An American killing: Why did the U.S. Park Police fatally shoot Bijan Ghaisar?
His mother made me promise not to reveal where he was buried, so let this suffice: Bijan C. Ghaisar will spend eternity in a graveyard that predates the Civil War, in a remote plot dominated by a maple tree. There are families at rest here who were present for the founding of the nation — old families who would have known the hills of Northern Virginia, as lush, untamed country. The Ghaisars did not know that Virginia. They came to the U.S. from Iran 40 years ago. In time, they achieved the modern version of the original American ideal that some of those old families fought for.
But that life ended on Nov. 17, 2017. Its outer forms remain — the handsomely decorated house at the end of a cul-de-sac, the professional achievements and affiliations. But the family has been emptied, like a building cleared before demolition. Only the shell still stands, rocked by regular gusts of anger, not only over the killing of Bijan by federal law enforcement agents but also by the official silence that has marked the last twelve months.
Kelly Ghaisar does not want the location of her son’s resting place made public because there is enough malice in this world to go around for both the living and the dead. Kelly does not read what people say about Bijan on the internet, but her daughter, Negeen, does. “I’m so glad that Taliban terrorist got killed,” the comments say. “I hope he rots in hell.”
Maddeningly little is clear about the case of Bijan Ghaisar, but this much can be said with total certainty: Bijan was not a “Taliban terrorist.” Bijan played football and lacrosse in high school. In college, he was an enthusiastic member of a fraternity. And he loved the New England Patriots — truly loved them, naming his dog after Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi. He was into rap. Smoked weed. Bijan was a 25-year-old American kid, and he was nothing else.
The online trolls are confused, and rather hopelessly so, but Bijan’s family isn’t much better off. They have no idea what he did to earn a death sentence. The worst thing he did on Nov. 17, as far as anyone knows, was drive away twice from a rear-end collision and attempted traffic stop. For this, he got four bullets to the head.
Also confusing is the source of those bullets: The U.S. Park Police, an obscure federal agency whose armed officers are largely unaccountable to the public. The Park Police have offered no explanation for why its officers killed Bijan.
At a time when police departments are under pressure to release information about an officer-involved killing within hours of the incident, the Park Police has been silent for exactly a year. The silence is a second outrage, almost as great as the first.
“All of our lives died that day,” Bijan’s sister, Negeen, says.
That day was a Friday, and Bijan was supposed to have dinner with his father, James Ghaisar. James thinks they may have gone to Farmers Fishers Bakers, right across the river in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C. Then again, Bijan was a huge fan of chicken wings. So maybe they would have stayed closer to home, on their side of the Potomac, tucking into a booth at one of the several brew pubs near Bijan’s apartment in Tysons Corner. It is impossible to say.
Bijan was easygoing and unburdened. He was also closer to his parents than most American children. He was going to be an accountant like James, and was already working in his father’s office. Earlier that day, Bijan had come to the house, and he and his mother had gone for a walk. It was the same walk they’d taken since he was a child, a path through the woods towards Old Dominion Drive. They talked about football. That weekend, the Pats would face the hapless Oakland Raiders, an easy win. The sun, which had been out, disappeared, and the air grew cold. Bijan put his arm around his mother. She said it was too heavy.
“We just walked side by side,” Kelly remembers. “Sometimes he would hold my hand.” It would be the last time she saw him happy and alive.
Bijan went to his father’s office, though James was away at a seminar. Where Bijan went after that is not exactly clear. Day turned to evening. James came home from the seminar, changed into more casual clothes and sat there, alone, waiting for Bijan. At 8 p.m., he called his son, receiving no response. At 8:30 p.m., he texted him: “Bijan, joon, where are you?” he asked, using a Persian term of affection. Again there was no response. James grew concerned but not alarmed. He kept waiting, eventually falling asleep on the couch.
James awoke at 1 a.m., to the sounds of his wife talking to someone at the door. Initially unaware of how late it was, he thought petitioners or church members were canvassing the neighborhood. But when he reached the door, he discovered that the men were plainclothes detectives with the U.S. Park Police.
