U.S Marshal’s fateful, foolish decision not to use bodycams | Opinion

June 17, 2021 7:00 am

U.S. Marshals in Roswell, N.M. The agency has come under scrutiny for using overly aggressive tactics without accountability. Photo courtesy U.S. Marshals Service.

Members of the NorthStar Fugitive Task Force shot and killed a Black man, Winston Smith, Jr. in Minneapolis on June 3, 2021. Early media reports said that Smith was wanted for murder, but like the initial police claim that George Floyd had died after a “medical incident during police interaction,” this was false. A more stunning revelation was that the U.S. Marshals Service — the federal agency in charge of the task force — refused to allow sheriff’s deputies from Hennepin and Ramsey counties to wear body cameras.

The way in which local and federal law enforcement has handled the aftermath of Smith’s shooting is a concerning failure. Building trust with the community requires law enforcement to embrace transparency and accountability. Minneapolis is, after all, the city in which George Floyd’s murder may never have been prosecuted but for the video shot by a teenage girl on her cell phone.   

The investigating agency, the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA), released a statement that there is no video evidence of Smith’s shooting because U.S. marshals do not wear body cameras. Nor were local deputies participating in the NorthStar Task Force allowed to use their own. This was followed by a statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office that the Department of Justice changed the policy to permit local law enforcement to wear body cameras in October 2020. Neither agency explained the apparent discrepancy to the public or to the family. This confusing lack of transparency led to anger, protests and press conferences by community activists and the family demanding release of all video evidence.

What the BCA did say was that Smith, who was wanted on a state court warrant for a charge of illegally possessing a gun, “failed to comply with officer’s commands” and “produced a handgun resulting in task force members firing upon the subject.” Two deputies — one from Hennepin County and one from Ramsey County — shot Smith. Both sheriff’s offices have body cameras, which raised the question of why the two deputies weren’t wearing them when they shot Smith, months after the federal policy changed.    

While the community and policy makers demanded answers, Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher publicly lamented that the U.S. marshals would not allow his deputies to wear their body cameras. He still allowed them to participate in the task force, unlike the Minneapolis and St. Paul Police Departments, which do not allow officers to partner with federal task forces which require them to violate their bodycam policies.   

The Monday after Smith was shot, Fletcher said that he had reached an agreement with the U.S. Marshals Services that his deputies would be allowed serve on the task force and use bodycams. He quickly reversed course, saying he had received a voicemail from Ramona Dohman, the U.S. marshal for Minnesota, that the bodycam rollout may take some time. Both Fletcher and the Hennepin County sheriff, who has said nothing since the shooting, pulled their deputies from task force participation.    

Dohman has not spoken publicly, referring all inquiries to her office. Protesters are demanding that she resign because she has not yet implemented the Department of Justice policy allowing local law enforcement to wear body cameras, at least with respect to the NorthStar Task Force.  

Some also see a conflict having the BCA investigate a shooting by marshals in Dohman’s office. Before former President Donald Trump appointed Dohman to be the U.S. Marshal for Minnesota in 2019, she was the Minnesota Commissioner of Public Safety. In that role, she appointed the current head of the BCA. So, the actions of her department are being investigated by an agency over which she had oversight and led by someone she appointed. When the BCA recently refused to release the names of the deputies who shot Smith — making the claim that they were acting in an undercover capacity — activists reacted angrily, especially in the Black community.      

The U.S. Marshals Service is not itself without controversy. It has set up task forces across the country that deputize local law enforcement officers as federal agents. Some local agencies welcome the resources that accompany the task forces, while others refuse to participate because of concerns about their risky and outdated tactics. An investigation by the Marshall Project and USA TODAY revealed a higher level of violence with marshals than local law enforcement, speculating that this may be because they are not required to de-escalate situations before using deadly force, and they can shoot into cars.  

The NorthStar Task Force appears to have used a questionable tactic, called “vehicle containment” on Smith. Media footage of the parking ramp shows that Smith’s car was completely boxed in by several task force vehicles. In the Marshall Project article, experts criticized this strategy because there is no attempt at de-escalation. Smith was also shot while sitting in a car, with a woman who was injured, reportedly by broken glass.   

Although the BCA is investigating the actions of the task force, state prosecutors do not have legal authority to bring charges against task force members, including local law enforcement who are deputized. Although the woman in Smith’s car recently said through her lawyer that she did not see Smith with a gun, charges are unlikely without video evidence contradicting the law enforcement narrative.  

It is possible that Smith made an impulsive decision to pull a gun when suddenly boxed in by what appear to be unmarked cars, which is one reason why law enforcement should embrace the use of bodycams. The problem is that we will never really know whether the law enforcement narrative is correct, simply mistaken, or purposely wrong.  

The bigger issue is that many in the community — who already distrust law enforcement — will believe that deputies unjustifiably shot Smith and purposely refused to wear bodycams knowing they would never be held accountable without video evidence, should something go wrong.

The silence is deafening and it continues to erode the hope of building on any trust that may have been gained by the murder conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.    

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Mary F. Moriarty
Mary F. Moriarty

Mary Moriarty has been a public defender for more than 31 years, including six years as chief public defender of Hennepin County.