FALLS CHURCH, Va. (AP) - Two U.S. Park Police officers say they gave “chance after chance” to a northern Virginia man in a stop-and-go police chase before firing 10 shots that killed the unarmed driver in 2017, according to court records.
Documents made public late Monday in a civil suit filed by the parents of 25-year-old Bijan Ghaisar of McLean provide the first real insight into the thought process of officers Alejandro Amaya and Lucas Vinyard, who shot and killed Ghaisar.
Dashcam video of the chase and shooting prompted outrage, as the vehicle appeared to be approaching the officers at a slow speed. Recent scrutiny of excessive police force nationwide has kept the Ghaisar case in the spotlight. Ghaisar's family and several lawmakers believe the officers acted unreasonably and with excessive force, but the officers say they reasonably feared for their lives after Ghaisar drove toward them.
"Vinyard advised that he and Amaya gave Ghaisar ‘chance after chance to stop, then he runs after Amaya with the Jeep,’” FBI agents wrote in a summary of their interview with Vinyard from last year. Federal prosecutors opted against charging either officer criminally last year after conducting a two-year investigation. A local prosecutor is still weighing a criminal case.
Amaya's perspective is summarized in a proffer provided by his lawyers.
“At the final stop, Amaya and Vinyard fired in reaction to Ghaisar's vehicle moving at them. Additionally, if Amaya and Vinyard had allowed Ghaisar to keep going, they would have put more people in danger,” Amaya's lawyers wrote.
The dashcam video of the shooting leaves open to interpretation whether Ghaisar drove at the officers or was attempting to go around them. An expert for the government said the officers acted reasonably under the circumstances.
“Driving a vehicle at an officer is a violent felony that involves the threatened infliction of serious bodily harm or death,” wrote John Ryan, a police training consultant and former Providence, Rhode Island police officer wrote in his expert report.
But the Ghaisar family's expert, former FBI special agent Urey Patrick, concluded that the officers were not only wrong to open fire but were wrong to have pursued Ghaisar in the first place given that the chase was initiated only after a call that Ghaisar had left the scene of an accident in which he'd been rear-ended on the George Washington Memorial Parkway.
He said there was no indication Ghaisar had been acting in a threatening manner.
“In the video, it appears that his vehicle is rolling ahead at idle speed, as would happen if he took his foot off the brake,” Patrick wrote. “A vehicle moving at idle speeds is easily avoided.”
But the government's expert said the conclusion that the officers could have avoided Ghaisar's Jeep is one made with benefit of hindsight.
“A video of the events, viewed several years after the fact with the ability to stop, pause, and rewind, simply does not place the viewer in the same cognitive position” as the officers who were confronting the threat in real time, after a chase in which Ghaisar repeatedly ignored officers' commands to stop, Ryan said.
According to the court papers, the officers said Ghaisar's face appeared glossy and “zombie-like” at various points during the chase, and they speculated he was intoxicated. An autopsy showed marijuana in Ghaisar's system, and six grams of marijuana were found in his car.
Vinyard told the FBI that he was thinking “Who is this guy? Superman?” after Ghaisar continued to drive forward after Amaya fired the first round of shots. Both Vinyard and Amaya fired a second round of shots as Ghaisar's Jeep continued to move forward; Vinyard said he was concerned Amaya would be pinned between the Jeep and their patrol car.
A civil trial is scheduled for November.
The Ghaisar family's lawyers and the government each filed papers asking a judge to grant summary judgment in their favor without having a trial. Most of the Ghaisar family's arguments, though, are redacted from the public record. In an opening statement in their papers, the lawyers say the case “presents a shocking story of unwarranted and unexplained police violence.”
In a statement Tuesday, one of the family's lawyers, Roy Austin, blasted the government for making the officer statements public, saying he believes it violates legal procedures and a protective order imposed by the judge.
“The government’s improper filing is a pathetic attempt to rewrite history and assassinate the character of a young man who was shot to death by two out-of-control police officers,” Austin said. "While we have and will continue to honor the protective order in this case, we look forward to responding to this nonsense put forth by the government.”