The United States Park Police have come under fire for their handling of protesters outside the White House, but a case in Northern Virginia could provide insight into the organization’s lack of transparency in controversial incidents, lawmakers say.
Bijan Ghaisar was driving home on the George Washington Parkway just outside of Washington, D.C., to have dinner with his father in November 2017. That’s when, according to a family attorney, Ghaisar’s car was struck from behind by another car.
Ghaisar had no damage to his car, so he kept driving. But the driver of the other car called police, and that is when the U.S. Park Police “aggressively” pursued Ghaisar, the family lawyer said.
Video released by the Fairfax County, Virginia, Police Department shows Ghaisar driving slowly, stopping twice. On the third stop, Ghaisar attempted to go around the Park Police, and officers barricaded him in and opened fire.
“At no point did Bijan Ghaisar do anything to cause these officers to believe that their lives or the lives of anybody else was in danger,” family attorney and former DOJ official Roy Austin told ABC News.
Ghaisar was in a coma and died days later.
Austin said that after the incident, “U.S. Park Police provided security to his [hospital] room and told his family and parents that he was a criminal.”
In a statement to ABC News, the National Parks Service said that they have “communicated with Congress to provide updates and information as it is able without interfering in the ongoing investigations and litigation. We have no further comment.”
Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., told ABC News that during the first few days after the shooting there was “silence.”
“There was the terrible treatment of the family when they came to see their brother and their son, who was there on life support,” Beyer said. “And they wouldn’t let them visit because somehow they were going to help him escape with three bullets in his head.”
Three days after the shooting, the FBI took over the investigation — but to this day, questions about Ghaisar’s death remain.
“For the last now, two and a half going on three years, the U.S. Park Police has told us very little; they told the family very little about what happened here,” Austin said. “They have largely defended these officers.”
Rep. Beyer said that there was incredible frustration among the families in the Northern Virginia community.
“We had a year and a half, almost two years of complete silence, and then another many, many months of silence from the Department of Justice and finally their decision that nothing could be done. So, just an incredible frustration that justice was not served and that everything was opaque the entire time,” Beyer said.
Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, reiterated that the response from Park Police has been completely “opaque.”
He is holding up an Interior Department nomination until he gets questions answered about the shooting.
“We gave them and the Department of Interior warning that if I wasn’t going to get answers, I had to use this tool because Bijan’s family, who have just been crushed by the response of our government, deserve a better answer,” he explained to ABC News by phone.
Fairfax County Police Chief Edwin Roessler told ABC News that he released his department’s dash-cam footage for the sake of transparency, and he encouraged the Park Police to do the same.
He said he told the Park Police at the time that “as professional colleagues … they need to release that video when it’s no longer going to erode the integrity of the investigation.”
“That in-car video is my property, although it was evidence,” Roessler said of the footage he released. “So the discussion then allowed communication back to me that they were not going to release the video.”
At a community meeting, Acting Park Police Chief Gregory Monahan addressed the incident in December of 2019.
“It’s important to note that there are additional aspects to this investigation that still need to be addressed,” Monahan said according to local reports. “There’s the potential for criminal prosecution at the county level or the state level, and there’s also — and will happen — an administrative investigation. Given that there is no determination on the criminal aspect of this incident, I have to respect the process, and I can’t comment any further at this time.”
The federal investigation was closed last year and no criminal charges were brought against the officers.
Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve T. Descano recently requested 260 documents from the FBI pertaining to the case, but so far he has not received any of them.
Descano did not respond to ABC News’ request for comment.
According to the Washington Post, the Justice Department declined to allow the FBI agents involved in the case testify.
Earlier this year, Ghaisar’s family sued the government and the officers involved, and the judge demanded that the government turn over the FBI file in the case.
The government has asked for an extension to provide the FBI file in the civil suit, but at a hearing in March, the judge was unmoved by the government’s efforts to delay the file’s release.
“I don’t recall that being the discovery process agreed to in the joint discovery plan,” Judge Ivan Davis said.