The U.S. Park Police, which is part of the Department of the Interior, is one of 105 federal law enforcement agencies in the nation, at least according to the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers (the number gets smaller if inspectors general offices are excluded). These range from the U.S. Secret Service, which protects high-profile politicians like the president, to the Hoover Dam Police, charged with protecting a 726-foot-tall slab of concrete (last year, that department was taken over by the National Park Service). The National Zoo in Washington, D.C., has its own police force, part of a larger department charged with protecting sites within the Smithsonian Institution. The Tennessee Valley Authority has a federal police force. So does the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing.
Unlike the rangers who are ubiquitous in national parks, Park Police are armed. Its 500 or so officers are confined to three jurisdictions: New York City, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. Founded in 1791 by George Washington, the department is today headquartered in a series of tan office buildings overlooking the Potomac River. It is allowed to operate “within roads, parks, parkways, and other federal reservations in the environs of the District of Columbia,” where it effectively has the same powers as local police. Among the roadways the Park Police patrol is the George Washington Memorial Parkway, which curves along the Potomac River on the Virginia side, along the eastern edge of Fairfax County.
Fairfax County is home to a remarkable array of high-level government officials and foreign diplomats. Within its jurisdiction are the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Counterterrorism Center, as well as a military base, Fort Belvoir. Many of the nation’s most prominent defense contractors are headquartered here, just up the road from the Pentagon, which is in neighboring Arlington County. It is the second-wealthiest county in the U.S., but there are also pockets of poverty. It is, in other words, a complex place of complex fault lines.
That evening, Bijan was driving south on the George Washington Parkway in his 2013 Jeep Grand Cherokee. For some reason, he was heading away from his parents’ house in McLean, which was to the north. It is possible that Bijan realized his mistake and slowed down to make the exit at Slaters Lane, the last before Alexandria’s busy Old Town, which would have been especially crowded on a Friday right before Thanksgiving.
Bijan was traveling in the left lane when he stopped abruptly. He was hit from behind by another car, a vehicle operated by an Uber driver. Ordinarily, two drivers in such a situation pull onto the shoulder of the road and exchange insurance information. Bijan instead drove away. The Uber driver called 911, as may have the passenger. It is not known what they said, because the recordings or transcripts of those calls have not been made public. The time of the call or calls was 7:27 p.m.
The call or calls were picked up by police cars from two different departments, in a reflection of the overlapping jurisdictions common in the Washington area.
One of the two responding cars belonged to the U.S. Park Police, which had authority on the parkway, a federal road. The other car was from the Fairfax County Police Department.
At 7:37, a Fairfax County cruiser waiting at an intersection turned onto the George Washington Parkway to join the chase. It followed the Park Police car, white with flashing lights, which was behind Bijan’s SUV. The Park Police car pulled even with Bijan’s Jeep, and he stopped in the right lane of the parkway (there was no shoulder). The Park Police car stopped slightly in front, to cut him off. Two officers dressed in green uniforms jumped out of their cars, their movements suggesting agitation. The officer in the driver’s side seat had his gun drawn. He pointed it at Bijan while yanking at the car door with his left hand.
At this point, Bijan started to drive away. The officer, obviously frustrated, slapped the rear left window of the Jeep with the same hand that was holding the gun. Then the Park Police officers got back into their car and the chase continued, the Fairfax County vehicle trailing once again. It was now 30 seconds past 7:38 p.m.
Inexplicably, the Park Police cruiser pulled over and stopped on the side of the road, leaving the Fairfax County car to lead the pursuit. It sped up to follow Bijan — he was driving at 58 miles per hour, 13 miles above the speed limit — by two or three car lengths. About a minute and a half later, the Park Police vehicle took the lead again. It continued to lead in the pursuit even as Bijan exited the parkway at West Boulevard Drive.
