The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Impunity for unwarranted police killings is still a default

Supporters and friends commemorate the second anniversary of Bijan Ghaisar’s death in 2019. (Craig Hudson/For the Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

After a legal odyssey of nearly five years, the Justice Department decided last week not to reopen the federal criminal civil rights investigation of two hotheaded U.S. Park Police officers who shot to death Bijan Ghaisar, an unarmed 25-year-old accountant. By declining to prosecute them for a killing that stemmed from a fender bender in suburban Virginia, Attorney General Merrick Garland’s department has effectively shrugged at an apparently unjustified killing.

Ghaisar had been rear-ended, lightly, just across the Potomac River from D.C. in 2017. The reasonable conclusion based on watching dash-cam video of the encounter is that he presented no threat to himself, the officers or the public. It’s true that he drove off twice after the police pulled him over; it’s also true that the officers should not have mounted a chase, let alone drawn their guns, after such a minor incident. Ghaisar deserved a fine, not a volley of bullets to the head.

The department’s decision ends any chance of criminal charges against the officers, Lucas Vinyard and Alejandro Amaya, who, incredibly, remain on the Park Police payroll.

The bar for prosecuting police who use lethal force in the line of duty has been set high for years, and for sound reasons — officers perform dangerous jobs and are often forced to make fateful decisions in a split second. Mindful of that, prosecutors have been reluctant to bring charges in lethal-force cases, and juries have been reluctant to convict.

That high bar, and the recognition that police officers face genuine risks in the course of protecting themselves and others, cannot be tantamount to a license to kill. Courts and prosecutors must scrutinize the events surrounding police-involved killings, or impunity will trump the presumption that lethal force must be a last resort.

The good news is that impunity’s veil has been lifted in some places, thanks largely to videos produced by smartphones and other cameras. The murder conviction of Derek Chauvin, the White officer who killed George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis two years ago, is the best-known instance of that — but not the only one.

Last week, a prosecutor in Grand Rapids, Mich., charged a police officer with second-degree murder in the death of a Congolese immigrant, Patrick Lyoya. The killing occurred after the officer, Christopher Schurr, who is White, approached Mr. Lyoya, who was Black, during a traffic stop. Mr. Lyoya attempted to flee; videos of the encounter show Officer Schurr pursuing him, wrestling him to the ground and shooting him in the back of the head as they struggled.

The charge against Officer Schurr should send a stern message to law enforcement, which is this: A traffic stop or other apprehension involving an unarmed suspect who poses no threat in the initial encounter should not devolve into the use of deadly force. If it does, that’s not just bad judgment; it often amounts to callous disregard for life.

Unfortunately, hidebound habits persist in granting police the benefit of the doubt. The case of Bijan Ghaisar is proof of that. That the officers who killed him will face no criminal charges is evidence that impunity for police remains too often the default, even if it is no longer the rule.