A New Exhibit in the Case for the Black Lives Matter Movement

Another cell phone video of egregious police brutality illustrates the need for the very policy reforms that the grassroots movement has urged.

Peter Nicholls / Reuters

The sight of a police officer interacting with a member of the public causes a significant if unknown number of Americans to reach for their cell phones and start recording, just in case. It isn’t that they believe all cops to be abusive or dishonest––just enough to warrant vigilance. “Take your phone out, take your phone out!” a Georgia resident told a companion as they watched Sergeant Michael Bongiovanni of Gwinnett County Police Department. He was standing by a sedan during a traffic stop.

This is known because the companion had already begun recording the encounter on her own. It’s lucky they were suspicious. Demetrius Hollins, 21, suddenly emerged from the sedan with both hands up. And Sgt. Bongiovanni slugged him in the head.

Before cell phone videos, few people would have learned about the traffic stop. A majority, among white people, would have believed the false police report that the cop filed, then wondered why people in black neighborhoods mistrust the police at such high rates.

Today, even apologists for the status quo in policing acknowledge the unjust brutality in such footage. Still, they wave these incidents away, dubbing the police officer involved a bad apple, while insisting that he doesn’t represent a deeper problem in the profession.

That dismissiveness is perverse.

Yes, there are lots of good cops, and no one should be prejudged just for being “blue.” But consider that Bongiovanni was hired in 1999. Even if he were actually the only bad cop in his department, that “one bad apple” would have encounters with thousands over the course of his career. How many did he abuse without getting caught?

Employing a “bad apple” for two decades and promoting him to sergeant is not a small error––not in a profession empowered to wield deadly violence and cage people. In a profession like that, identifying and terminating the worst cops should be a priority.

But the Gwinnett County Police Department didn’t have just one bad apple. During the same stop, another cop was called to the scene, after the 21-year-old motorist was already lying on the ground handcuffed. That second cop, Robert McDonald, exited his vehicle, ran up to the handcuffed 21-year-old, and kicked him in the head.

That was caught by a different camera.

What do you think is more likely, that this traffic stop just happened to bring together the only two bad apples on the Gwinnett County police force? Or that there is a larger problem in its culture, illustrated by the fact that a young officer hired four years ago expected no consequences for needlessly kicking a handcuffed guy in the head in front of a sergeant? If I were the U.S. Attorney General, I’d dispatch someone to study whether civil rights are routinely violated in Gwinnett County.

The actual attorney general, Jeff Sessions, is aggressively ratcheting down federal oversight of local police departments, even as President Donald Trump leads a coalition that is actively hostile to Black Lives Matter, the policing reform movement.

I support praising good cops for the dangerous, sometimes heroic work that they do; and I acknowledge that they are frequently put in almost impossible situations, only to be second-guessed by legions if anything goes wrong, even when they are not to blame, or error in a way that millions would. What’s more, I don’t always agree with the tactics or the rhetoric of Black Lives Matter, a diverse movement that attracts both impressive, sensible reformers and less responsible fringe elements.

But the Black Lives Matter movement is portrayed wildly inaccurately in conservative media outlets, which focus on the most extreme, unrepresentative rhetoric from the coalition, and all but ignores the actual policy demands that it has put forth.

That reform agenda doesn’t get the attention it deserves, as I’ve noted before.

Dubbed Campaign Zero, it draws its strength largely from the fact that many of the policies that it recommends are “best practices” taken from existing police agencies.

“They’re practical, well-thought out, and in most cases, achievable,” wrote Radley Balko, one of the country’s most knowledgeable law-enforcement-policy journalists. “These are proposals that will almost certainly have an impact, even if only some of them are implemented. The ideas here are well-researched, supported with real-world evidence and ought to be seriously considered by policymakers.”

Professor Harold Pollack, a policy expert at the University of Chicago, concluded in his assessment that, “One does not need to embrace every element to recognize that this well-crafted document provides a useful basis of discussion between grassroots activists, elected officials, law enforcement professionals, and policy analysts ... And based on my own research on urban crime and policing, which has included the implementation of randomized-violence-prevention trials, interviews with incarcerated offenders, and collaboration with public-health and criminal-justice authorities, several proposals in Campaign Zero struck me as particularly smart.”

Community oversight is one item on their demand list:

Police usually investigate and decide what, if any, consequences their fellow officers should face in cases of police misconduct. Under this system, fewer than 1 in every 12 complaints of police misconduct nationwide results in some kind of disciplinary action against the officer(s) responsible.

Keep that demand in mind while reading this excerpt from Jeremy Stahl of Slate, who pored over Sgt. Bongiovanni’s disciplinary record in the Gwinnett County Police Department:

...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.”)

...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?

Black Lives Matter has also demanded body camera policies that would make people like the brutalized 21-year-old less reliant on passersby with cell phone cameras, and union contracts that make it easier to weed out the worst cops from police forces.

Heather Mac Donald, the Manhattan Institute scholar and Black Lives Matter critic, has argued that there is a dangerous “war on cops” being waged by the media and left-wing activists. A lot of police officers feel threatened by Black Lives Matter, and were heartened to hear Trump criticize it while praising their profession.

But police officers aren’t unpopular in black neighborhoods because of Black Lives Matter, and they haven’t lost standing among liberals because of bias in the news media.

Video killed bygone levels of trust in police officers by confirming what minority communities have always insisted: that there is a lot of unjust brutality carried out by law enforcement; that egregious acts are covered up by cops who lie on police reports; that misbehaving cops often get cover from colleagues honoring a blue code of silence; and that a relatively small number of bad apples can therefore do quite significant harm to innocents in the communities that are most vulnerable to them.

If implemented, the Black Lives Matter policing reform agenda would help to weed out the worst cops, reducing the incidence of brutality ... and YouTube broadcasts of that brutality.That is a better way to raise esteem for law enforcement than allying with the most polarizing president in a generation and imagining that brutality videos will be ignored.