Tanzina Vega: I'm Tanzina Vega. Welcome back to The Takeaway. When we think about US marshals, we picture federal law enforcement officers seeking and arresting the so-called worst of the worst violent fugitives, drug lords, and dangerous kingpins. A recent investigation from The Marshall Project shows how in the past few years, federal US marshals have been acting more like local police executing local warrants.
These officers often face less oversight and in recent years they've been responsible for more violence. From 2015 to 2020 officers working with the US federal marshals have shot an average of 31 people per year and because the marshals are a federal law enforcement arm, accountability is much more difficult to access. With me now is Simone Weichselbaum, National Law Enforcement reporter for The Marshall Project. Simone, thanks for being with us.
Simone Weichselbaum: Thanks for having me back.
Tanzina: You took on this investigation; what did you find regarding the tasks that federal US marshals have been engaging in the past couple of years?
Simone Weichselbaum: This issue came to me from police chiefs from across the country. I had done a story in 2019 examining why several big-city police departments like Albuquerque and Atlanta were withdrawing from federal task forces, mainly the US marshals. The police chiefs were like, "Hey, Simone, you need to look into these guys. They're basically like cowboys."
What I had learned is, going into the story, you would think the US Marshal Service, they're the ones going after people who kill police officers; they're the ones going after drug kingpins in places like Mexico. Wrong. Actually, most of their time is spent going after local warrants. When we dug even further, we found that a third of their shootings in the last five years were in cities under 50,000. What we're learning is, little police departments or small to medium police departments are really relying on the Feds to pick up local suspects.
Tanzina: Is that because they don't have the resources themselves? Why is that reliance starting to happen?
Simone Weichselbaum: What we found is money. Around 2000 Congress enacted a funding stream that allows federal task forces to form. We found about 64 across the country. I spoke to marshals who are currently working, who said, "Yes, we're working more and more with local cops." Not local cops from big cities like Los Angeles or New York City, cops from far, from places like Kentucky and Arkansas.
Even they're starting to wonder like, why are we doing this more? What I learned is this funding stream allows the marshals to grow. It allows them to collect more weapons. It allows them to be more proactive but when you start digging, being proactive, who are you arresting? We found that two-thirds of their warrants are on local charges and about half are people wanted on crimes like drugs and other crimes that resulted in minimal injury. No, they are not going after the worst of the worst.
Tanzina: Simone, what types of crimes are the people that they're going after have committed? What does an arrest look like at that point? Do they receive warrants?
Simone Weichselbaum: To be fair to them, we went over five years of data. Again, DOJ would not release that to me. That's another issue that the justice department when it comes to policing their own, not so transparent. We had to collect the data ourselves. Again, there were murderers, there were terrible people who did terrible crime like rapists and people who molest children. We also had people wanted for drugs, low-level robberies. What's interesting about the US marshals, unlike local policing, which is under the microscope for this issue, they're not really into executing search warrants.
We've had this debate in policing like, should they be knocking down doors, doing no-knock warrants, bursting into homes? The flip side of that is US marshals wait for you to leave their house. They will get an arrest warrant, but they refrain from getting a search warrant. They wait for you to come outside. We found in about 25% of the shootings we examined, they like to surround your car. They call it boxing it in, and then they shoot up the car. In 25% of our cases, we had people shot or shot and killed in vehicles surrounded by US marshals or local police, boxed in, they can't go anywhere, and that's okay by DOJ standards.
Tanzina: Simone, in terms of the level of violence-- You just described boxing in cars and shooting directly into cars, is that standard?
Simone Weichselbaum: It is highly refrained in local policing. Again, another ironic twist; you have one arm of DOJ saying, "Okay, you guys are allowed to do this." It's in their deadly force policy. The other arm of DOJ, which investigates local policing practices has tried in Miami, Chicago, and other places for shooting at vehicles. It's the irony when you start looking at federal law enforcement, you have their civil rights division who sues local police departments into reform like we saw in Baltimore and New Orleans. Then you have the other side of DOJ who allows their agents.
Again, this is not just this US marshals, this applies to all federal agents who work under DOJ. They're allowed to use deadly force in a lower standard than most police departments. Why are they allowed to shoot at cars? Well, they argue if the person is using the car as a weapon, trying to run over an officer, they're allowed to do it. However, we found cases where innocent bystanders, you're driving your vehicle, perhaps your boyfriend has an arrest warrant, he didn't tell you.
Or in one case, the lead of our story in Arizona, it was a 17-year-old girl in the back seat. Her boyfriend's in the front seat and he's with his friend. His friend is wanted on a warrant after roughing up his girlfriend. Again, not a nice thing to do. He's boxed in, the task force opens fire and shoots and kills this girl in the head. That task force officer not only got to retire early, not only collects a pension over $60,000 a year, I kid you not, he is now a police trainer, traveling the country, teaching other police officers arrest tactics like those.
Tanzina: Simone, because this is raising questions of oversight and accountability for marshals and the local police officers who work with them, so what are the accountability mechanisms in place for doing something like that? I'm almost afraid you're going to say that there aren't any.
Simone Weichselbaum: The simple way we have found more than five cities thus far who have done this is just to leave the task force. Again, Albuquerque, not like a bastion of liberal policy, San Antonio, Texas, the city I found in 2019 also left the US marshals over oversight issues. That's one answer, leave the task force. The bigger question is, why isn't the federal government regulating this?
Again, these issues not only apply to US marshals, they apply to other agencies who fall under DOJ. Congress can regulate them. DOJ itself can regulate them. Let's backtrack a little. We found problems under both the Obama administration, the Trump administration. A lot of these reforms go back to Bill Clinton's era. This is an issue where doesn't matter who's in the White House. These guys are just allowed to grow and grow with power.
Tanzina: Have any lawmakers, Simone, attempted to regulate this at all?
Simone Weichselbaum: Senator Chuck Grassley, about two years ago, released a really meaty report digging into the US marshals. Several whistleblowers came forward to him. That's how I started reporting the story, interviewing the same whistleblowers who spoke with Senator Chuck Grassley and the report went nowhere. It's about 500 pages. It really digs into issues of oversight training within the agency. No, it did not spark reform. If the Senate judiciary committee under the Trump administration can't push change, I don't know what will.
Tanzina: Simone Weichselbaum is National Law Enforcement reporter with The Marshall Project. Simone, thanks for joining us.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.