- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The FBI video showing the death of Oregon occupier Robert “LaVoy” Finicum last week was supposed to put to rest doubts about the shooting’s legitimacy, but the footage has instead raised as many questions as it answers.

The FBI released the video two days after the Jan. 26 confrontation, prompted by supporters of Finicum who had decried the shooting as an “execution” and “assassination.” FBI Special Agent in Charge Greg Bretzing described such versions of the incident as “inaccurate” and “inflammatory.”

Even with the video, however, Robert W. Taylor, a professor at the University of Texas at Dallas whose areas of expertise include police use of force, said, “It’s just too early to tell what’s going on here.”

“Before you can say that this [shooting] is justifiable, you’re going to have to work at all the evidence, and right now this video doesn’t show enough to determine whether or not this was a justifiable shooting,” said Mr. Taylor, adding, “Obviously they’re going to have to come up with more than just this thing.”

Two women riding in a white truck with Finicum at the time, Shawna Cox and Victoria Sharp, have challenged the FBI’s explanation of events. Both say multiple shots were fired and that Finicum was attempting to surrender when he was killed by an Oregon state trooper on Highway 395 near Burns, Oregon.

“He had his hands up,” Ms. Sharp told CNN in a Wednesday interview. “He was shouting that if they were going to shoot, then just shoot him. I remember him saying that if they shoot him, it’s an innocent man’s blood on their hands.”

She added, “I didn’t think they’d shoot him because he had his hands up.”

Ms. Sharp, an 18-year-old gospel singer, was released and not charged, while Ms. Cox, 59, has been charged on a federal conspiracy count along with 10 others involved with the takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

The occupiers were driving in two vehicles to a community meeting in John Day, Oregon, when they were stopped by the FBI and Oregon State Police. Ms. Cox says that Finicum yelled from the truck that they were going to meet with a sheriff, and that when he exited the vehicle, he shouted, “Just shoot me then.”

“I really believe he had intended to draw the fire away from us because they had lasers all over the place,” she said Monday on the Dave Hodges radio show, referring to laser sights on sniper rifles.

On the video, which was taken from an airplane overhead and has no audio, Finicum is shown bolting out of the truck with his arms extended from his body. A few second later, however, he appears to reach toward his waistband or jacket as officers approach him from either side.

“Agents and troopers on scene had information that Finicum and others would be armed,” Mr. Bretzing said at last week’s press briefing. “On at least two occasions, Finicum reaches his right hand toward a pocket on the left inside portion of his jacket. He did have a loaded 9 mm semi-automatic handgun in that pocket.”

David A. Klinger, University of Missouri at St. Louis professor of criminology and criminal justice, said that “on the ultimate question of, ‘Did they do the right thing in terms of shooting?’ — from that video, I can’t tell.”

“I don’t know what he’s doing, but if you tell me you’re dealing with a guy who has said, ‘I’m not going to be taken alive,’ and that was reported in the press, and he’s known to have guns, and he is disobeying your commands to keep his hands in plain view and be taken into custody, and reaches to an area where he has a gun, I think deadly force is absolutely appropriate,” he said.

Mr. Klinger added: “Now, is that what happened? I don’t know.”

From a tactical perspective, he said, the video raises any number of questions, starting with the placement of the officers who appear on either side of Finicum after he exits the truck, which he had plowed into a snowbank to avoid an FBI roadblock.

The officers appear to be in each other’s line of sight. In other words, if the trooper who creeps out of the woods toward Finicum had missed, he could have easily hit an FBI agent on the other side, instead.

“A, they’ve got themselves in a crossfire situation, and B, why in the world would you leave your cover position?” Mr. Klinger said. “So there’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t make sense to me in terms of why they did what they did in those immediate moments preceding the shooting.”

Mr. Taylor said “the thing that’s most disturbing was that this violates a lot of the principles of how you confront a suspect.”

“You’ve got people who are obviously with a tactical unit who approached the suspect, and then all of a sudden this local guy comes out of the woods,” Mr. Taylor said. “They’re in direct line of sight. They’re shooting at each other, so they’re in the same line of sight as well, which is violation of protocol.”

At the same time, the decision by Finicum to lower his arms and make a move toward his jacket or waistband shows that he was “definitely non-compliant,” Mr. Klinger said.

“Now whether that non-compliance rises to the level where deadly force was necessary — I’ve looked at the thing several times, and I can’t tell what the gentleman who was shot was doing with his hands, but I can guarantee you, he was not surrendering in terms of complying with the officer’s orders,” Mr. Klinger added.

The occupiers held frequent press conferences at the refuge headquarters, which they took over Jan. 2 in a protest against federal public-lands policy. During that time, they made trips into town for gas, leading Mr. Taylor to ask whether it would have been less risky to nab them elsewhere.

“If he [Finicum] is pumping gas, and you walk up to him and just pounce on him, there’s opportunities where you would not endanger the lives of other people as well as the agents and officers,” Mr. Taylor said.

Any number of Facebook pages and online posts have popped up since Finicum’s death depicting him as a martyr for the patriot movement. Many show photos of him riding a horse and wearing a tan cowboy hat.

A post on the Bundy Ranch Facebook page accuses the FBI of conducting an “ambush” that led to Finicum’s “assassination,” while the Finicum family said in a statement that he “appears to have been shot in the back, with his hands in the air.”

“At this point we will await the outcome of any investigation, but based on the information currently available to us, we do not believe that LaVoy’s shooting death was justified,” said the family’s statement.

Mr. Taylor agreed that Finicum has his hands up — at first. “Absolutely he does. He’s got his hands outstretched, he’s kind of moving around, he’s being approached by two different people on two different sides, he reaches, and then boom, he’s shot,” he said.

The Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office was tapped Tuesday to lead the investigation into the shooting. Sheriff L. Shane Nelson said in a statement that no information on the investigation would be released “until a thorough investigation and review is completed by Malheur County District Attorney, Dan Norris.”

Mr. Norris estimated that it would be “at least four to six weeks before this information is likely to be released.”

A funeral and memorial horse ride for Finicum, who was killed the day before his 55th birthday, are scheduled Friday in Kanab, Utah. His supporters elsewhere are organizing an online candlelight vigil in his memory.

Four occupiers remain at the refuge and have been negotiating the terms of their release with the FBI. One of the holdouts has said they will not surrender unless agents agree not to charge any of them with crimes.

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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