Attempts by Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) to find out what is happening with the investigation into the November 2017 slaying of Bijan Ghaisar have been met with another refusal by the FBI. The agency has handled the probe of the fatal shooting by two U.S. Park Police officers for 21 months and said again in a letter last week that it cannot discuss ongoing investigations.
Ghaisar, 25, was pursued down the George Washington Memorial Parkway on Nov. 17, 2017, after being rear-ended by an Uber driver in Alexandria and leaving the scene, police reports show. Ghaisar stopped twice, but Park Police Officers Lucas Vinyard and Alejandro Amaya ran toward his Jeep Grand Cherokee with guns drawn, and Ghaisar drove away both times, a video released by Fairfax County police showed. During a third stop in the Fort Hunt neighborhood of Fairfax, Ghaisar again pulled away as the officers aimed their guns at him, and the video shows the officers fired nine times into Ghaisar’s Jeep, killing him.
The Park Police handled the investigation for three days, then passed it to the FBI. Neither agency has released any information about the shooting since an initial news release by the Park Police the following day. Fairfax County Police Chief Edwin C. Roessler Jr. released a video of the shooting in January 2018, recorded from the in-car camera of a lieutenant who followed the pursuit, and Roessler later released Fairfax police reports showing that officers saw no weapons or drugs as they removed Ghaisar from the Jeep.
Grassley, as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, started asking the FBI in December for information on the investigation, which was then 13 months along. Jill C. Tyson, the FBI’s assistant director for its Office of Congressional Affairs, responded in March: “This is a complex case, and the FBI must take the time necessary to conduct all interviews, examine all evidence, and analyze lab results. Significant investigative and forensics actions were required and those activities continue.”
Grassley immediately responded with more questions, asking how many man hours the FBI had spent on the Ghaisar case and how many agents were working on it. Tyson did not respond. In June, Grassley sent another letter, co-signed by Warner, asking for answers to the March inquiry. Grassley also questioned FBI Director Christopher A. Wray about the case on July 23 in an oversight hearing by the Judiciary Committee. “I’m not intimately familiar with the investigation,” Wray said, but he declined to discuss it further because it was ongoing. Grassley asked whether the FBI was withholding information for fear of being embarrassed by something. Wray said it was not.
Tyson responded to Grassley and Warner with a letter dated Aug. 29. She said that the “FBI does not generally track the number of hours expended on a particular investigation” and that “longstanding policy and practice prohibit releasing information about an ongoing investigation.” The full letter is here.
A decision on whether to charge Vinyard and Amaya will be made by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and U.S. Attorney Jessie K. Liu of Washington. Both declined to comment on the case last week. No reason has been given for why the U.S. attorney’s office in the eastern district of Virginia, where the killing occurred, was recused from the case. An examination by The Washington Post of more than 50 recent civil rights cases filed by federal prosecutors against law enforcement officers found that an average of slightly more than three years elapsed from the day of the event to the day charges were filed.
Vinyard and Amaya remain on administrative duty with pay, the Park Police said. A civil suit against the officers is pending in federal court in Alexandria. It wasn’t until March, after Fairfax police responded to a subpoena from the Ghaisar family’s lawyers, that the officers’ names were made public as part of the lawsuit.
Ghaisar’s family declined to comment on the new FBI letter but said they were planning an event at the Lincoln Memorial to mark the second anniversary of his death in November. A protest was also held there last year on the anniversary of his shooting.