New video of federal cops’ killing of Virginia man at traffic stop raises more questions

Bijan Ghaisar appeared to anger the federal Park Police officers who tried to stop his car twice before killing him.

SCREENSHOT, Fairfax County Police Department video
SCREENSHOT, Fairfax County Police Department video

A 25-year-old man killed by U.S. Park Police last November in Virginia had twice driven away from officers who leveled guns at him at close range before the officers shot him during a third stop, video released by another police department on Wednesday shows.

Precise information on the police killing of Bijan Ghaisar remains scarce. The Park Police still refuse to release the names of the officers involved or to produce copies of department policies governing situations like the one that ended in the unarmed young man’s death, the Washington Post reports. They have no incident videos of their own because the agency uses neither body-worn nor vehicle-mounted cameras.

Wednesday’s video comes from a Fairfax County Police Department dashboard camera. FCPD Chief Edwin Roessler chose to make the video public after handing it over last month to FBI investigators who are looking into Ghaisar’s killing.

The events captured in the video will raise predictable questions from observers with varying opinions about police officers’ duties and rights with regard to lethal force. Some will see a man repeatedly fleeing police and inviting violence. Others will wonder why officers decided they had to shoot someone after the third time he started to pull his car away from them considering that they hadn’t fired on him the first two times. The Park Police remain mute on these and other questions.

Ghaisar, an Iranian-American native of the D.C. area who had attended Virginia Commonwealth University, died 10 days later “in the same hospital in which he was born 25 short years ago,” his family said in a statement just after Thanksgiving. “No one knows why Ghaisar, who had no criminal record and only minor traffic tickets, would elude the police twice,” the Post noted Wednesday.

The U.S. Park Police is an unusual law enforcement agency. Part of the National Parks system, it has jurisdiction over a patchwork of federally-owned land in the District of Columbia and over some surrounding Virginia roads such as the George Washington Parkway, where Ghaisar is seen driving at the start of the FCPD video.

While little known outside the region, the agency has built a reputation in the District for handling citizens roughly. Where city cops have long been seen as careful and responsible in their handling of impromptu, unlicensed street protests, for example, the Park Police groom a hard-ass identity. They roughed up Occupy protesters in 2012, dragged two journalists out of a 2011 Taxi Commission meeting at the request of the body’s chairwoman, and picked a bizarre fight with a dancing flashmob that formed occasionally at the Jefferson Memorial. Park Police officers have shot and killed D.C.-area residents in dubious circumstances before, including the 2009 killing of a man they had followed into an alley, the non-fatal shooting of unarmed 54-year-old Ronald Hughes the same year, and multiple killings in the mid-1990s.

The video released by FCPD shows a Park Police vehicle pursuing Ghaisar’s dark SUV for about 40 seconds before his vehicle stops in the right-hand lane. Both Park Police officers exit their vehicle with guns already drawn and leveled at the cabin of the SUV.

As the officer riding in the passenger-side shuffles closer to the driver’s window, Ghaisar drives ahead and away down the parkway. Roughly four seconds pass between when the officers exit aiming pistols at Ghaisar and when he hits the gas.

The passenger-side cop slams the butt of his service pistol against the rear window of Ghaisar’s car as it pulls away past the stationary Park Police vehicle, which was not so far in front of Ghaisar’s path that he had to drive onto the grass to get past it. The seemingly frustrated officer then reaches down to grab something he dropped and hops back in the car as his partner gets back into the driver’s seat.

The FCPD vehicle is briefly leading the pursuit after the first stop, but the Park Police officers quickly pull back in front and overtake Ghaisar, forcing him onto a right-hand exit from the highway. He stops at a stop sign, the officers again pull around in front without blocking him in entirely, and again jump out with guns leveled at the driver. The trail car’s camera captures the sound of an officer trying to open the driver’s-side door. But officers issue no verbal commands. Again, Ghaisar pulls away — this time needing to cut a slight right-hand curve to get around the Park Police, who again hop back into their car and pursue.

Timestamps on the video indicate that this second stop took place at 7:40 p.m. That would make it 13 minutes after Ghaisar reportedly fled the scene of a minor collision in Alexandria, reported by an Uber driver who said he had rear-ended Ghaisar’s SUV after it stopped short in front of him.

One minute later, police fire nine bullets into Ghaisar’s vehicle after stopping it a third time. In the final, fatal stop, the officers take a longer moment to pull fully perpendicular in front of Ghaisar’s vehicle. The passenger-side officer again approaches with gun leveled, but does not move to the door handle. Again, the audio does not indicate anyone gave Ghaisar any verbal instructions, commands, or warnings.

The same officer who fumbled something onto the ground while trying to smash Ghaisar’s window the first time he fled from a stop is standing just outside the potential forward path of Ghaisar’s SUV when it lurches right and forward. One shot is heard immediately when the car lurches, then three more rapid-fire, then a fourth. The passenger-side officer appears to be the only one in position to fire the shots at that moment, but Park Police’s stonewalling of reporters’ questions since November leaves the question of who shot when unresolved.

After the pop, pop-pop-pop, pop first round of shots, the passenger-side officer holsters his gun and clutches at his radio. The FCPD camera captures a murmur of radio chatter that is indiscernable. One second later, Ghaisar’s car moves forward again and officers fire two or three more shots. The SUV stops again, its front wheels now on the grass pointing toward a ditch next to a stop sign.

The officers close the distance toward the driver’s side door handles again, and almost 10 seconds later, the SUV begins to roll forward down the side of the ditch. Officers fire another two or three shots, Ghaisar’s vehicle tips over onto the stop sign, and the video ends abruptly.

Roessler’s team clipped the raw video at that point, according to the Post, after the final shots were fired, but before the camera might have captured officers’ reactions to the slaying.

It also might have shown what, if any, attempts officers made to render first aid to the driver they’d just shot. Victims of police shootings are typically left to bleed for long moments before anyone begins rendering aid at the scene.

Records indicate an ambulance arrived roughly 12 minutes after the shooting in November, according to the Post.