At a few seconds after 7:40 p.m., Bijan stopped again, this time off the parkway exit. Again the Park Police officers exited their cruiser, guns out, pointing them at the driver’s side window of Bijan’s car. And once again, Bijan drove away.
After fleeing a Park Police stop for the second time, Bijan traveled north on West Boulevard Drive. He was on a residential street now, off the George Washington Parkway, and therefore back in Fairfax County jurisdiction. But the Park Police continued to lead the chase, even as he turned west on Alexandria Avenue, heading deeper into Fairfax.
Bijan stopped for a final time at the intersection of Alexandria Avenue and Fort Hunt Road, at a stop sign. This time, the Park Police cruiser pulled in front of Bijan’s car, blocking him. The two officers left their vehicle, once again with guns drawn. They moved quickly towards Bijan’s car in a manner that suggested they were not worried that he had a firearm. If he did, he would have had a clear shot at both officers, either through his front windshield or the window at his left side.
Instead, Bijan started to drive again, towards the grassy area on the side of the road. He was driving slowly, to the right. The two officers stood to his left, out of any apparent danger.
The first shot came almost as soon as Bijan began driving, fired by an officer standing maybe 3 feet from the Jeep. Four more shots followed. Bijan’s car stopped moving. The other officer approached. The car began to move slowly, veering sharply away from the officers and into the grass. The officers tracked the car and, standing at the driver’s side window, shot at Bijan several more times.
A Fairfax County officer approached from the distance. His gun was drawn, but he did not fire. Bijan’s car rolled to the right and hit the stop sign. The sign bent. The car tilted, started to tip over. The two Park Police officers stood next to the green Jeep in which Bijan Ghaisar was dying. In the time since the Fairfax County car joined the chase, four minutes had elapsed.
Kelly and James Ghaisar were confused. The two Park Police detectives told them that Bijan had been in a “shootout,” but they knew their son did not own a firearm. In fact, he hated guns.
“I thought maybe he was driving and there were aggressive people, or crazy people,” Kelly recalls. “You never know who has a gun these days or who doesn’t.”
Before telling Kelly anything about what had happened, the two detectives presented her with a photograph. It was of Bijan’s side, where he had a tattoo of an inscription from Rumi, the ancient Persian poet. The detectives asked if she recognized the tattoo. She did, of course. Whatever had happened, it had happened to Kelly Ghaisar’s son.
James awoke and joined his wife. Together, they learned only the most basic details of what had transpired: their son was shot, and he was in the hospital. The detectives did not explain why it took more than five hours to notify Bijan’s family of the shooting. That gap has not been accounted for to this day.
Bijan was at Inova Fairfax Hospital, the very same one where he had been born, only now he was in the intensive care unit, having sustained four shots to the left side of his head and one to his right wrist. A doctor said, according to Kelly, that Bijan had suffered a “J.F.K. wound” and was in a state of “purgatory” — floating, comatose, between life and death.
Bijan may have been in purgatory, but the Ghaisar family was closer to hell. Negeen arrived at the hospital early the following morning; her mother had called at 3 a.m. as Negeen spent a sleepless night watching the culinary series “Chef’s Table” on Netflix at home in Pittsburgh. She and her husband, Kouros Emami, took the earliest flight they could, then hurried to the hospital. When they got there, Negeen discovered that her brother was in a room guarded by Park Police.
The officers, Negeen remembers, refused to say what had happened to Bijan. “They called him a perp. From the moment we got there, there was a rule that every hour on the hour, for 10 minutes, one person could go in,” she said. Not that there was much to see, or much to take comfort from. Bijan was unconscious, breathing through a respirator. His head was bloated and heavily bandaged.
The Park Police never left the Ghaisars alone with Bijan. “They were all men,” Kelly remembers. “Big necks, mostly no hair.” They stood there, she says, “like stone walls. Seriously, people with no pulse, no humanity, no feelings. They were stoned-faced, they wouldn’t make eye contact.” The Park Police detectives who first informed the Ghaisars of the shooting had promised they would follow James and Kelly to the hospital. They never showed. (The Park Police declined to comment for this article, as did the Department of Interior.)
