The release of the graphic video showing two U.S. Park Police officers chasing and then fatally shooting motorist Bijan Ghaisar in November still left many questions unanswered. Chief among those questions are why did the unnamed officers pursue a vehicle which had only been involved in a minor fender bender, and why did the officers use deadly force when they did not appear in danger of being struck by the vehicle?
Fairfax County Police Chief Edwin C. Roessler Jr. on Wednesday released the video, captured by one of his own officers who trailed the Park Police vehicle for several minutes, in the interests of transparency and information for the family. He made the move even though the FBI, not his department, is investigating the case. But he was the first to note that it didn’t answer many questions that federal prosecutors, and Park Police leaders, must resolve in deciding whether the shooting was lawful and within Park Police policy. The department’s policies on pursuit and use of force, also released Wednesday, are posted below.
What is known about the incident is that Ghaisar, a 25-year-old accountant from McLean, Va., with no criminal record, was driving on the George Washington Memorial Parkway on Nov. 17 when his Jeep Grand Cherokee was struck from behind by an Uber driver in a Toyota Corolla. Ghaisar, somewhat mysteriously, left the scene. The Uber driver and his passenger both called 911 at 7:27 p.m., Arlington authorities report, and those calls were likely forwarded to the Park Police, who have jurisdiction over the parkway.
A lookout for the Jeep, with a “BIJAN” license plate, was broadcast, Park Police have said. Leaving the scene of an accident in Virginia can be a Class 5 felony, but only if there is injury or the vehicle damage is at least $1,000.
But what else were officers told about the crash? We don’t have Park Police dispatch tapes, comment from the officers or from the Fraternal Order of Police lodge which helps represent them. From the transmissions made by one Park Police officer to Fairfax, notifying them of the pursuit, the officer mentions only that it’s “a hit and run at Slaters Lane.” It seems unlikely that anyone had yet assessed the damage to the Uber driver, and no one had seen Ghaisar’s Jeep. No one was injured.
“If he didn’t know” that a felony hit-and-run had occurred, said Geoff Alpert, a criminologist at the University of South Carolina, “he’s not justified” in launching a pursuit. “You can’t make assumptions like that.” Alpert has studied numerous police shootings and pursuit cases. Speaking of the two officers who began chasing Ghaisar in the Fairfax County section of the parkway, Alpert said, “What they don’t know is anything about the crime [of leaving the scene]. My point is, you don’t put people’s lives at risk with a chase.”
Modern police theory has come to the conclusion that many chases are too dangerous to pursue, both to the participants and to bystanders, unless absolutely necessary. Park Police policy written in 1997 notes that department officers may only pursue if a felony was committed, “or the officer has reason to believe a felony has occurred or is occurring,” or if the suspect presents “a clear and immediate threat to public safety.” The policy adds in bold type, “The act of fleeing and eluding the police shall not in itself be a pursuable offense.”
Thomas Connolly, one of the Ghaisar family lawyers and a former federal prosecutor, said the Park Police policy means the officers must have “probable cause to believe that a felony was committed,” and that the officers who chased Ghaisar didn’t have that.
The Park Police policy also calls for officers to terminate a pursuit when the level of danger of the pursuit outweighs the necessity for immediate arrest, or if the suspect’s identity has been established and there’s no need for immediate arrest. Police policymakers have realized that letting a fleeing car go, particularly when the suspect can be picked up later, is safer for all concerned.
In addition, Connolly noted that the Park Police use of force policy restricts the use of deadly force to stop a fleeing felon only when “the individual has committed a felony involving the infliction or threatened infliction of serious physical injury or death.” Connolly said, “No reasonable officer could have understood that Bijan had committed a violent act which would justify the pursuit here.”
While on the parkway, being pursued by both the Park Police and a Fairfax officer with lights and sirens on, Ghaisar pulled over twice. Each time, at least one of the Park Police officers moved directly to Ghaisar’s window and pointed a gun at his head, the video shows. Each time, Ghaisar then drove off.
Experts said officers who are trained in “felony traffic stops” are told to have their weapons ready, but typically the officers stay back from the vehicle and instruct the occupants to show their hands and get out. “You don’t approach if you think he’s dangerous,” Alpert said. “Just for officer safety.”
The officer’s reaction to Ghaisar’s flight was also troubling, Alpert said. “I think he’s feeling contempt of cop,” Alpert said after watching the video, “by hitting the window [of Ghaisar’s Jeep] with his gun, which is an absolute no-no.” As Ghaisar pulled away the second time, the same officer kicked Ghaisar’s Jeep. “He shows his frustration and anxiety,” Alpert said. “If my partner was doing that, I’d suggest he calm down, because no good decisions are made when you’re jacked up like that.”
The pursuit proceeded down the parkway but not at high speed. At one point, a Park Police officer states they are traveling 59 miles per hour. Before both stops, the two-man police vehicle pulled alongside Ghaisar’s Jeep, and the video shows no swerving or other evasive maneuvers by Ghaisar.
Ghaisar drove down Alexandria Avenue and stopped at Fort Hunt Road. The Park Police vehicle pulled directly in front of the Jeep, seemingly to block a third escape. The officers climbed out of their vehicle, with the passenger officer closest to Ghaisar’s Jeep, and the Jeep slowly begins to move toward Fort Hunt Road. The passenger officer, seemingly on the side of the Jeep, begins firing a total of five shots, the video shows. The Jeep stopped, then moved two more times. Each time, the officers fired two more shots, for a total of nine. Ghaisar’s family attorneys said he was struck four times in the head and once in the wrist, and that he was unarmed. Ghaisar had spoken at length of his distaste for guns.
“The legal standard” for police use of deadly force is “if the officer had a reasonable apprehension of an imminent threat of serious bodily injury or death,” Philip Matthew Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green University, said. “In my review of the video, it appears to me that the shots were fired to stop Ghaisar from driving away. That is problematic and in many scenarios a police officer would not be legally justified.” He noted there were many variables, including whether the officer felt Ghaisar might have been trying to ram the police vehicle while the other officer was inside.
Park Police policy prohibits officers from firing at a moving vehicle “except when the officer has a reasonable belief that the subject poses an imminent danger of death or serious physical injury.” The Supreme Court has ruled that such shootings must be judged by the officer’s perception of the circumstances at the time, not an objective analysis in hindsight. “I’ve seen it go two ways,” Alpert said, “where [the officer’s] perception is more important than what actually happened, but I’m not sure this is a close call.”
Connolly said, “The shooting officer was not in the path of the car.” And even if the initial shot were justified, Connolly said, “how do you justify the next eight shots?”
Alpert said the criminal investigation by the FBI, and the internal investigation by the Park Police, must focus on all nine shots. “Every time the trigger is pulled,” Alpert said, “the cop should have an answer for every shot.”
The FBI said it has no timeline on when it will complete its investigation, or when the Justice Department and the U.S. attorney in Washington will rule on criminal charges. The Park Police have not said when they will complete their internal investigation. No one familiar with such cases expects answers any time soon.
Here are the Park Police policies on pursuit and use of force:
More on the death of Bijan Ghaisar: