U.S. Marshals Provide Wide Range of Services

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The U.S. Marshals Service is the oldest federal law enforcement agency in the country. It's also among the least understood. The Marshals' duties span a wide range: fugitive-hunting, courthouse security, witness protection and asset seizures.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

We're going to take some time now to profile a government agency that most Americans know of but not a lot about. The US Marshal Service is the oldest federal law enforcement agency in the country. The marshals' duties span a wide range, from fugitive hunting to courthouse security, witness protection and asset seizures. Here's NPR's Ari Shapiro.

ARI SHAPIRO reporting:

US marshals are not the people who fly on airplanes to protect passengers from terrorists. Those are air marshals, and they're part of the Department of Homeland Security. US marshals are in the Justice Department. They're the guys who might show up at your door before dawn someday if there's a federal arrest warrant out for you.

(Soundbite of door being knocked on)

SHAPIRO: The sky is just beginning to lighten, and a dozen members of the Capital Area Fugitive Task Force are lined up in the stairwell of a tenement in Washington, DC. You can see their breath. Their target is a guy who failed to show up in court. He's wanted for assault with a deadly weapon.

(Soundbite of door being knocked on)

Unidentified Man #1: Hey, man, this is the police. Can you come to the door please?

SHAPIRO: Eventually a neighbor pokes her head out. One of the officers steps inside to interview her. Andrew Smith is part of this team. He says neighbors can often be the final clue that leads investigators to a fugitive.

Mr. ANDREW SMITH (US Marshal Service): If the neighbors are awake or typically they're interested in what's happening, they'll come out and peek around. And oftentimes they're a good way to gain some information as to what's--and whether there are people living in the apartment that we're interested in or whether they recognize the fugitive, that type of thing.

SHAPIRO: This fugitive wasn't home. The team leaves a lookout outside the building and moves on to the next target.

Fugitive hunting is a big part of what the marshals do. The service nabs more federal fugitives each year than every other federal law enforcement agency combined. And although most people in the Marshal Service won't admit this right away, hunting fugitives is the reason many of them came to work for the agency. David King has been with the Marshals almost 20 years.

Mr. DAVID KING (US Marshal Service): It's like crack. You know, they say crack's addictive the first time you do it; same thing with hunting fugitives. The first time you find someone and you get them, well, you can't wipe the smile off your face.

SHAPIRO: King gave up hunting fugitives to get married. Now he's branch chief for the Marshals' basic training at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in coastal Georgia.

(Soundbite of training session)

SHAPIRO: A group of 41 students is here training to be deputy marshals. King calls the program Disneyland with guns. The 11-week course includes plenty of shooting. The students will also get hit with pepper spray, jolted with an electric stun belt, and they'll practice regaining control of a car that's spinning out of control. This morning is one of the biggest challenges of the training program. It's called the beach.

(Soundbite of training session)

Unidentified Man #2: Come on, Mr. Carter.

Unidentified Man #3: Come on!

Mr. KING: And they have to do five sets of calisthenics, and in between each calisthenic they have to run about 200 yards, and they have to do that 10 times. It takes about an hour, an hour and 10 minutes to complete.

SHAPIRO: The first to finish the course is 27-year-old Joseph Stevens of Booneville, Mississippi.

Mr. JOSEPH STEVENS (US Marshal Trainee): This was tough. It was. You can't let your body shut down on you. You just gotta keep pushing yourself and say, `Let's do it one more time. Let's do it one more time.'

SHAPIRO: All but one of the students complete the exercise. The last one is carried away after he starts falling over.

The marshals are especially proud of their history. President George Washington appointed the first 13 US marshals in 1789. As the service's historian, Dave Turk has been collecting artifacts stretching back almost that far. He has a gun owned by the outlaw Jesse James and a print of a famous painting.

Mr. DAVE TURK (Historian): This is a reproduction of "The Problem We All Live With" by Norman Rockwell, a painting that he did in 1964.

SHAPIRO: The painting shows a young black girl carrying her books into a newly integrated school. There's graffiti and a rotten tomato splattered on the wall behind her. The girl is escorted by four men in suits wearing yellow arm bands that say `Deputy US Marshal.' This is part of a collection focusing on the Marshals' role in civil rights.

Mr. TURK: This sign here--it's a big metal sign--was actually placed in the Little Rock area during--you know, just after the 1957 integration of Central High School. It says `Warning' in big, black letter, `Deputy United States Marshals wearing special arm bands and other identification are on official duty in this vicinity. They are assisting in the execution of orders of the federal court. Any person interfering or obstructing said deputy marshals in the performance of their duties is liable to criminal prosecution under federal law.'

SHAPIRO: The Marshals have a lot of other duties as assigned. They guarded the first female student at the military academy, The Citadel. They shielded abortion clinics from protesters in the 1990s. They run the Witness Protection Program. And after Hurricane Katrina, they were responsible for moving prisoners out of flooded areas. They like to describe themselves as Congress' go-to guys for miscellaneous law enforcement needs.

Mr. MARK FARMER (Assistant Director, US Marshal Service, Judicial Security Division): The Marshal Service protects what's called the judicial process.

SHAPIRO: Mark Farmer is assistant director for the Marshal Service's Judicial Security Division.

Mr. FARMER: We're concerned about the personal security of the federal judiciary. We're concerned about the witnesses. We're concerned about the transportation of prisoners. It's almost as though you have a wagon wheel, and at the center of that is the US Marshal Service as its spokes reach out into the various areas of the whole federal criminal justice system.

SHAPIRO: 2005 was a tough year for the Judicial Security Division. After a judge's family was murdered in Chicago, the Senate Judiciary Committee convened hearings on protecting judges. Judge Jane Roth of the 3rd Circuit Appeals Court told the committee that the relationship between the judiciary, the Marshal Service and the Justice Department is in crisis.

(Soundbite of hearing)

Judge JANE ROTH (3rd Circuit Appeals Court): In a word, the relationship is dysfunctional. Unfortunately, it affects the security of judges, of their families and of everyone in the courthouse.

SHAPIRO: More recently two Democratic senators wrote a letter to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales asking why $12 million that had been allocated for judicial security had not yet been spent.

Many in the Marshals hope that the service's new leader will help solve these problems. John Clark has been acting director of the agency since his predecessor resigned in June. Unlike other recent leaders who've had political connections and come from outside the Marshal Service, Clark worked his way up through the ranks of the agency over the last 20 years. He would not speak on tape for this story since he's awaiting confirmation hearings. They're likely to happen early next year. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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