Kelly Ghaisar has not hesitated to tell the world about her joyful, nonviolent son Bijan, and she did so again Tuesday in front of a congressional subcommittee. And then she told the panel how she learned that he’d been fatally shot by two U.S. Park Police officers in 2017, who were not equipped with body cameras or in-car cameras. No Park Police officers or vehicles use cameras, even though the much larger National Park Service does use them within the same Interior Department.
“Bijan deserves justice and transparency,” Ghaisar told the House Natural Resources Committee’s Oversight and Investigations subcommittee. “Body cameras do one important job, one job — they give us the truth. Not a version of alternative truth.” A Fairfax County police lieutenant’s in-car video as he followed the Park Police did capture the slaying of Bijan Ghaisar, and “the actions that the Park Police officers have described” in claiming Ghaisar was driving at one of them “does not show what our eyes see,” Ghaisar said.
The oversight subcommittee on Tuesday examined the use of body-worn cameras and in-car cameras in all law enforcement bureaus of Interior. A 2016 census of federal law enforcement found that Interior had 3,630 sworn officers, about 1,800 of whom are Park Service rangers. A leader of the coalition of Park Service employees said body cameras are used by more than 1,000 rangers in more than 100 parks, and that when he was a park superintendent cameras were instrumental in reviewing use-of-force incidents and other complaints, often to protect the officers from unfounded charges.
The head of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association testified that officers in the Fish and Wildlife Service, with more than 600 officers, also use body cameras. The third largest Interior police agency, the Park Police, with 560 officers, does not use cameras, and a proposed policy for implementing them was strongly criticized in an inspector general’s report in 2018. That policy has not been released publicly, the subcommittee said. The Justice Department, with more than 43,000 sworn agents across the FBI, DEA, ATF and Marshals Service, also does not use body-worn or in-car cameras, but they are not overseen by the natural resources committee and were not discussed Tuesday.
The Park Police’s failure to adopt cameras, and Ghaisar’s killing, has attracted the interest of Congress since 2017. A bill introduced by Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) requiring cameras for all uniformed federal officers was incorporated into the House’s recently passed George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, though that legislation has not gained traction in the Senate. Beyer, Norton and Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.) participated in Tuesday’s hearing even though they are not members of the committee. Only one Republican member, Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón (Puerto Rico), participated, and she repeatedly offered her condolences to Ghaisar and said she hoped the committee’s actions would prevent such incidents in the future.
Park Police officials were invited to testify and declined, subcommittee chair TJ Cox (D-Calif.) said. The Park Police did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Bijan Ghaisar, 25, was driving along the George Washington Memorial Parkway on Nov. 17, 2017, when Park Police Officers Lucas Vinyard and Alejandro Amaya signaled for him to pull over for leaving the scene of a fender bender in Alexandria in which he was struck from behind. As they pursued him, Fairfax police Lt. Dan Gohn followed with his in-car camera activated. Gohn’s camera captured three instances of Ghaisar stopping, being approached by Vinyard and Amaya with guns drawn, and driving away each time.
At the third stop, as Ghaisar slowly maneuvered his Jeep Grand Cherokee away from the officers, Amaya and Vinyard opened fire, the video from Gohn’s cruiser shows. The officers claimed in statements to the FBI in 2019 that Ghaisar was driving toward Amaya, though Amaya appears to be on the side of Ghaisar’s vehicle. In November 2019, the Justice Department declined to charge the officers with federal civil rights violations. A federal civil suit is pending against the Park Police, and Fairfax prosecutors said they are investigating for possible state charges.
Larry J. Cosme, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, said his group favors cameras for Interior officers, but he said training and policies must be created, including policies on disclosing such footage, and warned that the costs of supplying and maintaining cameras can be “enormous.”
Ghaisar responded: “I am appalled at the excuses that we hear,” noting that numerous local police agencies already use body cameras, “and Park Police officers and other federal officers do not have the budget or time to implement these important transparency tools. The only reason is because they don’t want to be transparent. Period.”