Two U.S. Park Police officers stood within close range of Bijan C. Ghaisar as he sat behind the wheel of his stopped Jeep Grand Cherokee, then fired nine shots into his vehicle as it slowly veered into a ditch away from the officers, a video recording of the Nov. 17 incident released Wednesday shows.
In the moments before he was shot, there also does not appear to be any interaction with or provocation by Ghaisar, whose window remained closed. His Jeep began to move slowly forward again after stopping, the video shows, sparking the first set of five shots. When the Jeep drifted forward four seconds later, the officers fired two more times at close range. When it drifted again 11 seconds later, the officers fired a final two shots, the video shows.
The five-minute video marks a crucial turning point in the investigation of the deadly shooting, and the bold decision to release it was made by Fairfax County police Chief Edwin C. Roessler Jr. The Fairfax department was not involved in the shooting and is not involved in the investigation, but one of its officers trailing the pursuit captured the incident on his in-car video camera. The FBI is investigating the shooting, has released no information about the case and given no indication that they would do so anytime soon. So Roessler made the unusual call to release evidence in another department’s case. He said he informed the FBI and Park Police of his intention and that he did not believe it would harm the investigation.
“This investigation’s been going on almost 10 weeks,” Rossler said. “This is a national issue, and this is a step toward transparency in the law enforcement profession.”
An FBI spokeswoman declined to comment on the release of the video. Park Police Chief Robert D. MacLean issued a statement saying that he recognized “the desire for more information and details surrounding the investigation and the death” of Ghaisar, but did not provide new information on the case. The department has not said why the officers fired or publicly identified them.
Virginia Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark R. Warner both said the footage is “disturbing” and called on the FBI to quickly release more details. Fairfax County board chair Sharon Bulova said in a Tweet that she supported the chief and Ghaisar’s family and friends “deserve to know what happened.”
Ghaisar’s lawyers said medical records now show he was shot four times in the head, not three as previously reported, and once in the wrist. The lawyers said he was unarmed, and the video does not indicate he wielded a weapon. The video shows the officers were not in any apparent danger of being struck when the Jeep moved forward. Ghaisar died 10 days later.
The video recorded by the Fairfax police officer starts as the Park Police officers are following Ghaisar on the George Washington parkway, through the two brief stops to the final stop. The faces of the Park Police officers have been blurred in the video. They remain on administrative leave, Park Police Sgt. James Dingeldein said.
The Park Police on Wednesday released to The Post their policies on use of force and pursuit, both dating from the late 1990s. The policies state that Park Police officers may use deadly force “when the officer has a reasonable belief, in light of the facts and circumstances confronting the officer, that the subject of such force poses an imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm to the officer or to another person.”
The policy also states that “Officers shall not fire at a moving vehicle nor fire from a moving vehicle except when the officer has a reasonable belief that the subject poses an imminent danger of death or serious physical injury to the officer or to another person.”
“This disturbing video shows the senseless killing of a young man at the hands of those charged with protecting public safety,” Ghaisar family attorneys Roy L. Austin Jr. and Thomas Connolly said in a statement. “Bijan Ghaisar was repeatedly threatened by over-aggressive and out-of-control law enforcement officers, after he drove away from a minor traffic incident in which he was the victim and in which there was little property damage and no known injuries.”
The Park Police investigated the shooting for three days, then shifted the case to the FBI. The U.S. attorney’s office in Washington is overseeing the investigation, after the U.S. attorney’s office in Alexandria was recused from the case, along with the civil rights division of the Justice Department.
The incident began with a fender bender in Alexandria City which apparently happened at about 7:27 p.m. that Friday, according to Arlington communications officials who received the first 911 call. Arlington declined to release a recording of the call, and its call-takers likely forwarded it to the Park Police who have jurisdiction over the George Washington Parkway.
The rear-end collision happened on the southbound parkway south of Marina Drive, according to a Park Police crash report obtained by The Washington Post. A male Uber driver with a female passenger reported they were driving behind Ghaisar’s green Grand Cherokee when it suddenly stopped in the left lane, and the Uber driver’s Toyota Corolla struck the rear of the Cherokee, the report stated. The driver told Fox 5’s Paul Wagner Ghaisar made no eye contact or gestures before driving off.
A lookout was broadcast for Ghaisar’s Jeep, which had “BIJAN” as its license plate, Park Police said in November. The Jeep was spotted on the Fairfax County stretch of the parkway south of Alexandria, and the two-man Park Police patrol car began following it with lights and siren on, according to radio transmissions by one of the officers captured by the online service Broadcastify.