Kelly kept calling the numbers on the detectives’ cards, only to have those calls routed to a messaging service. One of the detectives did respond two days later, Kelly remembers, to explain that he had been off on the weekend. He advised Kelly to wait until Monday morning to call his supervisor. She thought this ridiculous advice, and told him so.
“They called him evidence multiple times,” Negeen says of the Park Police. “They said his body was evidence, and we can’t tamper with evidence, so we can’t touch it.” She adds, “They said that we should be thankful that they were doing that, because they normally don’t give any access.”
At one point, the Ghaisars summoned the hospital’s nondenominational chaplain, who intended to read some Rumi verses over Bijan. But when she tried to put a hand on his chest, an officer told her that she was not allowed to touch a Muslim man. The chaplain left Bijan’s room shaken.
The Ghaisars do not want the story of Bijan’s death to be about race and politics, but race and politics seep in like an early winter chill. “Let me put it this way,” says James, who has trouble speaking about his son without tearing up. “I moved here in 1976 and I lived in Mobile, Alabama, in the heart of Dixie. Believe it or not, I did not have the feeling I have today.” That feeling — “maybe we’re not as equal as we thought we are” — began with the election of Donald Trump. It reached its tragic crescendo a year and nine days after that.
“I think even the whole thing had a lot to do with profiling,” James says. Though James was raised a Muslim in Iran, he has not practiced Islam for decades, while Kelly grew up with no religion at all. They raised their children in a secular household.
But Kelly and James do speak English with an accent. And to each other, the family speaks in Farsi, the national language of Iran, which an American could mistake for Arabic. The Ghaisars say that the comportment of the Park Police offices noticeably changed after the arrival of Kouros, Negeen’s husband. A neuropsychologist who studies concussions, Kouros is tall and has a thick, dark beard. His meticulous personal style evokes his native Los Angeles, not any recognizable culture of the Middle East. Still, he appeared to unnerve the officers.
It was in the hospital that the Ghaisars started to wonder whether they were as American as they believed themselves to be. Bijan’s license plate bore his first name: “BIJAN.” What if that foreign name triggered the Park Police officers?
And he had been so ordinary — your average suburban kid. “If you took my brother’s beard and name out of the equation, I don’t think you could write a caricature of an American better than my brother,” Negeen says.
In high school, he had been a goofy, lovable jock. He went to the University of Alabama for one year, then transferred to Virginia Commonwealth. There, he joined the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity, which made him its “Brother of the Year” in 2013. He graduated two years later with an accounting degree. Now he was back in the hospital where he’d been born, back home in McLean, slowly dying.
On Tuesday, four days after the shooting, the FBI took over the investigation, which it said was a civil rights matter. The Park Police were summarily dismissed, and Bijan’s family could see him whenever they wanted, for as long as they wanted. These agents were more sensitive to the Ghaisars’ plight. One told James that when she put her son to bed at night, she thought of them.
Bijan’s condition, however, did not improve, and he showed no signs of coming out of his coma. His brain was swollen and his body was shutting down. Doctors gave the Ghaisars a choice: They could opt for a tracheotomy, which would allow Bijan to stay in a coma longer, or they could take him off the respirator, in which case he would die. In either case, he was not going to emerge into consciousness again.
After 10 days, the Ghaisars decided to remove Bijan’s breathing tube. “We picked noontime,” James says, “for the sun to be full and shining.” Bijan was expected to last only 10 minutes without life support. He lasted into the evening, passing away on Nov. 27, 2017, at 10:37 p.m. The cause of death was ruled a homicide.
First, there was grief. For the first week after Bijan’s death, there were always dozens of people at the Ghaisar house, sometimes as many as 200. Then came anger. And if the grief has receded, even just a little, the anger has not. There are too many questions, too many unknowns.
