After Ghaisar killing, Park Police chief backs out of meeting on bill requiring body cams for federal officers

Tuesday , February 13, 2018 - 4:00 PM

Tom Jackman

(c) 2018, The Washington Post.

After proposing legislation that would require all uniformed federal police to be equipped with body cameras and in-car cameras, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., and Rep Donald Beyer, D-Va., asked for a meeting with U.S. Park Police Chief Robert MacLean to get his input on the idea. Norton was inspired to pursue such a law after seeing the video of the fatal Park Police shooting of Bijan Ghaisar in November, which was captured by a Fairfax County officer, but not Park Police officers because they are not equipped with cameras.

MacLean agreed to the meeting. But after Norton issued a news release saying she would discuss their meeting with the media, MacLean backed out, Norton said Tuesday. Norton and Beyer met with the media anyway, “to express our astonishment” at MacLean’s absence, and at his explanation that he was not allowed to lobby Congress on such matters. Norton and Beyer said they had agreed not to discuss the Ghaisar shooting with MacLean, since it was still under investigation by the FBI.

“You just don’t say to members of Congress, ‘We aren’t coming,‘ “ Norton said. “We have a pending bill. Are we supposed to sit over here and wait for the end of a pending investigation, or are we to continue to do our work?” Norton said she had already met with the Ghaisar family, and it was only fair to meet with the Park Police as well.

MacLean and a Park Police spokesman did not return messages seeking comment Tuesday.

The Park Police is one of 32 federal police agencies charged with protecting government property in the District of Columbia, along with the Capitol Police, the Federal Protective Service and the Amtrak police. The Interior Department has already begun investigating the use of body cameras, and an inspector general’s report issued Jan. 30 said that Interior’s proposed policies and practices for use of the cameras were not consistent with police industry standards. Beyer said he and other members of Congress had sent a letter to Interior urging it to adopt clearer policies.

Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke recently mentioned the Ghaisar incident at a town hall meeting with department employees, The Hill reported. “We’ll get to the bottom of it if there’s inappropriateness,” Zinke said. “We want to make sure we’re doing the right thing. So we want to hold ourselves accountable, and when you are law enforcement you are held to a higher standard because you have a badge.”

Norton and Beyer, who is co-sponsoring the bill for police cameras, said they understood that MacLean could not discuss a pending investigation. They said they agreed to focus only on the proposed legislation and the Park Police’s policies and procedures.

A news release saying Norton and Beyer would meet with reporters afterward was issued Monday. Norton received a call Tuesday morning saying that MacLean could not attend because it would “constitute a violation of federal anti-lobbying laws.” Norton and Beyer wrote a letter to MacLean saying that anti-lobbying laws “expressly allow Park Police to communicate directly with Members on policies, procedures, and pending legislation.”

Ghaisar’s family issued a statement saying they were “disappointed, though not surprised,” that MacLean had canceled the meeting. “From the very beginning, it has been our experience that the Park Police have tried to avoid transparency and accountability about what happened when they killed our son and brother almost three months ago - what they did today was more of the same.” The statement said that the family is “committed to ensuring proper law enforcement equipment, training and policies to prevent something like this from happening to other families.”

Kelly Ghaisar has said that Park Police officers drastically limited her family’s contact with her son in the first three days after he was shot, refusing to allow them to spend more than 10 minutes per hour with him and not allowing them to touch him in the hospital.

That changed when the FBI took over the investigation. “That leads me to believe,” Norton said, “the Park Police didn’t quite know how to act in this situation.”

Ghaisar lived for 10 days before being removed from life-support on Nov. 27. His family said he was shot four times in the head, and was unarmed. The Park Police have not commented on whether Ghaisar was armed or why he was shot.

Ghaisar’s Jeep Grand Cherokee was struck from behind by an Uber driver at the wheel of a Toyota Corolla on the George Washington Memorial Parkway on Nov. 17. Ghaisar drove away from the accident, and then was chased by a Park Police patrol cruiser and a Fairfax police cruiser, both with lights and sirens on.

Ghaisar pulled over twice, then drove off, the Fairfax video shows. He pulled over a third time in the Fort Hunt area, and when he started to slowly pull away again, two officers repeatedly shot him at close range, the video shows. The officers’ names have not been released. They are on administrative leave with pay, the Park Police have said.

“If we had not had the Fairfax police following with their cameras,” Beyer said, “we would have no idea what happened.”

The 911 calls made by the Uber driver and his passenger were routed to Arlington emergency communications, even though the accident occurred in Alexandria. But Arlington has declined Freedom of Information requests from both The Post and the Ghaisar family to release the tapes of those calls, saying they are part of a criminal investigation, which enables Virginia agencies to withhold information if they choose. The calls might explain why police pursued Ghaisar so urgently when he was the victim of a minor fender bender.

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