The Bijan Ghaisar Case: Should the Officers Have Approached Bijan’s Vehicle with their Firearms Out? Short Answer: Absolutely Not.

By: Sahba Taslim Saravi, Managing Editor

On November 17, 2017, U.S. Park Police Officers Alejandro Amaya and Lucas Vineyard murdered my friend Bijan Ghaisar on George Washington Parkway in Northern Virginia.[1] The case was immediately handed over to the Federal Bureau of Investigations and all information was quickly sealed, blocking access not only to the public but also Bijan’s family.[2] Fairfax County Police were also on the scene and provided dashcam footage of the event.[3] On the evening Bijan was shot, he was stopped at a traffic light when he was struck from behind by a vehicle operating as an Uber; Bijan drove away from the intersection.[4] The Uber passenger called 911.[5]

The dashcam footage shows that upon stopping Bijan, Officers Amaya and Vineyard approached the vehicle with their guns drawn and pointed towards Bijan’s head.[6] Bijan drove off. Again, the officers stopped him and approached the vehicle with their guns drawn towards Bijan’s head, and again, Bijan drove off.[7] The last time they stopped Bijan, Officers Amaya and Vineyard again approached the vehicle with the firearms pointed towards Bijan’s head then fired nine times, four of those bullets hitting Bijan in the head.[8] After spending ten days on life support, twenty-five year old Bijan passed away on November 27, 2017.[9]

In the days following the incident, I looked up every related article and read all the comments. I was shocked to read comments blaming Bijan, saying that if he had not fled when he was stopped, he would be alive. Those comments truly broke my heart and surely hurt  Bijan’s family. I can’t help thinking that if I were Bijan, scared, witnessing two officers’ approach me guns aimed at my head, I would have fled. I think any rational person would have done the same.

Why did Officers Amaya and Vineyard approach Bijan’s vehicle with their firearms pointed at him? Was their conduct warranted? The clear answer is no. In Virginia, leaving the scene of traffic accident is a Class 5 felony if there are injuries or property damage of more than $1,000.[10] Police involved in these kinds of felony traffic stops are trained to approach such vehicles with their weapons drawn.[11] U.S. Park Police policy on vehicle pursuits authorized officers to engage in such pursuits only when  “A. [t]he suspect is wanted for, or suspected of committing a felony offense involving violence or the threat of violence to another person. This includes but is not limited to homicide, sexual assault, robbery, felony assault, felony sex offense, and abduction. [or] B.   [t]he suspect is wanted for or has committed a felony and is in known possession of a firearm.”[12] Further, the policy states that “the act of fleeing and eluding the police shall not in itself be a pursuable offense.”[13]

The Uber vehicle occupants sustained no injuries from the impact, and the dash cam video shows little to no property damage to Bijan’s vehicle. Clearly Bijan committed no felony here. The officers misapplied their training to approach vehicles with the weapons drawn. Bijan was not a suspect “wanted for, or suspected of committing a felony offense involving violence or the threat of violence to another person,” nor was he a suspect wanted for or suspected of committing a felony with the possession of a firearm. And as Park Police policy states, Bijan’s fleeing or eluding the police was not a pursuable offence.

Officers Amaya and Vineyard were not only incompetent in their training, they simply ignored the policies of their office. Had they approached Bijan’s vehicle per the guidelines of their training and their office’s policies, I believe Bijan would still be here with us today. In November 2019, the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the District of Columbia announced that the office will not file federal criminal civil rights against the officers.[14] The office added that their decision does not preclude other agencies from taking up the case.[15] Before the start of 2020, Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh decided to take up the case and present it to a grand jury.[16] Morrogh was ultimately unable to do so because the U.S. Attorney in D.C. refused to clear an FBI agent to testify.[17] Morrogh has now stepped down from his position and it is now up to his successor, Steven Descano, to decide whether to carry the case forward.[18]

I could write a whole blog post about the phenomenal person Bijan was. His kindness, hospitality, and ability to make everyone around him smile. His warm smile and soft eyes. His gleaming personality that lit up an entire room. The loss of Bijan hurt an entire community and this is a loss many of us will never be able to get over. While Bijan’s friends and family are mourning this loss, his murders walked away with no criminal charges and their jobs intact. [19]

 

 

Sources:

[1] Dakin Andone and Madeline Holcome, US Park Police Involved in Fatal Shooting of Bijan Ghaisar Won’t Face Federal Criminal Civil Rights Charges, CNN (Nov. 15, 2019, 5:51 AM), https://www.cnn.com/2019/11/15/us/bijan-ghaisar-shooting-no-charges/index.html.

[2] Tom Jackman, Man Shot by U.S. Park Police Dies, Was Unarmed, Family Says, Wash. Post (Nov. 28, 2017,  6:36 PM), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/true-crime/wp/2017/11/28/man-shot-by-u-s-park-police-dies-was-unarmed-family-says/.

[3] Tom Jackman, Video Shows Park Police Fired Nine Shots in Bijan Ghaisar’s Jeep at Close Range, Killing Him,  Wash. Post (Jan. 24, 2018, 4:29 PM), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/true-crime/wp/2018/01/24/video-shows-park-police-fired-nine-shots-into-bijan-ghaisars-jeep-at-close-range-killing-him/.

[4] Tom Jackman, U.S. Park Police Officers Will Not Face Changes in Shooting of Bijan Ghaisar, Wash. Post (Nov. 14, 2019, 5:16PM), https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/public-safety/us-park-police-officers-will-not-face-charges-in-shooting-of-bijan-ghaisar/2019/11/14/1497a788-f1ab-11e9-89eb-ec56cd414732_story.html

[5] Tom Jackman, Park Police Postpone Internal Probe of Bijan Ghaisar Case; 911 Call Partly Released, Wash. Post (Dec. 2, 2019), https://www.washingtonpost.com/crime-law/2019/12/02/park-police-postpone-internal-probe-bijan-ghaisar-case-call-partly-released/.

[6] Jackman, supra note 3.

[7] Id.

[8] Jackman, supra note 2; Jackman, supra note 3.

[9] Jackman, supra note 2.

[10] Va. Code § 46.2-894 (2019).

[11] Jackman, supra note 2.

[12] U.S. Nat’l Park Services, General Order Vehicular Pursuits § 2205.01 (Jun. 8, 2019), https://www.nps.gov/aboutus/foia/upload/G-O-2205-Vehicular-Pursuits-06-08-18.pdf.

[13] Id.

[14] Tom Jackman, Fairfax Prosecutors Seeking Indictments Against Park Police Officers in Fatal Shooting of Bijan Ghaisar, Wash. Post (Dec. 18, 2019, 6:58 PM), https://www.washingtonpost.com/crime-law/2019/12/18/fairfax-prosecutors-seeking-indictments-against-park-police-officers-fatal-shooting-bijan-ghaisar/.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Tom Jackman, Fairfax Prosecutor Will Not Seek Charges in Bijan Ghaisar Case Before He Leaves Office, Wash. Post (Dec. 23, 2019, 2:36 PM),https://www.washingtonpost.com/crime-law/2019/12/23/fairfax-prosecutor-will-not-seek-charges-bijan-ghaisar-case-before-he-leaves-office/.

[19] Rachel Sadon, U.S. Park Police Officers Will Not be Charged in Shooting of Unarmed Driver, WAMU American University Radio (Nov. 14, 2019), https://wamu.org/story/19/11/14/u-s-park-police-officers-will-not-be-charged-in-shooting-of-unarmed-driver/.

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