After two U.S. Park Police officers chased, then shot and killed unarmed motorist Bijan Ghaisar in 2017, the Park Police amended its policy on vehicular pursuits, and then late last year the agency significantly altered its policy on use of force. The new general order on pursuits emphasizes that subjects must be wanted for violent felony offenses, and it removed a sentence allowing a chase if a suspect “presents a clear and immediate threat to public safety.”
Both policies had not been changed since the late 1990s, except for two small revisions to the pursuit policy in 2002 and 2004. A Park Police spokesman said the latest changes were unrelated to the Ghaisar case and had been in the works for some time. In a letter to Congress about the Ghaisar shooting, an Interior Department official disclosed in October that the policies had been updated, and the Park Police released them in response to a request from The Washington Post.
“We certainly find it more than a little interesting,” said Roy L. Austin Jr., a lawyer for the Ghaisar family, “that the use of force and vehicular pursuits policies that the U.S. Park Police had for more than a decade were changed soon after two U.S. Park Police Officers killed Bijan Ghaisar. The changes highlight some of the failings of the U.S. Park Police and its officers that led to the illegal and completely unnecessary shooting of Bijan.”
The Justice Department decided in November that Lucas Vinyard and Alejandro Amaya, the officers who pursued and shot Ghaisar, would not face federal criminal civil rights charges. The Fairfax County prosecutor is reviewing the case to see whether state criminal charges are appropriate. Because Fairfax is still considering a criminal case, the Park Police has not yet begun an internal investigation of the two officers, who are on paid administrative duty. That investigation would focus on whether the officers violated the policies in place in 2017, such as the use-of-force policy last updated in September 1998, and the pursuit policy, last updated in January 1997.
The old policies, and the recent changes, also could factor into the civil suit filed by Ghaisar’s family against the officers and the Park Police. That suit is pending in federal court in Alexandria. In some lawsuits, plaintiffs’ lawyers argue that changing a policy after a controversial act is an admission that the policy was flawed. Austin declined to say whether he would make that argument in this case.
Ghaisar, 25, was an accountant who worked for his father’s firm in McLean. On Nov. 17, 2017, he was driving his Jeep Grand Cherokee down the George Washington Memorial Parkway in Alexandria when he suddenly stopped in a lane of traffic and was struck from behind by a Toyota Corolla with an Uber driver and passenger, a police report stated. Ghaisar then drove away without speaking to the Uber driver, the driver said.
Because the parkway is considered a federal park, the Park Police have jurisdiction over collisions there. The Uber passenger’s call to 911 was routed to the Park Police, and a lookout apparently was broadcast for Ghaisar’s Jeep. The Park Police have declined to release any recordings or records of what was reported to them by the passenger or how they dispatched the call, which was picked up by Vinyard and Amaya in a marked Park Police SUV.
The only information about what happened next came from Fairfax County police. A Fairfax lieutenant with an in-car camera joined the pursuit of Ghaisar and recorded the episode. The video shows Ghaisar stopping three times, one or both Park Police officers emerging with guns drawn, and Ghaisar driving away. As Ghaisar drove away a third time, the video shows both Vinyard and Amaya opening fire, unleashing 10 shots and striking Ghaisar four times in the head. He died 10 days later.
The vehicular pursuit policy in effect in 2017 said that Park Police officers should pursue a vehicle “only when the offense for which the suspect is being pursued” is either “a felony, or the officer has reason to believe a felony has occurred or is occurring, [or] the suspect presents a clear and immediate threat to public safety if not immediately apprehended. Note: The act of fleeing and eluding the police shall not in itself be a pursuable offense.” The section about presenting “a clear and immediate threat to public safety” has been deleted from the new order.