A few things were becoming clear. Bijan had marijuana in his system, but it is not clear when he last smoked. There was no pot in the car, nor any weapons. Toxicology reports showed him free of alcohol or other drugs. He may have been experiencing the effects of marijuana. And he may have simply been afraid. Whatever the case, whatever caused him to flee from the Park Police instead of taking whatever penalty awaited him, the Ghaisars were certain that Bijan did not have to die.
“From the first night, we started organizing a vigil,” says Negeen, who works in digital advertising and understands what it takes for a story to break through the daily thrum of news dominated by President Trump. “I think there were a dozen of us from that first night in the basement,” including others who worked in entertainment and publicity, and who were now being asked to put their skills to work for a morbid purpose. “We got it together.”
“It” was a fully permitted vigil held for Bijan at his “special place,” the Lincoln Memorial, on December 7. Hundreds gathered on the clear, chilly night, the alabaster Washington Monument gleaming behind them. Many held an artful poster that showed Bijan dressed in a suit and tie, smiling. At the bottom of the poster was a hashtag that has also served as a rallying cry for the Ghaisar family: #WeAreBijan. This could be taken as a statement of unity from the Iranian-American community in the Washington, D.C., area, whose size has been estimated at 30,000, though James believes it is at least twice that. The death even attracted notice in Tehran, where a spokesman for Iran’s foreign ministry described Bijan’s shooting as a “brutal murder.”
In the months before Bijan’s death, the Park Police in Washington had faced accusations of racial bias. In June 2017, Park Police officers detained three black teens on the National Mall without a proper license. “I doubt we would have seen little girls in pigtails handcuffed on the ground,” an African-American city council member said in a letter to the department. The Park Police dismissed the incident as “overblown” and showed little inclination to change its practices. That August, officers of the Park Police chased and detained two more teenaged vendors on the Mall.
Even if racial profiling wasn’t a factor in Bijan’s killing, there was a larger issue at hand. If the cops were willing to kill a motorist who’d committed a minor traffic infraction, could everyone be at risk? Negeen remembers how, later, lawyers asked if James and Kelly had spoken to her and Bijan about how to behave if they were stopped by law enforcement. African-American parents call this “the talk,” so prepared are they for their children to be confronted by cops with weapons drawn. The Ghaisars, well-respected members of an affluent community, had never felt any need for a similar conversation. “A lot of people think it won’t affect them,” Negeen says. “It can. It can happen to anyone. It happened to us.”
The Ghaisars had a champion in Tom Jackman, who has spent the last 20 years covering crime for the Washington Post (he also co-wrote a book about serial killer Robert Berdella). There were 116 murders in Washington, D.C., in 2017, many of them on the eastern bank of the Anacostia River, in precincts where grinding poverty has been a way of life for decades. But the number has dropped precipitously since the early 1990s. Progressive policing has also rendered officer-involved shootings almost nonexistent in the district, with only two people killed by police officers in Washington in 2017.
“This one was easy,” Jackman says of his decision to pursue Bijan’s case. The fact that the U.S. Park Police said “not one word” about what happened made him suspicious. “The police can lower the temperature, and do lower the temperature in 98 percent” of shootings, Jackman explains, by releasing information quickly. “They don’t like to shoot people, in general,” he added. While not necessarily indicative of wrongdoing, silence can be telling. “It seems,” Jackman told me, “that reticence is linked to whether or not it’s a good shoot.”
This did not strike Jackman as a good shoot. He wrote his first article about Bijan — “Man shot by US Park Police in critical condition” — on Nov. 18, 2017. In the year since, his byline has been on nearly 20 articles about the killing. More than anyone else not directly involved in the case, Jackman has made sure that even when the public had so many reasons to forget Bijan, he would not be forgotten. Jackman’s work was amplified by the newspaper’s editorial board, which turned Bijan’s killing into a cause. He has been the subject of nine editorials, competing on the Post’s opinion page with news of Trump and Kim Jong Un.
