Opinion | New Interior Department law enforcement rules could save lives

The federal department that oversees the U.S. Park Police and several other law enforcement agencies issued comprehensive new rules last week for sworn officers, including ones regarding the use of lethal force. If those rules had been in force five years ago, would Bijan Ghaisar still be alive?

Ghaisar, an unarmed 25-year-old accountant, was shot to death by two Park Police officers near D.C. in 2017. It was an unwarranted killing — an incident that began with a fender bender in which Ghaisar’s car was rear-ended by an Uber along the George Washington Parkway in Northern Virginia, and was senselessly escalated by the officers.

Even before the Interior Department issued the new rules, the Park Police itself had updated its own policies governing vehicular pursuits, starting the year after Ghaisar was killed. They allow officers to chase only suspects involved in a violent felony such as murder or rape, or an armed suspect wanted for a felony. Ghaisar, who had no police record, was neither.

A separate question is whether the new rules go far enough to prevent a similar incident. In that respect, we are encouraged. They allow more than 3,000 federal officers from the agencies under the department’s aegis to open fire at a moving vehicle only if “no other objectively reasonable means of defense appear to exist.” And the guidelines specify that those “objectively reasonable” options include “moving out of the path of the vehicle.”

That line could have been drafted with the Ghaisar case in mind. Because it is clear, from the video recorded by a police dashcam, that the Park Police officers who chased Ghaisar into a quiet suburban neighborhood could have stepped aside as his car inched forward, its wheels turning away from them as they approached him from the driver’s side. Instead, the officers — visibly furious that Ghaisar had twice before driven off after they attempted to pull him over — opened fire.

The new policies take other steps toward police accountability in the Interior Department, ones that might dissuade officers from unnecessary use of lethal force. They require that officers wear body cameras, ensure the release of footage in some critical incidents and restrict the use of no-knock warrants.

Law enforcement’s use of lethal force takes place in a staggering variety of contexts; it’s impossible to write rules governing them all. The overarching principle is that officers should open fire only in extreme circumstances, to protect their own lives or those of others from the clear risk of violence. The new guidelines sharpen that standard.

There are roughly 18,000 federal, state and local law enforcement agencies in the United States, and their policies — including on the use of force — are as varied as that number suggests. The Biden administration issued comprehensive guidance earlier this year to set a standard for the federal agencies under its purview. It doesn’t apply at the state or local level, including to big agencies like New York City’s police department, which employs more than 35,000 sworn officers.

Nonetheless, stringent rules like Interior’s should serve as a template for agencies nationwide. They have the potential to save lives.

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Editorials represent the views of The Washington Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Deputy Editorial Page Editor Karen Tumulty; Deputy Editorial Page Editor Ruth Marcus; Associate Editorial Page Editor Jo-Ann Armao (education, D.C. affairs); Jonathan Capehart (national politics); Lee Hockstader (immigration; issues affecting Virginia and Maryland); David E. Hoffman (global public health); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Molly Roberts (technology and society); and Stephen Stromberg (elections, the White House, Congress, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care).

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