WASHINGTON — The FBI faulted agents in 2019 for misusing their guns in two separate shootings, each an exceedingly rare internal finding of violations of its lethal force policy, according to documents obtained by The New York Times.
One involved an agent in Arkansas who shot at — but missed — a suspect who was driving away to flee arrest. That agent resigned before he could receive a 55-day suspension without pay. The other incident involved an agent in California who fatally shot a family dog that he said bit him during a “family dispute” while he was off duty; he got a five-day suspension.
Although neither shooting, both of which took place in 2017, was a major imbroglio, their disclosure is notable. For many years, FBI agents almost never got in trouble for intentional shootings. The two episodes, detailed in records obtained via a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, add to a small but growing pattern suggesting that is no longer quite so certain.
The rigor of the FBI’s internal review process is important because local police often defer to the bureau to investigate shootings by its own agents. Under its deadly-force policy, agents are only permitted to fire their guns, outside of practice ranges, if they reasonably believe that the target poses an imminent danger of death or serious physical injury to someone.
The FBI press office did not comment. But Dana Boente, who was the FBI’s general counsel from 2018 until he retired in 2020, said the bureau’s decisions to deem the two shootings violations of its deadly force policy — “bad shoots” in agents’ parlance — were significant.
“Any time you have a ‘bad shoot,’ it’s important for a lot of reasons,” said Boente, who noted that he was not involved in the reviews. “You don’t want people who are reckless being agents. And you want to make sure you have a great review system that is fair and rigorous.”
The FBI’s process routinely faults agents who were sloppy with their weapons and accidentally discharged them, records show. But faulting agents for intentionally shooting at people or animals has been very rare.
After a Justice Department task force in 1994 faulted the FBI for having cleared agents involved in a high-profile shooting during a 1992 standoff at the cabin of a far-right figure at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, the shooting review policy was revamped.
But in 2013, it was reported that in at least 150 intentional shootings that killed or injured people and dating to at least 1993, the bureau had deemed agents to have complied with its deadly-force policy.
That trove, also based on documents from a FOIA lawsuit, contained only two “bad shoot” findings involving firing at people, separate instances in 1996 in which agents had tried to shoot fleeing suspects without hitting anyone. And bureau documents show that it has long been routine for shootings of dogs — typically involving carrying out warrants at a suspect’s home — to be deemed faultless.
In a recent interview, the Justice Department’s independent inspector general, Michael Horowitz, said that after the publication of the 2013 article, he created a process in which all law enforcement agencies in the Justice Department, including the FBI, must provide to his office their initial internal reports about shootings. His office then decides whether to conduct its own investigation.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.