Investigation looks at violence, accountability in U.S. Marshal service

A new investigation by the Marshall Project looks at violence and accountability in the U.S. Marshal service. Simone Weichselbaum, a staff writer for the Marshall Project, joined CBSN with more.

Video Transcript

- A new investigation takes a closer look at violence and accountability surrounding the US Marshals Services. According to the Marshall Project, at least 177 people were shot by a US Marshal or local police officer helping in an arrest between 2015 and 2020. 124 people died from their injuries. And while marshals are deployed to arrest suspects on federal warrants, nearly 2/3 of arrests were suspects wanted on local warrants.

Something to note, no US Marshal has ever been prosecuted following the shooting. And the department does not carry out investigations when a shooting occurs. As more marshals integrate with local police stations, many are asking if it's time for a reform within the department.

Simon Weichselbaum joins us now. Simon is a-- Simone rather is a staff writer for the Marshall Project and is a co-author of the report. Simone, thanks so much for joining us. Sorry for messing up your name there as we came into the segment. But walk me through the difference in standards between Marshals Service agents and local officers and the impact it's had on policing and how it's carried out.

SIMONE WEICHSELBAUM: Sure, US Marshals are a federal agency. They work under the Department of Justice. And those agents and officers don't follow standards that are very common now in big-city policings.

Standards such as wearing a body camera, deadly use of force-- they're allowed to shoot at a moving vehicle. And for a federal agent who works for the Marshals or a local officer who's deputized to work with that agency feels that they're under threat, something called imminent danger, they are allowed to use force. A standard in which big-city police departments like in Chicago and the entire state of New Jersey is moving away from.

- So why are agents not held accountable in the same way that local officers are held? And how does this play a role in the conversations around police reform in the US after the summer that we just all witnessed?

SIMONE WEICHSELBAUM: Sure, so these agents work for the federal government, which means they answer to either the Justice Department or Congress. Congress is very slow and has not made major reforms in federal law enforcement for almost two decades, same with DOJ. While DOJ goes into investigate places like the New Orleans Police Department or the Baltimore Police Department, they really investigate their own, meaning the FBI or the US Marshals. What made us interested in this story we found the US Marshals has grown tremendously and now works on the front line of policing helping local police departments arrest suspects.

- So you know in your reporting that most agents work alongside police organizations. Why do so many police stations need the reinforcement of a federal agency?

SIMONE WEICHSELBAUM: Well, we argue in the piece that they actually don't. We found that in one third of our shootings occurred in cities under 50,000. And again, 2/3 of those warrants were people wanted on local crimes.

So what we found this isn't happening in places like New York City, or Chicago, or Los Angeles. We're seeing that integration in small towns and small cities across the country, especially in places like Arizona. Arizona led our database in shootings.

- And has the task force outgrown the original purpose it was intended to serve?

SIMONE WEICHSELBAUM: Actually, the intended purpose was to help local police department arrest suspects on violent crimes. What we did find there are people being arrested for felonies, drug crimes, running away from halfway houses. Yes, there are also people arrested for murder and doing terrible things to people.

However, we found that the numbers are growing. And they're also growing in small towns and small cities, which is really concerning. When it comes to police reform, it is the big cities that have the lawyers and the activists paying attention, not places in like rural Montana or rural Utah, where we found these shootings were happening.

- There was a-- as you know, a significant call by activists to quote, "defund the police." It's something that President Biden has said he's not supportive of. If you were watching the confirmation hearings for Judge Merrick Garland to be the next Attorney General of the United States.

He was asked about that by some senators during that hearing. And he-- or he sort of reiterated and echoed what President Biden has said. But, but using that language, "defund the police" doesn't mean that just because President Biden says he's not for it doesn't mean he is also not for some kind of reform of policing in America. What is your understanding of that?

SIMONE WEICHSELBAUM: Well, "defund the police" is something about local police. Should our local tax dollars be going to this issue? What I'm looking at in my piece is federal law enforcement. Billions of dollars are spent on the federal level in the criminal justice system. And it's something activists and lawyers aren't really examining.

A lot of attention is being poured right now looking at big-city policing-- on the local level, rightfully so. But I found egregious abuses if you will, on the federal level, which gets little attention. And that's something only Congress can regulate, or DOJ, or President Biden can sign an executive order. These are things that aren't really being talked about yet.

- Why do you think Simone, it's gone under the radar for so long?

SIMONE WEICHSELBAUM: I think there's this idea that federal law enforcement is the gold standard here in this country. If you recall after Ferguson or after atrocities in Baltimore and Chicago, people asked, they begged DOJ to come in investigate that local police department, correct? Few people know that DOJ has its own arm. Thousands of federal agents police our country today. And the DOJ does not regulated its own. And I think people just don't know that.

- Was there a sense that we saw some of them in action during some of the protests, though? I mean you-- there were reports from this news organization and others of federal law enforcement activity in local jurisdictions.

SIMONE WEICHSELBAUM: Right, so one of the cases didn't make it into print but we did report it out involved the US Marshal in Portland shooting a protester in the head with a rubber bullet. What we found it's called SOG. It's their Special Operations Group. It's the SWAT team if you will.

So under the Trump administration, they sent that group of US Marshals to police the protest in Portland. And a Deputy US Marshal shot a protester in the head with a rubber bullet. That protester had raised a speaker. And that perhaps bothered that Deputy US Marshal. But we found in court papers they argued back, hey, we're not trained to deal with protesters.

So again, there's this idea that, oh, if you're a federal agent especially a federal agent who works on something akin to their SWAT team, you could police any situation. And no, they cannot. In this case, someone was shot in the head with a rubber bullet.

- Simone Weichselbaum, thank you so much appreciate it. Well, CBS News has reached out to the Department of Justice for a statement regarding the US Marshals Services. They have yet to respond to our request.