D.C. police shooting of man at Wharf reignites old debates

Cmdr. Jason Bagshaw had gone hands-on with demonstrators in Washington for years, winning colleagues’ respect but drawing criticism from demonstrators.

Cmdr. Jason Bagshaw of the Metropolitan Police Department talking to a protestor in Southeast Washington in the summer of 2020.
Cmdr. Jason Bagshaw of the Metropolitan Police Department talking to a protestor in Southeast Washington in the summer of 2020. (Ford Fischer)

By the police account, the off-duty commander emerged from a restaurant and fatally shot a man he saw point a gun in a crowded area on D.C.’s waterfront. As an officer in uniform approached, the commander dropped to his knees, raising his hands above his head, a video of the aftermath shows.

Dressed for a casual evening out, the commander turned his face to the left as the officer holstered his firearm. The quick glimpse on a shaky video on Instagram was all some in D.C.’s protest community needed to recognize D.C. police Cmdr. Jason Bagshaw.

The 20-year officer was a fixture among police who responded to months of demonstrations that followed the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd in 2020. Then a lieutenant leading the on-the-ground response, his decisive actions endeared him to colleagues. But they made him notorious among protesters, who saw him as the embodiment of everything they viewed as wrong with policing.

After the July 16 shooting at the Wharf, Bagshaw’s detractors resurrected video snippets of him during protests and passed them around online. In one, he can be seen making a hand gesture some viewed as akin to a bow to the crowd after detaining a protester who crossed a barricade and swung an object against the front of a police station. In another, Bagshaw is seen breaking a window of the mobile protest-supply vehicle known as the “Snack Van.” In yet another, he carries someone out of a scrum and tosses the person to the ground.

“He’s a polarizing figure, and you don’t need but a glimpse to tell that that’s him,” said Jay Brown, who runs a local organization called Community Shoulders and whose nephew, Jeffrey Price, was killed in a crash with a police car. “Everybody knew it. We were already talking: ‘That’s Bagshaw.’"

Colleagues who support Bagshaw and activists who despise him described some of the same attributes in Bagshaw: He seems always to be working, is decisive and quick to action, often smiles and knows the names of many at protests. But where current and former colleagues see someone simply doing his job — and doing it well — racial justice advocates see an overly-involved, threatening and violent officer.

Cmdr. Jason Bagshaw was off-duty when he fatally shot Lazarus Wilson, who was pointing a gun, on July 16 in Southwest, Washington, D.C. (Video: D.C. police)

Police release videos in fatal shooting by D.C. officer at Wharf

D.C. Police Chief Robert J. Contee III has praised Bagshaw for intervening at the Wharf, saying Bagshaw and his wife, who also is a D.C. police officer, “went toward the danger … and they took action.” On Friday, the police department released videos that show a man — identified as Lazarus David Wilson, 23, of Dumfries, Va. — pointing a gun in the crowded waterfront entertainment district a week ago, but they do not capture the moment when Bagshaw fatally shoots him.

“I think it says they care a lot about the city,” the chief said. “We’ve seen across this country mass shootings that have happened all over the place.”

But many activists viewed the incident differently and renewed their previous calls for Bagshaw to be fired. A police report suggests the man Bagshaw shot had just himself been robbed, but police said that account came from one person who was himself involved in the interaction before the shooting. Federal prosecutors will review the shooting.

Afeni Evans, an organizer with Freedom Fighters DC, a racial justice organization that advocates for abolishing police and prisons, said she thought the shooting reflected something that activists have long complained about.

“I’m just genuinely sad because this is a police officer that we’ve known for a while. This is somebody who has a history of aggression,” Evans said. “I feel like it’s very representative of the type of policing that happens in D.C.”

Harriet’s Wildest Dreams, a racial justice group that previously shared the bystander video of the incident on Instagram, added in an Instagram post: “Two things can be true. David allegedly had a gun and David may still could have lived.”

In an interview Friday, Contee noted that actions Bagshaw took in 2020 were back in the news now only because of the shooting at the Wharf.

“It was part of his role and responsibilities” to be visible, the chief said. The people who express anger at police also interact with them in constructive ways behind the scenes, he said, adding that Bagshaw developed “professional relationships” with many protesters.

Bagshaw did not respond to a request for comment for this story, and he has declined to comment on the shooting through a police spokesman.

‘I’d have to order him home sometimes’

Bagshaw began his career with D.C. police patrolling communities in Northeast Washington, where he investigated motor vehicle thefts, according to a biography on the department’s website. He received the department’s 2010 “Officer of the Year” award, which noted that he made 232 arrests and described him as “an extremely hard working officer.”

By 2011, Bagshaw was transferred to the Gun Recovery Unit, a squad tasked with seizing guns throughout the city that has been criticized for its tactics. Dale Sutherland, a retired narcotics sergeant who worked in tandem with Bagshaw’s team, described Bagshaw as thoughtful in a high-stress position.

Bagshaw, he said, was “a guy that people sought after to be in their unit.”

Over the next seven years, Bagshaw earned multiple promotions — first to detective, then sergeant, then lieutenant. He was eventually assigned to the Special Operations Division Planning and Logistics Section, which is in charge of responding to protests. This put him head-to-head with racial justice demonstrators after Floyd’s killing in 2020 ignited nationwide protests, including in D.C., where officers deployed crowd control munitions including stun grenades, pepper spray and other chemical irritants.

