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Crime & Justice

Report: Protected By Justice Department, U.S. Marshals Face Few Repercussions In Shootings

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Last week, a U.S. deputy marshal fatally shot 32-year-old Frankie Jennings while attempting to serve him with outstanding warrants. The incident happened on The Plaza. Charlotte police say the unidentified deputy marshal perceived a lethal threat, but few details have been released as CMPD investigates the shooting.

According to an investigative report by The Marshall Project, a nonpartisan news organization that covers criminal justice, 124 people were fatally shot by U.S. marshals between 2015 and 2020. Simone Weichselbaum, a national law enforcement reporter with The Marshall Project, co-wrote that article and joins WFAE's "All Things Considered" host Gwendolyn Glenn.

Gwendolyn Glenn: Simone, people have versions from movies of what U.S. marshals do, but give us a more realistic view of who they work for and what are they assigned to do.

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Simone Weichselbaum

Simone Weichselbaum: So, good point about movies. The way we think about them in pop culture, we think they're going after the worst criminals in America, people who shoot and kill cops, drug lords in Mexico. Yes, they go after those groups. But our investigation found that more than two-thirds of the folks they are going after are folks wanted on local warrants, people not wanted for federal crimes.

Also based on our analysis of the data — data we culled just going through news reports because the U.S. Marshals federal agency does not release information like a local police department would — we also found about half of the cases are folks wanted on nonviolent crimes, which is an analysis that I did. So those are crimes not involving domestic violence, not involving child abuse, and, of course, not involving violent felonies.

Glenn: And they work for the federal government and have, by my understanding, broad arrest authority?

Weichselbaum: Correct. They're an arm of the Justice Department. And the reason why we decided to investigate this agency are police chiefs across the country over the years have complained to me, calling them "cowboys." And US marshals now have task forces across the country — including the task force that shot and killed this gentleman — who now works with local police to arrest people on local warrants.

Glenn: Now, you looked into the rate of shootings involving U.S. marshals. How do they compare to local law enforcement shootings?

Weichselbaum: So we looked at shootings. The marshals had about 6,000 people that we could find, going through congressional budget documents, of all things. Again, they wouldn't confirm their exact headcount. And that's a combination of deputy U.S. marshals and task force officers that are working full time. Again, rough estimate. And we compared it to departments that have about 6,000 cops.

So we found the U.S. marshals shoot about 31 people a year. And we compare that to Houston, Texas, and the Philadelphia Police Department. And those numbers were much lower. So, we found that Houston, Texas, there were 19 shootings. Philadelphia had nine.

Glenn: OK, and why are their numbers so high? It's my understanding that U.S. marshals rules policies are not as rigid as police officers when it comes to apprehending suspects. Does that have something to do with the high number?

Weichselbaum: Well, the U.S. Marshals told me they're the ones interfacing with violent felons. So, of course, they're going to have higher numbers. Also unlike a police department, the U.S. marshals mainly arrest people. They're not doing investigative work. They're not detectives. So they're basically knocking down doors, chasing after people to arrest them. So their argument is, of course, we're going to have higher numbers.

But if you look at the legal system and the way the legal system really is built to protect federal law enforcement officers, that's a different question. So what we found in our investigation, whether a deputy U.S. marshal or a task force officer, they are then deputized with federal power. If you are someone who a local officer shot and killed your loved one, there's a way to file a lawsuit in court. However, if it's a federal law enforcement officer, sort of the statute you would use does not apply.

So it's a lot harder to sue them in court compared to a local law enforcement officer.

Glenn: Well, let's get back to the rules and policies. The rules are different in terms of cameras, shooting in cars, right?

Weichselbaum: Yes. So deputy U.S. marshals don't wear cameras, unlike local police officers. Also, their policies allow them to shoot at cars. The U.S marshals say people use cars as a weapon.

But our investigation found even turning the wheel by an inch or even if they think you're about to accelerate the car — we found examples of shootings that were cleared because the U.S. marshal felt under threat.

We had another example of them shooting up a car and killing a teenage girl in the backseat because the person who was driving that car, her boyfriend's friend, was trying to get away. They can shoot at a car if they just feel the person is trying to hurt them when there's really no evidence that that person is driving towards them.

And police departments, organizations like major city chiefs have now said, "We don't want officers shooting at cars." However, the deputy U.S. marshals are still allowed to do it.

Glenn: And de-escalation?

Weichselbaum: They don't have a policy about de-escalation at all, which is really big in policing right now. So what's interesting to me in your city, you actually have pushback. It's very rare that I've seen after looking at this for nearly two years, people protesting, standing up, saying, "Hey deputy U.S. marshals, this is not OK."

Glenn: And my reading, and in your article as well, you say that none have been prosecuted.

Weichselbaum: That is correct. So, as I saw in your city, your local police department is investigating the shooting and then they will then give it perhaps to the local DA's office. However, the Justice Department can step in — and sometimes does, but it's very rare. So the Justice Department confirmed to us, nope, we have no prosecutions of excessive force after a shooting involving a deputy U.S. marshal. Also, we found no evidence of anyone being prosecuted on the local level either.

Glenn: Now, Simone in your story, you talk about a former U.S. marshal who put on Instagram that they should be nice, "professional but plan to kill everyone you meet." And he currently trains police officers around the country. What did the U.S. Marshal Service say to you about that?

Weichselbaum: Great question. He is now retired. He's a retired task force officer by his own admission, that we found on his Facebook page, has shot and killed five people — including the teenage girl I had mentioned earlier. He is now a consultant. He travels the country teaching cops arrest techniques. And when I asked the U.S. Marshals, they said we never heard of him. And I also sent them photos of his Instagram where he's sort of showing off being a U.S. marshal, and they said that did not violate policy.

Glenn: OK, are there any calls for change in how they are operating? Like you're hearing calls for change in how police operate, especially since so many people of color have been fatally shot by police over the years? Is there a call for change for U.S. marshals?

Weichselbaum: There's not that much. Again, I'm very enthusiastic about what's going on in your city because, again, it's the first time I've seen really wholesale pushback. But the issue with the U.S. marshals, change has to either come from the Justice Department, Congress or President Biden having an executive order.

This is something that can't be fixed on the local level. All a local police department can do, or what local activists can demand, is for that police department to withdraw from the task force. Again, it was a task force member who shot and killed Mr. Jennings in your city.

Glenn: Well, Simone thank you for talking with us.

Weichselbaum: Thank you for having me.

Simone Weichselbaum is a national law enforcement reporter with The Marshall Project, a nonpartisan news organization that covers criminal justice.

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