Editor’s Note: This story, originally published in April 2017, has been updated.
In California, a police officer in Sacramento came under criminal investigation after he was captured on video throwing an accused jaywalker to the ground and punching him repeatedly.
In Georgia, not one but two Gwinnett County police officers were fired less than 24 hours after cell phone videos surfaced of them punching and kicking a handcuffed motorist.
Are police departments reacting differently now when confronted with video evidence showing the misconduct of officers?
It depends whom you ask. Some point to a clear about-face by police chiefs who have to clean up after such incidents, while others say it’s too soon to know if the reactions in these cases represent a permanent policy shift.
Chicago and its police department were widely criticized for taking more than 400 days to release dashboard camera footage of the 2014 fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald. The African-American teen was walking away from police, a knife in his hand, when one officer fired at him 16 times.
Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke was tried this week on two counts of first-degree murder, 16 counts of aggravated battery and one count of official misconduct in connection with the shooting.
“There is no question when there is a video that emerges that shows clearly what occurred, police departments are reacting more quickly,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Washington-based Police Executive Research Forum, a group of law enforcement professionals.
“And [they’re] likely to take some immediate action,” he continued. “There was a time when police could say, ‘We need to wait for the full investigation.’ Now, some departments are recognizing the importance of responding. Cameras are what is making the difference.”
’Not the conduct’ of every police officer
In the suburban Atlanta county of Gwinnett, two officers were fired and charged with violation of oath of office, a felony, and misdemeanor battery over their handling of what started out as a routine traffic stop in April 2017.
Sgt. Michael Bongiovanni had pulled over motorist Demetrius Hollins that month, according to police Chief Butch Ayers.
In his report, the 19-year veteran said the vehicle did not have a license plate and continued moving as he tried to stop it. Bongiovanni said there was a struggle after Hollins resisted arrest.
The video that emerged later, however, told a different story.
Cell phone video shot by a witness showed another officer, Robert McDonald, responding to assist Bongiovanni and then kicking Hollins while he was on the ground.
In a second video, shot from a different angle by another witness, Bongiovanni can be seen approaching Hollins, who is still inside the car. As Hollins gets out the vehicle with his hands up, the officer punches him in the face.
“When you look at the act in Gwinnett, Georgia, where the kid is on the ground handcuffed, he’s not fighting and the officer runs up and kicks him, [it’s] undeniable,” said Cedric Alexander, a CNN law enforcement analyst and former public safety director at the DeKalb County Police Department in Georgia.
Public outrage at how police departments responded to previous misconduct accusations only partly explain the reason for the swift action in the California and Georgia cases, according to Alexander.
“What you’re seeing is police administrators across the country who are saying, ‘This is not the conduct of every man and woman in our police department. This is the conduct of one or two individuals and we’re going to deal with them appropriately,’” he said.
’The right thing to do’
Disturbing videos sometimes necessitate immediate responses, Alexander said.
“Sometimes you have the evidence there and it’s glaring,” he said.
“But I also think that police agencies and leadership across this country are taking responsibility for the conduct of their men and women in a fair way. I don’t think they’re doing it for political reasons. I think they’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do.”
In Sacramento, an officer with two years on the job was placed on administrative leave with pay while his actions were investigated.
Police released dashcam video of the April 2017 confrontation, which occurred after the officer left his patrol car and approached accused jaywalker Nandi Cain Jr. on a residential street.
In the video, the officer accused Cain of jaywalking and ordered him to stop. After Cain said by way of protest, “I looked both ways,” and kept walking, the officer said, “If you do not stop right now, I will take you to the ground.”
’Judicious and swift’
The two men then enter the street. Cain is heard saying he is unarmed. He removed his jacket and told the officer to take off his gun “and fight me like a real man.”
Cell phone video, captured by neighbor Naomi Montaie, showed the officer then shoving Cain, slamming him to the ground and climbing on top of him while beating him repeatedly in the head.
Cain was charged with resisting arrest. He also had an outstanding warrant for another misdemeanor charge, police said.
But after a review of the video from the dashcam and Montaie’s footage, the charges against Cain were dropped. After an internal review of the incident and retraining, the officer returned to duty, CNN affiliate KTXL reported.
David Klinger, a criminology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and former police officer, said it is hard to tell whether the responses to the California and Georgia incidents represent a sign of the times.
“What I would say is that they are reacting judiciously and swiftly,” he said of police departments.
He added, “I scratch my head. It literally makes no sense to me … that police officers … don’t understand they’re being videotaped. My hope is that trainers would remind officers, ‘We’ve told you how to use force appropriately and if you use force inappropriately, you’re liable to be hung out to dry.’”