Federal prosecutors will not pursue charges against the U.S. Park Police officers involved in the fatal shooting of Bijan Ghaisar, the U.S. Department of Justice announced on Nov. 14.
The decision came almost two years after Officers Alejandro Amaya and Lucas Vinyard shot Ghaisar five times at the conclusion of a car chase on George Washington Memorial Parkway prompted by a reported hit-and-run crash in Alexandria.
“Based on the information available at this time, the Department cannot prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the two USPP officers committed willful violations of the applicable federal criminal civil rights statue when they shot Mr. Ghaisar,” the Justice Department said in a press release.
The investigation conducted by the department’s civil rights division, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, and the FBI confirmed that Amaya and Vinyard engaged Ghaisar in a vehicular pursuit starting at approximately 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 17, 2017.
The pursuit stopped at the intersection of Fort Hunt Road and Alexandria Avenue in Alexandria, where the two Park Police officers shot Ghaisar multiple times while he was in the driver’s seat of his vehicle.
The 25-year-old McLean resident spent 10 days in a coma at Inova Fairfax Hospital before he was taken off life support on Nov. 28, 2017.
Details of the incident beyond those basic circumstances did not start to emerge until Jan. 24, 2018 when the Fairfax County Police Department released video footage captured by the in-car camera of a county police officer who joined in the pursuit to provide back-up if needed.
The four-and-a-half minute-long recording showed that U.S. Park Police officers fired nine shots after cornering Ghaisar’s SUV. A subsequent Fairfax County police investigation determined that none of the department’s officers discharged their weapons.
According to the Justice Department, FBI investigators interviewed more than 150 individuals, including law enforcement officers from both the Park Police and Fairfax County, to determine whether the park police officers’ actions that night violated any federal laws.
When deciding whether to file charges, prosecutors looked at possible violations of a federal criminal civil rights statue that prohibits the willful deprivation of a person’s rights, privileges, or immunities protected by the U.S. Constitution, in this case the Fourth Amendment right to not be subjected to unreasonable search and seizure.
To establish a violation of the statute, the Justice Department says it would be required to prove the officers involved in the shooting had used constitutionally unreasonable force with intent to disregard the law.
An officer acting out of fear, mistake, panic, misperception, negligence, or poor judgment would not meet the level of intent that courts require in their interpretation of the statue, according to the department.
“The Department is unable to disprove a claim of self-defense or defense of others by the officers,” the DOJ said. “Accordingly, the Department has closed its investigation into this matter.”
The decision to not prosecute the officers involved in Ghaisar’s death was the latest frustrating development for the accountant’s family and friends, who have criticized the U.S. Park Police and federal investigators for failing to provide transparency and accountability.
Ghaisar’s family called the Department of Justice’s decision to not prosecute Amaya and Vinyard “cowardly.”
“The Justice Department has given us no answers to why Bijan was killed,” Ghaisar’s family said in a statement. “Instead they have broken every promise made to us – from keeping us informed about the investigation to personally sharing the results before broadcasting it to the world to, most importantly, protecting Bijan.”
The Park Police placed Amaya and Vinyard on administrative leave with pay after the shooting pending the conclusion of the FBI’s investigation, but the federal government did not publicly release their names until this past March after Ghaisar’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the 10 officers they identified as being responsible for the McLean resident’s death.
Amaya and Vinyard were named as the officers who apparently fired shots, but the remaining seven officers listed in the lawsuit remain unidentified.
The lawsuit is still underway in the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Virginia in Alexandria, and with the Justice Department not pressing charges, the Park Police will now move forward with its own internal investigation of Amaya and Vinyard, according to The Washington Post.
Ghaisar’s family and friends marked the two-year anniversary of his death on Nov. 17 with an emotional rally and candlelight vigil outside the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
In addition to acquaintances of Ghaisar, the gathering drew local, state, and federal politicians and representatives from civil rights organizations, including the NAACP, Mothers against Police Brutality, and Amnesty International.
“The Ghaisar family has experienced so much pain over the last two years, not just in coping with the loss of their beloved son and brother Bijan, but also in trying to understand what led to his death,” Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said in a joint statement. “Today’s announcement by the Department of Justice…will only add to this family’s heartbreak.”
Warner and Grassley said they would be formally requesting a briefing on the decision to not pursue charges in Ghaisar’s case from the Justice Department within the next 30 days.
Warner joined Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) in sending a letter to the FBI in January 2018 asking for an update on the status of the bureau’s investigation. The FBI responded that April that it would not discuss an active investigation.
After joining the Ghaisar family’s Lincoln Memorial vigil, Beyer, fellow Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.) and D.C. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) sent a letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray on Nov. 18 calling for him to authorize local authorities to release 9-1-1 recordings connected to the fatal shooting.
Beyer previously made the same request in a letter on Mar. 26, 2018.
“We found the two-year period it took to resolve the case unacceptable and remain concerned with the result,” the trio wrote in their new letter. “…Releasing these recordings would be an important element of rebuilding trust. The people of the National Capital Region demand high transparency and accountability standards from their local government and law enforcement entities.”
When contacted by the Fairfax County Times for more information on its investigation and concluding decision, a Department of Justice public information officer directed media inquiries to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in D.C.
“Thank you for your inquiry,” District of Columbia U.S. Attorney’s Office public information officer Kadia Koroma said. “However, we have no comment outside of what was issued in the press release.”