The chase for Bijan went right past the home of Rep. Don Beyer, who represents Virginia’s Eighth Congressional District, in which Bijan lived and died. After the killing, he called Kelly and James. The Ghaisars invited Beyer and his wife to their house. The Beyers stayed for a couple of hours.
On Dec. 2, Beyer shared on Twitter a link to the Post’s first editorial on the killing. “The death of Bijan Ghaisar has been shrouded in an unacceptable level of opacity,” Beyer’s message said. “The public, particularly his family and friends, deserve to know what happened here, and I will continue pressing the Park Police and the FBI until we get those answers.”
The vow was made in earnest, but it would prove impossible to fulfill — not only for Beyer but for several other politicians who have shown what has been, by all accounts, genuine concern for Bijan’s story.
On Feb. 13, Beyer and Eleanor Holmes Norton, the non-voting U.S. Representative for Washington, D.C., were to meet with Robert MacLean, chief of the U.S. Park Police. He had already made it clear that he would not comment on Bijan’s killing, and Beyer and Norton, both of whom are Democrats, wanted mainly to talk to him about having Park Police wear body cameras, which MacLean had previously advised officers against doing. MacLean canceled the meeting, citing an anti-lobbying rule. (The canceled meeting made news, and MacLean met with Beyer and Norton two weeks later, this time offering support for having officers wear cameras).
In late January, Beyer and Virginia’s two senators — Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, also both Democrats — sent a letter to FBI Director Chris Wray, asking him five detailed questions about the killing. The letter went unanswered, and Beyer sent another letter in late March. Wray turned down the request.
Then, in June 2018, FBI investigators conducted a search of the site where Bijan was killed. They did so without telling the family, which learned of the search from community members. A local news station reported that “the FBI maneuvered a Jeep Cherokee, similar to Ghaisar’s, into position where he stopped,” and that “agents used machetes and rakes to clear away brush,” while others searched the area with metal detectors. Bijan’s family still doesn’t know what the FBI agents were looking for or what they found.
“I’ve never encountered anything like this,” Beyer told me when we spoke in October. He suspects that there is a cover-up, but he cannot say what is being covered up, or by whom. He is sure of one thing, which is that the two U.S. Park Police officers who shot and killed Bijan “should never wear law enforcement uniforms ever again.” But their names have not been revealed, and not even the Ghaisars know who killed Bijan.
Policing has faced enormous scrutiny in recent years, as recordings of unarmed black men shot by officers have become a grim commonplace of American public life. So have attendant conversations about how police are trained, how they are armed, whether they have become overly reliant on military weapons and techniques and whether they know how to de-escalate a situation, particularly one involving mental illness.
Federal law enforcement has managed to almost entirely escape this kind of scrutiny, despite the fact that, as of 2008, “federal agencies employed approximately 120,000 full-time law enforcement officers who were authorized to make arrests and carry firearms in the United States,” according to Brian A. Reeves of the Bureau of Justice Statistics (it is not clear whether Reeves’s calculation includes armed officers who work for inspectors general). And though the data is a decade old, there appear to be no more current numbers available.
“Part of the goal of local policing, for decades, has been to be visible,” explains Seth W. Stoughton, a former police officer who teaches police law and police at the University of South Carolina School of Law. Federal law enforcement, he says, is still largely informed by FBI founder J. Edgar Hoover’s desire to have his agents act as an “invisible presence.” Stoughton says that the mythology of the trench-coated G-man has “has helped keep them out of the limelight,” but has also kept most federal law enforcement agencies “out of conservations about policing.”
That often leaves department inspectors general to police their respective agencies’ law enforcement personnel. In the case of the Park Police, that job belongs to the inspector general of the Department of the Interior, who has on occasion issued tough criticism of the force. In 2008, the inspector general published a report that depicted the Park Police as poorly trained and managed. Included with the report was a photograph of a Park Police officer sleeping in a van at the Jefferson Memorial.