Bagshaw was present for racial justice demonstrations at Black Lives Matter Plaza. He was outside the D.C. police’s 4th District station, where demonstrators gathered nightly over the death of Karon Hylton, a 20-year-old moped rider who was struck and killed by a van during a police pursuit. He was on the U.S. Capitol grounds when a mob supportive of then-President Donald Trump rushed the complex.

In recent years, Bagshaw has worked so much that he made more in overtime than his salary. In fiscal 2020 and 2021, he earned $138,234 and $119,537, respectively, according to police department reports to the D.C. Council.

A retired D.C. police commander who was Bagshaw’s direct supervisor during the 2020 demonstrations said this was a reflection of his work ethic.

“I’d have to order him home sometimes, You know, ‘You got to go get some sleep,’ ” said Robert Glover. “You have certain individuals that have that level of dedication. They go above and beyond, and that’s what you want your leadership — and he demonstrated that.”

But Bagshaw drew the ire of protesters, and his continued presence at demonstrations became emblematic to demonstrators that D.C. police did not care about feedback from the people and communities they were policing.

Evans said protesters would pass warnings about him among each other when they saw him. His name appeared on protest signs and shields in the streets, on the Black Lives Matter Memorial Fence — a security fence where activists hung posters — and in chants. Glover recalled that a downtown traffic sign was reprogrammed last year to display Bagshaw’s name with a profane insult.

D.C. Council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large), who recently lost a bid for mayor, said he has received “easily a half of dozen” texts and calls about the officer over the past two years “for aggressive policing, escalating situations, what people believe was unnecessary force.”

“He’s an example of most of the things we use to point out as justification for defunding the police,” said April Goggans, a core organizer of Black Lives Matter DC. “When you come out to protest, and you see this is policing in general … and then specifically you see the people who are in charge; it shifts the way that you think.”

Bagshaw stood out in part because of his white shirt — which is reserved for supervisors. Demonstrators said it sent a disturbing message.

“To actually see a white shirt picking up and tossing people, that’s what made Bagshaw put a target on his own back,” said Anthony Lorenzo Green, who represents the Deanwood area as an advisory neighborhood commissioner and was a core organizer with Black Lives Matter DC. “You’re making it clear to everybody that this is your show.”

Glover said Bagshaw’s being hands-on with protesters was appropriate, even for his rank. “Our motto was we weren’t going to ask people to do things that we weren’t willing to do ourselves,” he said. “And I think Bagshaw was able to demonstrate that.”

He disputed that Bagshaw was overly aggressive, describing him as a skilled officer with a keen ability to assess difficult situations and act.

“I have never witnessed him doing anything outside of bounds. No excessive force,” he said. “Everything was reasonable and found justifiable in the end.”

Contee and former D.C. police chief Peter Newsham, who oversaw the department’s response to the racial justice protests, said they could not recall any sustained investigations against Bagshaw. The records are not public.

Bagshaw made it a point to let demonstrators know that as they knew him, he knew them, too. Regularly, he would call out the names of protesters in the crowd. Activists said they were unnerved and intimidated by the tactic. His defenders say he was trying to develop a relationship with the groups.

‘It went around like wildfire’

Among the videos resurfacing on social media this week is one showing a police line advancing and officers chanting in unison “Move back! Move back!” as a white van drives slowly.

It was an easily recognizable vehicle, covered in “Black Lives Matter” graffiti and known among protesters as the Snack Van, stocked with food, water and medical supplies. The video shows Bagshaw running toward it and bashing the driver’s side window. He opens the door and pulls the driver’s arm, dragging Jeremy Vajko out of the vehicle and directing them to the ground. Vajko was arrested, but the U.S. attorney’s office ultimately did not pursue criminal charges.

This incident in late August 2020 is among those being shared again by activists who say it demonstrates Bagshaw’s confrontational tactics.

“I didn’t realize why I was arrested and that bothered me,” Vajko said in a recent interview. “I was just trying to get out of the way.”

Contee, in an interview on Friday, said he could not recall why Bagshaw pulled Vajko out of the van but said the demonstrator was “driving from Portland all the way to D.C. to engage in acts of civil disobedience or civil unrest. I would hope that would be seen as a dangerous situation.”

In April 2022, Bagshaw — who has also earned the awards of the “Lieutenant of the Year” and “Sworn Employee of the Year” for the Homeland Security Bureau — was promoted to the rank of commander.

Three months later, he was back under public scrutiny, this time for fatally shooting Wilson at the Wharf.

Police said people were already running away from the area when Bagshaw, dressed in civilian clothes, and his wife took action.

Bagshaw ordered the man to drop the gun, police said, and fired when his order was ignored. Police said Friday that Bagshaw identified himself as an officer before firing a single round that struck Wilson, but they did not detail what evidence they had to support that assertion.

Wilson’s mother has not responded to interview requests this past week. Wilson’s sister said only that the family viewed videos of the encounter on Thursday and had no other comment.

Immediately after the shooting, a bystander captured a video of Bagshaw on his knees — and it spread.

To demonstrators, as important as the shooting itself was the man they say is responsible for it.

“I thought it looked like him right away,” said Chuck Modi, who has documented protest movements since 2012. “It went around like wildfire afterward because it was Bagshaw.”

Marissa J. Lang, Clarence Williams and Keith L. Alexander contributed to this report.