The video begins as the pursuit zipped past a Fairfax County officer who was facing the parkway at the Tulane Drive exit, and the Fairfax officer radioed he was joining in at 7:38 p.m. A Park Police officer radioed that the cars were traveling at 59 mph, according to archived radio transmissions from the Internet site Broadcastify. Seconds later, Ghaisar’s Jeep stopped in the right lane. The marked Park Police patrol car pulled alongside the Jeep, and two Park Police officers leaped from the car and ran to the Jeep, the video shows. One pointed his gun at Ghaisar’s head, the video shows.
In Virginia, leaving the scene of a traffic accident, regardless of who is at fault, is a Class 5 felony if there are injuries or property damage of more than $1,000. Police involved in “felony traffic stops” often are trained to approach such cars with their weapons drawn. The Park Police policy on pursuit states that vehicular pursuits are authorized only when the driver is suspected of a felony, or presents a clear and immediate threat to public safety, and notes that “the act of fleeing and eluding the police shall not in itself be a pursuable offense.”
Ghaisar drove off. One of the officers slammed his gun into Ghaisar’s Jeep, the video shows, seemingly in frustration and dropped it to the ground. The Fairfax officer pulled out to follow Ghaisar’s Jeep, but the Park Police car soon passed the Fairfax officer and pulled alongside Ghaisar on the parkway.
At 7:40 p.m., according to the video’s time stamp, Ghaisar pulled off the parkway at the West Boulevard Drive exit and stopped in the road. The Park Police officers parked slightly in front of Ghaisar’s Jeep, ran to his window, one with his gun drawn, and again Ghaisar drove off, while one of the officers kicked Ghaisar’s Jeep. No one knows why Ghaisar, who had no criminal record and only minor traffic tickets, would elude the police twice.
Ghaisar drove from West Boulevard Drive a short distance to Alexandria Avenue, then headed toward Fort Hunt Road with the Park Police and Fairfax cars behind him. At the intersection with Fort Hunt, he stopped at the stop sign, in his lane. The video shows the Park Police car pulled in front of the Jeep, apparently to block it.
As the two officers emerged from in front of Ghaisar’s Jeep, the Fairfax police video shows the Jeep started to move slightly forward to the right. At least one officer was already out of the Park Police SUV, and one shot is heard, then four more shots in rapid succession. Neither officer was in front of the Jeep in the video.
The Jeep stopped, then began to drift after four seconds. One of the officers, who had holstered his pistol, unholstered it and two more shots were fired. The Jeep stopped. The officers moved closer, and after 11 seconds the Jeep again began rolling toward the ditch on the side of Alexandria Avenue, where there is no curb or sidewalk, as if Ghaisar’s foot was off the brake. The officers fired two more shots at close range, the video shows. The Jeep continued toward the ditch and pitched slightly to its side onto the stop sign.
The recording ends, though there is probably additional footage of other officers arriving and then paramedics to treat Ghaisar. An ambulance from Alexandria arrived 12 minutes after the shooting, Fairfax fire and rescue records show.
The Virginia medical examiner’s office declined to release a cause and manner of Ghaisar’s death. A spokeswoman said the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington had made a written request to withhold the release of the information because of a pending investigation.
Ghaisar’s family and lawyers have not been told what, if anything, was found inside his Jeep, Austin said. He said a toxicology test revealed no alcohol in Ghaisar’s system, an undetermined amount of marijuana, and no other drugs. Marijuana stays in a person’s system for many days, and it was unknown when Ghaisar might have ingested it, Austin said.
Park Police Chief MacLean’s statement Wednesday did not comment on the video or why his officers killed Ghaisar. He noted he met with the Ghaisar family in the hospital after the shooting and told them he was committed to a fair and impartial investigation. “Public and community trust remain paramount to our agency and profession,” MacLean said in the statement.
The Ghaisar family is planning a protest outside Interior Department offices in Washington on Friday at 6 p.m., pushing for answers and justice for their son.
Roessler said he released the tape “as a matter of transparency to all in our community, especially the Ghaisar family.” He said in a statement “The video does not provide all the answers. However, we should all have confidence in the FBI’s investigation of this matter as I know it will be thorough, objective and professional.”
“No one was even close to being in harm’s way,” said Austin and Connolly, the Ghaisar family’s attorneys, “until a pair of U.S. Park Police officers repeatedly shot Bijan at close range as he sat, unarmed, in his Jeep on a residential street. We don’t know why the U.S. Park Police officers shot Bijan multiple times… What we do know is that justice demands that those responsible for taking Bijan’s life answer for this illegal and unconstitutional killing.”
The lawyers added, “The family is grateful to Fairfax County Police Chief Edwin Roessler for all he has done to ensure the appropriate amount of transparency throughout this process.”
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