As the five-month anniversary approaches of the slaying of Bijan Ghaisar by two U.S. Park Police officers, the FBI and the Justice Department have taken more steps to maintain the silence surrounding the case. Late Thursday, the FBI informed Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) that Director Christopher A. Wray would not meet with him to discuss the Nov. 17 shooting, in which no charges have been filed. The names of the officers have never been released.
In addition, the U.S. attorney’s office in the District sent a letter last month to Arlington County’s emergency communications department urging them not to release the 911 phone call by an Uber driver, which started the chain of events that led to Ghaisar’s shooting. A letter to Arlington from Assistant U.S. Attorney John Cummings said that “the release of any evidence, particularly the 911 calls and any related records, at this time could compromise the integrity of the ongoing investigation,” although a graphic video of the shooting was released in January by Fairfax County Police Chief Edwin C. Roessler Jr.
After that letter from Cummings, Beyer last week asked the FBI to allow the release of the recordings. The FBI did not acknowledge that request Thursday in a letter to Beyer from Acting Deputy Assistant Director Zachary Lowe. Wray declined the meeting with Beyer because “long-standing policy generally precludes us from commenting on the status or existence of any potential investigative matter,” Lowe said.
“The department’s threat that releasing this audio would somehow jeopardize its investigation is absurd,” said Roy L. Austin Jr., a lawyer for the Ghaisar family, “and has whiffs of foot-dragging and attempts to whitewash yet another police-involved shooting. This investigation has been going on for almost five months with virtually no communication with Bijan Ghaisar’s family.”
“It is taking far too long for the FBI and U.S. Park Police to answer questions about the killing of Bijan Ghaisar,” Beyer said Friday. “After five months, we don’t even know the names of the officers involved, we don’t have a clear picture of their actions, and we don’t have an explanation about why they felt justified in using lethal force.”
Ghaisar was a 25-year-old accountant from McLean who was driving south on the George Washington Memorial Parkway on the evening of Nov. 17 when he apparently stopped his Jeep Grand Cherokee in traffic and was struck from behind by a Toyota Corolla. The Uber driver in the Corolla and perhaps also his passenger dialed 911. Though they were in Alexandria city, their call was routed to nearby Arlington, which most likely forwarded the call to Park Police.
Ghaisar drove away from the crash without waiting for police to arrive or making any eye contact with the Uber driver, the driver told Fox 5. Either the Uber driver or the passenger saw his license plate, “BIJAN,” and reported it to police, who said they broadcast a lookout for it. Several minutes later, a Park Police cruiser with two officers inside saw the Grand Cherokee heading south on the GW Parkway in Fairfax County and pursued it with lights and siren on. A Fairfax County officer joined the pursuit and activated his in-car video camera. Park Police do not have in-car or body-worn cameras.
Twice, Ghaisar stopped. Each time the Park Police officers emerged with guns drawn, and twice Ghaisar drove away, the Fairfax video shows. Ghaisar pulled over a third time in a residential neighborhood in the Fort Hunt area, and when the officers got out again, Ghaisar appeared to start slowly driving away again. The officers fired nine shots into the vehicle, the video shows. Ghaisar was struck three times in the head. He was unarmed, his family said. He died 10 days later.
The unnamed officers remain on administrative leave with pay, a Park Police spokesman said Friday. An internal affairs investigation into the shooting will not begin until a decision is made on whether criminal charges will be filed, the Park Police has previously said. The Justice Department’s civil rights division is overseeing the investigation, along with the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington.
The 911 call could shed light on what police were told about the fender bender in Alexandria — Ghaisar’s Jeep appears to have little damage on its rear end in photos taken at the scene — and why they pursued Ghaisar so urgently. Leaving the scene of an accident can be considered a felony if there is personal injury or damage over $1,000, and a misdemeanor if the damage is less than $1,000. The extent of the damage would not have been immediately known at the time of the accident, and the Park Police’s subsequent report on the accident, filed two weeks afterward, said the damage to the Jeep was “unknown,” though the vehicle was towed to the police seizure lot. The officer cited the Uber driver for failure to maintain proper control, a standard charge in a rear-end collision.
The Arlington Emergency Communications Center had already refused Freedom of Information Act requests from both The Washington Post and the Ghaisars’ lawyers for a copy of the 911 calls. As the lawyers continued to push for their release, the Justice Department sent a letter March 19 saying investigators “object to the release of any evidence related to this investigation. The 911 calls are a particular concern because they contain identifying information and statements from civilian witnesses who are relevant to this investigation.” The letter also said the FBI would “notify your department when the release of the 911 calls and related records will no longer jeopardize this ongoing criminal investigation.”
The FBI did not publicly object when Roessler, the Fairfax chief, released the video of the incident in January. FBI spokeswoman Kadia Koroma declined to comment on the video release Friday. She also declined to comment on the ongoing investigation. The FBI took over the investigation from the Park Police three days after the shooting. Park Police have legal jurisdiction outside of the national parks in several Northern Virginia counties, including Fairfax, under state law.
Beyer called for a meeting with Wray last week because he was “deeply concerned about lack of timeliness of the FBI’s civil rights investigation.” Neither the Park Police nor the FBI have offered any explanation of why the officers shot Ghaisar, why he was shot so many times or whether he posed any threat to the officers. “I want to speak face-to-face,” Beyer wrote in a March 26 letter, “given the legitimate and heightened concern from the local community. In particular, I am requesting a timeline for the investigation’s probable conclusion.”
The congressman, in whose district the shooting happened, also urged the FBI to give permission to Arlington to release the 911 tapes. “Failure to be responsive and transparent undermines public trust,” Beyer wrote last month.
“I asked for a meeting with Director Wray to get answers,” Beyer said Friday, “but have been rebuffed using the same line we’ve gotten since November. The Ghaisars and our community need answers now.”
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