By leaving the scene of an accident, even one in which he was not legally at fault, Ghaisar technically committed a crime, and if there had been injuries or significant damage, that crime could have been a felony. It’s not known what the Uber passenger told the Park Police, or what Amaya and Vinyard knew about the incident. One of the officers radioed to Fairfax dispatchers that they were pursuing the Jeep for “fleeing from the scene of an accident,” and that the vehicles were traveling at 59 miles per hour with clear traffic. The Fairfax video shows that Ghaisar did not swerve and used his turn signals.
In June 2018, the Park Police clarified the authorization for a vehicular pursuit, seemingly to exclude chasing drivers involved in noninjury crashes. Pursuit is authorized, the new order states, only when “the suspect is wanted for, or suspected of committing a felony offense involving violence or the threat of violence to another person. This includes but is not limited to homicide, sexual assault, robbery, felony assault, felony sex offense, and abduction. [Or] The suspect is wanted for or has committed a felony and is in known possession of a firearm.”
And the new order adds: “Officers must obtain supervisor approval prior to initiating, engaging in, assisting partner agencies with, or continuing pursuits under any circumstances not listed” in the new section above. Also added to the new order, under factors to be considered when a pursuit is initiated, is “The nature of the offense and known information about the suspect.” It is not known whether Vinyard and Amaya ran Ghaisar’s record during their roughly five-minute pursuit. Ghaisar had no criminal history.
In 1997, the pursuit policy stated, “In any pursuit situation, the necessity of an immediate apprehension must outweigh the level of danger created by the pursuit.” The line reflects a general awareness in policing that chases are inherently dangerous. In 2018, the line about weighing the level of danger also was deleted from the Park Police policy.
“The U.S. Park Police is constantly reviewing and updating its policies,” Park Police spokesman Sgt. Eduardo Delgado said. “The process takes quite a long time, and both general orders mentioned were in the works prior to the Ghaisar case.”
The Fraternal Order of Police for the U.S. Park Police declined to comment on the policy changes. The group has yet to comment publicly on the Ghaisar case.
The Park Police use-of-force general order in effect in 2017 was last updated in September 1998, and both versions state that “An officer is expected to employ only the minimum level of force necessary to control a situation.” Two sentences clarifying that force were replaced in November 2019 with a section explaining “reasonableness” and quoting from the Supreme Court ruling of Graham v. Connor, which said the use of “reasonable” force is analyzed through the eyes of the officer in the moment, not by outsiders in retrospect.
The Park Police then added a section in November 2019 titled “Levels of Behavior/Resistance.” The section begins, “It is important for officers to bear in mind that there are many reasons why a suspect may be unresponsive or resistant to arrest. The person in question may not be capable of understanding the gravity of the situation. … A subject may be non-compliant due to a medical condition, mental or physical disability, hearing impairment, language barrier, drug interaction, or emotional crisis, despite having no criminal intent. This may not make the subject any less dangerous but it may necessitate a change in tactics.”
It is not known why Ghaisar fled the initial fender bender or why he stopped and then drove away from Vinyard and Amaya three times, or whether he tried to speak to the officers at any of the stops. The officers have not spoken publicly about the shooting.
The new use-of-force policy also adds a lengthy section on “Levels of Response,” which lists five types of officer actions with suspects, ranging from “Cooperative Controls” (verbal guidance) to “Compliance Techniques” (physical takedowns, use of pepper spray) to “Deadly Force,” which may be “taken when an officer has a reasonable belief that the subject of such force poses an imminent danger of serious physical injury or death to the officer or to another person.”
Both the old and new policies state that “An officer shall not fire at a moving vehicle nor fire from a moving vehicle unless the officer has a reasonable belief” that the subject poses an imminent danger. The new policy also adds a section, “Use of Force Reporting,” which requires officers immediately to report uses of force to a supervisor and complete a detailed report.
The 1998 use-of-force policy was slightly more than three pages. The new policy is nearly five pages and was signed by Acting Chief Gregory T. Monahan. The new pursuit policy was signed by Robert D. MacLean, who was chief at the time of the shooting in 2017 and has since been promoted to head of all Interior Department law enforcement forces.