A hauntingly prescient section focused on Park Police having to conduct patrols in places like Fairfax County. “Officers provided anecdotal accounts of patrolling unfamiliar areas alone and covering entire parkways with only two patrol cars and intermittent radio coverage in the Washington metropolitan area,” the passage went. “Some officers admitted that at times they respond to incidents differently than they would under normal circumstances because of the lack of backup assistance available.”
Things did not appear to get much better at the Park Police. In 2013, an unstintingly critical report from Interior’s inspector general found that many of the department’s guns were going missing or getting stolen. The report charged that there was “glaring nonfeasance by senior command officers.” The report also pointed to “the decade-long theme of inaction and indifference of [Park Police] leadership and management at all levels.”
That same year, an 83-year-old woman named Victoria M. Kong walked out of Ronald Reagan National Airport. During the search for Kong, a subsequent report from Interior’s inspector general revealed, a Park Police officer joked that she was a “9,000-year-old Alzheimer’s woman” who “went into the f***ing river.” Kong was eventually found dead in Gravelly Point Park.
While necessary, such reports lack the force of immediate repercussions to which local police departments have long been accustomed. Stoughton, the University of South Carolina policing expert, explains that “federal law enforcement don’t have the same kind of political accountability that local law enforcement have.” Even if they do patrol a community, they do not answer to mayors, city supervisors or community leaders. “They don’t need to satisfy the same demands for accountability.” An inspector general can never compete with the collective anger of a community.
Consequences for federal law enforcement are different too. In 2013, Austin, Texas, police officer Charles Kleinert shot and killed Larry Jackson Jr., who was black and unarmed, while trying to arrest him. Kleinert’s lawyers resorted to a novel defense, arguing that because Kleinert was part of a federal task force investigating bank robbery, he was himself a federal agent. Therefore, the lawyers said, Kleinert should be granted immunity from prosecution under the supremacy clause of the Constitution, which holds federal law above state law.
The court agreed with Kleinert, in a decision based on an 1889 case from California, in which a specially deputized U.S. marshal killed a man who was possibly about to attack Supreme Court Justice Stephen Field on a train. The marshal was arrested and placed in jail, but in 1890 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the arrest was unlawful because the marshal had “acted in discharge of his duty as an officer of the United States” and thus “could not be guilty of murder under the laws of California.” More than a century later, that deference to federal law enforcement still holds.
Fairfax County’s department is headed by Ed Roessler, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., who looks like an old-timer but thinks like a reformer. Sitting in his office, where the windows look out over the autumnal countryside, he talks with passion about killings that happened in Fairfax years ago, recalling details that still pain him.
Roessler did not become chief until 2013, but he has been with the department for 30 years. In that time, he has earned the right to say when officers of his department have done wrong — as they did in the shooting death of unarmed optometrist Salvatore Culosi in 2006, and the killing three years later of David Masters, a motorist who had torn out some flowers. Discussing these shootings, Roessler rises from his chair, grows animated, shows who was standing where, how guns were held, how things went wrong and how he wants to make them right.
“This eats you up,” he says. “This is what can trigger you. It’s the trauma to the muscle between the ears, which is the brain.” He says that police shootings give him post-traumatic stress disorder.
The killing of Bijan Ghaisar would test Roessler, just as it would test the U.S. Park Police, and the Department of the Interior and the Department of Justice. Every other public official has retreated into silence. Roessler has not.
Virtually everything we know about the shooting we know because of video shot from the dashboard of a Fairfax County Police Department cruiser. The FBI did not want Roessler to release the video, but he did it anyway, two months and one week after the shooting. Without it, the case would be even more of a mystery than it is today.
Roessler’s own thinking about how to deal with police killings changed on Jan. 5, 2015. “I really had enough,” he says. On that day, he decided to release more than 11,000 pages related to the police killing of John Geer, an unarmed 46-year-old white man involved in a domestic dispute. Geer had been killed in the summer of 2013, and an investigation was supposedly still proceeding. By releasing the information, Roessler dramatically broke with his own department and the county attorney. But he won trust from the public.
