Later, Officer Robert McDonald is seen kicking what appeared to be a compliant Hollins as he was handcuffed and lying on his stomach in the middle of a roadway. A booking photo of Hollins show his nose and lip bloodied from the encounter.
Both Bongiovanni and McDonald have been relieved of duty, and a criminal investigation is already underway, ABC News reported.
The Gwinnett County police department in Lawrenceville, Georgia, located about 30 miles outside of downtown Atlanta, took rare and swift action against McDonald and Bongiovanni. McDonald had "stepped outside the guiding principles of our agency," the department said in a statement released after the first video surfaced. It shows McDonald getting a running start before kicking the handcuffed Hollins.
A second video, captured on a separate bystander's smartphone, showed Bongiovanni punching Hollins in the head after he obeyed commands to exit his vehicle with his hands raised.
"We do not tolerate actions that are not consistent with our core values or state law," the department's statement read. Gwinnett County police also called the video "very disturbing" and said it "confirmed that the force used was unnecessary and excessive."
In an interview with NBC News on Friday, Hollins said he was trying to record his interaction with Bongiovanni. "He start[ed] shoving me in my car and telling me that I was never going to have a video, that I was never going to make the phone call to my mom," Hollins said. "When I had my hands up, that's when he punched me in the face."
The U.S. Department of Justice has filed federal criminal civil rights charges against other police officers displaying similar behavior. In July, a former St. Louis Metropolitan Police officer received a 52-month prison sentence for "depriving an arrestee of his civil rights by assaulting him and forcing a gun into his mouth while the victim was handcuffed," according to the DOJ.
In October, a former sheriff's deputy in Bullitt County, Kentucky, was sentenced to 27 months in prison for "willfully depriving a county resident of his constitutional rights" in retaliation for being insulted. According to a DOJ press release, the deputy was accused of entering the resident's home without permission, tasing him in the back, arresting him without probable cause and charging him with crimes he did not commit. As a result of the ordeal, the victim sat in jail for weeks and lost his job.
In Hancock County, West Virginia, a former sheriff's deputy received an 18-month prison sentence in January "for using excessive force against an arrestee" while the victim was in handcuffs in the lobby of the sheriff's office. Video surveillance showed the deputy had "forced the arrestee face-first into a brick wall, slammed the arrestee's head into the wall and then punched the arrestee in the back of the head with a closed fist."
But even while some officers are held accountable for excessive use of force, it's unclear how pervasive the unlawful use of force is among U.S. police departments. As Attorney General Jeff Sessions moves to de-emphasize reform that might address the issue of police brutality, it's unlikely the picture will become clearer anytime soon. Further, the FBI's Bureau of Justice Statistics has not been able to reliably track such incidents year-to-year.
The last federal report of citizens' complaints over the use of force, released in 2006, recorded just 5% of all agencies and 59% of officers at "large state and local law enforcement agencies." In 2002, departments and agencies included in the report received 26,556 citizen complaints over the use of force. One-third of force complaints that year were deemed "unfounded," while 23% of accused officers were exonerated. Just 8% of accusations were "sustained."
The seemingly low rate of discipline for officers over the use of excessive force is why Hollins' case has drawn the attention of the Black Lives Matter chapter for the Greater Atlanta area, activists said.
"This is why we take to the streets and scream #BlackLivesMatter," the group said in a Facebook post after the first video of the incident was released. "It's because American police officers have ZERO regard for black lives, they beat us, shoot and kill us without a blink of an eye and the biggest problem is, it all goes UNCHALLENGED."
April 14, 2017, 1:45 p.m. Eastern: This story has been updated.