Ghaisar, a 25-year-old accountant who had no weapon, was driving on the George Washington Memorial Parkway when he was rear-ended in a fender bender, then kept driving. The Park Police soon encountered him; that’s when the trouble started.
He was certainly guilty of failing to heed the officers’ repeated attempts to apprehend him — he disobeyed them three times by driving off after he had stopped. Yet there is no way to reasonably conclude, from the video shot by a trailing Fairfax County police patrol car, that Ghaisar’s conduct was aggressive or threatening, or that the lives of the officers were in peril at the moment they began shooting, firing at him 10 times.
In dismissing the case against the two officers, U.S. District Judge Claude M. Hilton concluded that under the circumstances, their actions met the legal standard of “necessary and proper.” That assertion is plainly at odds with the video evidence, which shows the officers rushing at Ghaisar with guns drawn for no other reason than he had disrespected them by failing to pull over. The judge also noted that Ghaisar appeared to have been smoking marijuana and that his driving was erratic.
The judge reached his conclusion, based on written assertions by the officers themselves, without a trial or any scrutiny of the officers’ testimony. He applied the old-school benefit of the doubt that police have enjoyed pretty much forever.
That benefit of the doubt rests on the question: Who are we to second-guess an officer’s subjective decision-making in the heat of the moment? Without doubt, police have dangerous and critical jobs, and any judgment must take that into account. But that cannot mean that police officers who kill unarmed individuals are exempt from any real scrutiny, no matter the circumstances.
Ghaisar had no weapon. At the moment the police discharged their guns, he was steering away from one of the officers who was moving toward the front of his vehicle. His Jeep did not “lurch forward” as Judge Hilton wrote; it crept at slower-than-walking speed. The officers, who were visibly irate, now cite that as their pretext for taking a life.
Here’s a question for the courts: Given that the Ghaisar case began as a minor traffic incident, was it remotely reasonable for the officers to draw their guns in the first place? That question seems not to have occurred to Judge Hilton. It would have certainly been raised had there been a trial.
Virginia prosecutors say they will appeal the judge’s ruling. Here’s hoping the appeals court watches the videotape with its eyes wide open.