Oregon authorities revealed today the results of their investigation into the fatal shooting of anti-government extremist Robert “LaVoy” Finicum by Oregon state troopers during an attempt by state and federal authorities to arrest many of the ringleaders of the January 2 armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters.
The investigation vindicated the actions of the state troopers who shot Finicum, but revealed that there is a separate misconduct investigation ongoing into some of the FBI agents’ actions at the scene.
On January 26, several weeks into the refuge standoff, Oregon state troopers and agents from the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team attempted to conduct a planned traffic stop of two vehicles filled with occupiers on their way to a meeting, so that they could arrest several of the extremists. Both vehicles initially stopped but the one driven by Finicum subsequently sped off down the road until it crashed into a snowbank after narrowly avoiding running into a law enforcement roadblock.
As captured on video taken by a police helicopter circulating overhead, Finicum almost immediately jumped out of the vehicle. As Oregon state troopers approached from two directions, Finicum twice reached towards his jacket, as if to pull out a weapon (he did have a weapon there, it was determined). At the second reach, the troopers opened fire on Finicum, fatally wounding him.
After any officer-involved shooting, there is an investigation. In this case, the investigation took on added importance because of the sensitive nature of the situation: anti-government extremists believe that Finicum was deliberately murdered and since his death have energetically tried to turn him into a martyr for the “Patriot” movement cause, creating a risk of future violence. Indeed, on the weekend before the investigation results were released, anti-government activists staged nearly 50 rallies across the country to protest his death.
The Oregon investigation concluded that the two troopers who had fired shots at Finicum were justified in so doing, because the troopers believed Finicum was about to injure or kill someone. Another trooper, who had fired three shots at Finicum’s truck as it was about to hit the roadblock, was also vindicated.
However, in a surprising revelation, authorities announced that the Justice Department is conducting a criminal investigation into the actions of five FBI agents present at the scene of the shooting. The state investigation uncovered that one FBI agent allegedly fired two shots during the incident, then allegedly subsequently denied to investigators that he had fired his weapon. Neither shot hit Finicum. The other agents under investigation reportedly may have helped cover for the first agent. It is not clear when this second investigation will be complete.
The FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team was heavily criticized in the 1990s for actions and decisions its agents had taken at armed standoffs in Idaho and Texas involving extremists or fringe groups, but it has not had any controversies in recent years.
The admission of possible FBI misconduct will unfortunately provide more ammunition for anti-government extremists attempting to use Finicum’s death to stoke anti-government anger. This in turn may increase the risk that right-wing extremists may engage in acts of violence out of some sort of desire for retribution. Thus the news of possible FBI misconduct—never welcome under any circumstances—was particularly disturbing in this context.