Had it not been for the dash cam on the Fairfax County police car, the shooting death of Bijan Ghaisar at the hands of federal police officers in Virginia would be shrouded in even more secrecy.
The video, posted above, shows two U.S. Park Police officers shooting into Ghaisar’s car nine times as he tries to drive away on November 17, 2017.
The 25-year-old accountant was unarmed but police had been pursuing him because he had been struck from behind by an Uber driver and had driven away without exchanging information, prompting a 911 call from the Uber driver and his passenger.
It does not appear in the video that their lives were in danger yet 19 months after the shooting, the FBI is still investigating and the Justice Department has yet to say whether the cops will be charged.
The officers, Alejandro Amaya and Lucas Vinyard, have been on paid administrative leave since the shooting. They gave [their first public statement](acted in self-defense and defense of others.”) about the shooting this week through their lawyers, claiming they were acting self defense.
Chances are they would have been exonerated by now had it not been for the video.
After all, federal agents are forbidden from wearing body cameras and they do not allow local cops to wear them when working with federal agents.
The only reason the Fairfax County police officer’s car was able to record the shooting was because the cop joined the chase after it had already began so it was not a planned joint operation.
But now a bill has been introduced that would require federal agents to not only wear body cameras, but also install dashboard cameras in their federal police vehicles.
The bipartisan bill is sponsored by Democratic Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton and Republican Congressman Don Beyer and inspired by the fatal shooting of Ghaisar.
“The still-unexplained killing of Bijan Ghaisar shows how important it is to make these reforms, which will benefit victims’ families, officers and the communities they serve,” Beyer said. “Without the body camera footage from local police, the Ghaisars still would have almost no information about the death of their son.”
Added Norton, “We must ensure federal officers are held as accountable to the public for their actions as local and state police.”
The Justice Department said federal agents are forbidden from wearing body cameras to safeguard the “sensitive or tactical methods used in arresting violent fugitives or conducting covert investigations,” the Washington Post reported.
The congressional bill requiring federal agents to wear body cameras also states that footage captured must be kept for six months, then deleted. Footage taken with the dashboard camera would be kept for at least 90 days.
Exceptions to these rules are if victims, witnesses and people of private residences wish to have the camera turned off and if footage captures an officer’s use of force of behavior subject to complaint.
The bill also prohibits facial recognition and limits who has access to the footage.
It would also forbid officers who use force on citizens or have citizen complaints filed against them to review the footage before writing their reports.
Roy L. Austin Jr., a lawyer for the Ghaisar family, gave the following statement to the Washington Post:
“At a minimum, federal law enforcement agencies should be held to the same basic standards as state and local law enforcement agencies. This bill does a lot to require a common sense change to the way federal law enforcement is allowed to operate in this country. While nothing can bring Bijan back and truly bring justice to his family, friends and community, knowing that his life was responsible for this crucial reform would at least be some solace.”
Patrick O’Carroll, executive director of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, said “oftentimes, agents are in an undercover capacity, where it becomes problematic having their operations recorded.”
In the recent shooting death of Brandon Webber, however, federal agents lack of recording was a factor that placed police at risk.
Webber, a 20-year-old black man was shot and killed by U.S. Marshals in Memphis who were trying to serve him felony warrants, sparking protests that turned into violent outcries.
Memphis police, who were not involved in Webber’s shooting, were called to control the protests but more than 30 officers were injured by rocks and bottles thrown by angry citizens who did not believe the shooting was justified. And with no body cam footage, no wonder they are skeptical.
Earlier this month, Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields announced her officers would no longer work with federal agents because of their policy forbidding body cameras.
The decision was made after Atlanta police officer Sung Kim fatally shot an unarmed man while assigned to a federal fugitive task force in January. Shields’ first instinct was to assign body cameras to her officers on the task force but the FBI said no.
“It was very frustrating for all of us,” she said. “We do value these relationships, but in the end the Department of Justice has a policy that does not align with ours when it comes to transparency.”
Feds not following own advice
The Atlanta Police Department is not the only local law enforcement agency urging the Justice Department to take its own advice.
“It’s ironic they aren’t complying with what they preach to be so important in policing,” St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell said.
On it’s own website, under the category of body-worn cameras, the U.S. Department of Justice boasts of the positive impact body cameras have on policing, calling them “highly effective resources” and “a promising tool.”
Axtell said his officers “refuse to go out on patrol without their cameras” because video evidence of an interaction has the power to vindicate a cop caught up in controversy.
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said he is also considering cutting ties with federal agents over the body camera issue.
“Transparency breeds trust in the community,” he said. “I think it’ll be difficult for our federal partners not to be in line with expectations on transparency.”
But as we wrote in February, Acevedo has his own problem with transparency which came to light in a botched no-knock raid that left two innocent people dead in which the cops were not wearing body cameras.
On the other hand, some police departments do not see an issue with federal agency rules and continue to work with them like Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus.
“We are not a wealthy city and federal help has been more advantageous than not,” Magnus said. “No one is asking us to violate our own policies yet so we have no reason to leave.”
Officers working with D.C. police in Washington choose to follow along with the “no body camera rule” as well.
“The feds don’t allow us to use them and we comply. We’re going along with what our federal partners want,” Deputy Communications Director Kristen Metzger said.
2020 Presidential Election
Body cameras may even become an issue during the run-up to the 2020 Presidential Election after presidential candidate and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg recently cancelled several campaign events to fly back to Indiana after a South Bend cop fatally shot a man while his body camera was off.
Buttigeg ordered every South Bend officer to keep their body cameras turned on at all times when interacting with citizens.
“We have a responsibility to take every step that can promote transparency and fairness, both in dealing with the recent incident and looking towards the future,” the Indiana mayor said.
On Tuesday, Senators Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Mark Warner (D-Va) wrote to the FBI, seeking an update to the investigation in the shooting death of Bijan Ghaiser, which inspired the bill to require federal officers to wear body cameras and use dashcams in their patrol cars.
“The FBI’s slow pace and lack of transparency are weakening the trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve,” stated the strongly worded letter signed by both senators.
A lawyer representing one of the officers who shot Ghaisar said he expects a decision on criminal charges in the upcoming week or so.