“That’s the day that I decided this department needs to become more transparent,” Roessler told me. In a 75-minute conversation, Roessler used the words “transparency” or “transparent” 44 times. Transparency, for Roessler, isn’t just the latest fad in policing. It is a way for police to control narratives that can slip out of their grip. “In most of these cases, the story is not fully told by law enforcement, so therefore the media controls the narrative,” Roessler says. “The upset community will say XYZ. I was already in that position with the Geer shooting.”
He did not ever want to be in that position again. That’s why, on Jan. 24, 2018, Roessler made public the dashcam video from the Fairfax County vehicle that was present at Bijan’s shooting. It remains the most significant release of information in the entire case. Roessler is careful not to criticize the Park Police, but it is clear that he thinks they acted improperly — not just towards Bijan, but also toward Fairfax County officers, whose positions Roessler believes the Park Police officers did not consider when they opened fire. “I am so blessed that God was on our side and my officer is not dead,” Roessler says.
Asked whether he believes the Park Police officers were trained poorly, Roessler will only say this: “My officers are not trained that way.” His own officers are trained on the National Decision Model, a policing philosophy developed in Scotland. With its emphasis on analysis and consensus, the model is supposed to help officers handle complex situations without necessarily resorting to force. Gradually, the approach has caught on with progressive police departments in the U.S.
On the day we spoke in October, Roessler also released his own officers’ reports from the shooting. There was little new here, except for definitive confirmation that Bijan was not armed. Now, Roessler is waiting like everyone else for the FBI to publish its findings.
“I don’t know the state of the investigation. It’s coming up on a year,” he says. “I have nothing left to give.”
On Aug. 3, 2018, the Ghaisar family a claim against the federal government for $25 million. “This wrongful death and civil rights case is about the egregious, senseless, and unlawful killing of a young man by two out-of-control law enforcement officers,” the lawsuit begins. Throughout, the language is uncommonly impassioned. “Everything about this case, from the chase, to the shooting, to the subsequent treatment of the family, has been cruel,” the suit says later on.
The family hopes that suing the government will eventually force the Park Police and the Department of Justice into the disclosures they’ve refused to make. And those disclosures, the Ghaisars believe, will prove what they have known all along.
“This is not a particularly complicated case,” says Roy Austin, a partner at Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis, who is representing the Ghaisar family and who wrote the complaint filed in August. A former trial attorney with the civil rights division of the Department of Justice, Austin calls Bijan’s killing “a very clear case of excessive force.”
So far, the government has delayed making any revelations pertaining to the lawsuit. Meanwhile, Rep. Beyer says he has been told that the FBI has concluded its investigation. He does not believe that a grand jury has been convened, which means that charges against the two officers who killed Bijan are unlikely. Whatever the FBI found is now with Justice, where it will be compiled into a report.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Justice, Sarah Isgur Flores, would neither confirm nor deny any of this.
“My worst fear,” Beyer says, “is that we’re going to wait three years and the Department of Justice is going to say, ‘Everything was cool.’”
That is the worst fear of the Ghaisar family, too. “I’m angry constantly,” says Negeen. “I don’t think that I can mourn at all. I don’t know what I’m mourning. I don’t know what is going to happen. Are these people going to get charged? Is there any accountability? Do I have any hope for anything?”
And now it is fall again. The leaves turned late this year, and the hills of Fairfax County are rich with color. Kelly walks through the graveyard where Bijan is buried. She comes here every day. In the summer, she can hear the sounds wafting from a nearby outdoor music venue. But there is no music now. In the distance, there is the occasional rush of a passing car. Aside from that, silence prevails over the growing dusk.
Bijan’s grave is low and long. On its face is a quote from Rumi, the poet whose words also adorned his body: “The wound is the place where the light enters you,” the verse says.
Photographs decorate a wall in the Ghaisar family’s McLean, Va., home. (Photo: Mary F. Calvert for Yahoo News)
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