Video of the deadly encounter between police and some of the men who’ve occupied an Oregon wildlife preserve since the start of the year seems to contradict claims that occupier Lavoy Finicum was surrendering to officers when they killed him.
Finicum, a father of 11 and one of the most colorful personalities among the armed occupiers, was shot after nearly running over one law enforcement officer with his SUV. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) put the video online late Thursday in hopes of countering fast-spreading rumors that Finicum was killed in cold blood.
The FBI says Finicum appeared to be reaching for a gun in his jacket when he was killed. The video is aerial footage, and the distance and high angle of the shot make it hard to speak conclusively about what it shows. But at the very least, Finicum did raise and lower his hands repeatedly, and had his hands lowered and near his torso when he was killed.
The agency has released both the full 26-minute aerial video of the stops, and a briefer clip showing Finicum’s attempt to run a barricade and subsequent death. Greg Bretzing, the top FBI official in Oregon, told reporters that they’re limited in discussing the encounter because of an ongoing outside review of the shooting by the Deschutes County Sheriff’s office.
Releasing the video less than 48 hours after the episode is an unusual move relative to how evidence in police shooting cases is often handled more broadly. Video evidence of the circumstances in which officers kill civilians are often difficult to obtain, and police departments around the country have been criticized for trying to cover up unjust uses of force by withholding or even destroying videos. The FBI’s decision to combat portrayals of Finicum as an innocent martyr for the Bundys’ cause may be motivated in part by the sense that many self-styled patriot groups are watching Oregon closely and could have been moved to violent action if officers had indeed laid Finicum down in cold blood.
At the outset of the encounter, another vehicle carrying occupation leaders Ammon Bundy, Ryan Bundy, and Ryan Payne is stopped by police. Finicum’s white SUV accelerates away from the other car as it surrenders. He soon reaches a roadblock, attempts to steer around it to his left, and gets the vehicle stuck in snow. The truck narrowly misses a law enforcement officer as it plows into the drift.
“Finicum leaves the truck and steps through the snow,” Bretzing said at a press conference this week. “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. At this time, [Oregon State Police] officers shot Finicum.”
The video shows Finicum exiting the vehicle with his hands in the air and walking slowly away from it through deep snow. He takes roughly a dozen steps with his hands raised before lowering them toward his chest or waist, facing an officer who approaches him from the road with his pistol raised. Finicum’s hands go halfway up again briefly, and then he turns around to face a second officer approaching from the other direction. His hands appear to lower again and his body twists to his left, as it might if he were reaching right-handed into the left side of his coat. At that moment, he is shot.
The video and Bretzing’s account of events on the ground both contradict what Ammon Bundy’s allies started saying about Finicum’s killing in the immediate aftermath of the arrests. Nevada lawmaker Michelle Fiore is perhaps the most prominent figure to relay that narrative, which claimed that Finicum was killed in cold blood while surrendering to officers with his hands raised.
One occupier has gone so far as to compare Finicum’s death to the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice by Cleveland police officers. Rice was killed less than two seconds after officers responded to a call, and the gun he was holding was a toy. Rice’s killing echoed hundreds of other episodes in which white law enforcement officers shot and killed black people, including dozens of unarmed people and far more that involved a weapon but no direct threat to officers or the public. The lack of accountability in most of those cases has become a national flashpoint over the past two years as black Americans and their allies have mounted protests against police abuse of force.
There are still four Bundy loyalists occupying the refuge, Bretzing said. The four are negotiating their departure with the FBI and requesting that officers abandon plans to arrest one of the remaining occupiers, the Oregonian reports. The man reportedly targeted for arrest is Sean Anderson, an Idaho resident who the paper says is wanted in Wisconsin for misdemeanors linked to marijuana.