According to Beyer, the Park Police didn’t release the names of the officers involved until their names came out in the discovery phase of the lawsuit.
A court date is set for July to provide an update to the discovery process.
Austin told ABC News that the federal government has been particularly “cruel” to Ghaisar’s family, and stressed that the government was not transparent with them.
“The federal government has been embarrassing, unprofessional and truly just cruel to this family for the last two and a half years,” he said. “At no point when they were announcing their decision not to prosecute did they sit down with the family before announcing making their announcement in public.”
Another incident ‘on the same track’?
If the Park Police’s response to the Ghaisar case is any indication, it may be difficult to get to the bottom of what happened in Lafayette Park last week when Park Police cleared the park of protesters prior to President Donald Trump’s arrival.
In an interview over the weekend, Attorney General William Barr said that the protesters in the park were not peaceful.
“They were not peaceful protesters. And that’s one of the big lies that the media seems to be perpetuating at this point,” Barr said in an interview with Face the Nation.
Barr also told The Associated Press last week that it was a Park Police commander who made the tactical command to move the protesters back.
“I’m not involved in giving tactical commands like that,” Barr told AP. “I was frustrated and I was also worried that as the crowd grew, it was going to be harder and harder to do. So my attitude was, get it done, but I didn’t say, ‘Go do it.'”
The National Parks Service, on behalf of the Park Police, referred ABC News to their statement on June 2.
“The United States Park Police (USPP) is committed to the peaceful expression of First Amendment rights. However, this past weekend’s demonstrations at Lafayette Park and across the National Mall included activities that were not part of a peaceful protest, which resulted in injuries to USPP officers in the line of duty, the destruction of public property and the defacing of memorials and monuments,” acting USPP Chief Gregory Monahan said. “During four days of demonstrations, 51 members of the USPP were injured; of those, 11 were transported to the hospital and released and three were admitted.”
In the statement, Park Police said that “violent protestors on H Street NW began throwing projectiles including bricks, frozen water bottles and caustic liquids. The protestors also climbed onto a historic building at the north end of Lafayette Park that was destroyed by arson days prior. Intelligence had revealed calls for violence against the police, and officers found caches of glass bottles, baseball bats and metal poles hidden along the street.”
Beyer said that the lack of transparency by the Park Police in both incidents is “symptomatic of an overall disrespect for transparency.”
“Somehow, the Park Police don’t feel that they are responsible to the community as a whole,” Beyer said.
Roessler said that all law enforcement agencies need to come into the 21st century.
A Park Police spokesman told multiple news outlets that it was a “mistake” to say that Park Police didn’t use tear gas to clear the park, only to release a statement hours later that walked it back.
“United States Park Police officers and other assisting law enforcement partners did not use tear gas or OC Skat Shells to close the area at Lafayette Park in response to violent protesters,” the statement said.
Warner said that the two incidents parallel one another.
“It’s very troubling that this incident happens. And then you have the incident that happened last week, and there seems to be the same ‘hide the ball.’ Was there tear gas? Was there not tear gas? I don’t know,” Warner said.
“It’s arrogant, over the top. But also still — the ‘hide the ball’ approach seems to be the same pattern in terms of what happened at Lafayette Park,” he added.
Austin said he sees similarities in how the situations were handled.
“They are a law enforcement agency that appears to operate without normal rules of engagement, without proper training and with almost zero transparency, and that’s a problem,” he said.
Beyer said that the two incidents are “very much on the same track of just disrespect for public participation, public opinion.”
“Other people have a right to know in a democracy what’s going on,” he said. “And we’ve never found out in the Bijan Ghaisar case and now we don’t know what led to the chain of events in Lafayette Square.”
Beyer said that perhaps if there isn’t more transparency, it might be time to rethink the Park Police.
“This may be the time when we think about folding the Park Police into a police department with a better reputation,” he said. “That would be an idea that still has to be vetted, but Park Service has had its own problems with misogyny and the like.”