The United States Marshals Service. It's our nation's oldest, most storied law enforcement agency. Yet not everyone knows what exactly a U.S. Marshal does. They constantly make arrests, and have been involved in some of the most significant events in our nation's history -- yet what exactly does their job entail?
Established on September 24, 1789, the first incarnation of the United States Marshals Service came about with the signing of the federal Judiciary Act. Signed by George Washington, the document not only created the nation's court systems, but it also provided a U.S. Marshal to each judicial district to help protect the courts. There was never a "first" U.S. Marshal that one could single out, but rather 13 Marshals were created with the document. The men that were given the title of Marshal "all heard about the job and some had written the White House. Some said, 'Well, I would like to take a job in the federal government.' Some specifically asked for the job of U.S. Marshal," says Dave Turk, U.S. Marshals Historian.
Before the formation of the Secret Service, the Marshals protected this nation's highest office. "The Marshals were probably one of the closer entities to the President of the United States," says Turk. One such Marshal, Ward Hill Lamon, acted as Lincoln's bodyguard, and was almost always at his side. "In December of 1864, Lincoln was in the company of an ambassador from Italy, to go to Ford's Theater to see a production," says Turk. Lamon wrote Lincoln what Dave Turk describes as "a very harsh letter. I'm surprised he would write his superior this, but 'in no uncertain terms, do NOT go to Ford's Theater with just the ambassador as your compan'," says Turk. Lamon was sent to Richmond on April 11, 1865. Three days later, Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth in the middle of a production of Our American Cousin at Ford's Theater. Tragically, Lamon wasn't around to protect Lincoln. "He never forgave himself for that," says Turk.
More than two centuries ago, "When the U.S. Marshals were formed...our primary focus was always on the courts...to protect the judicial family -- even paying the bills of the courts," says Turk. "Back then, they had no accountants." But working for the courts wasn't their only duty, as the Marshals are without question, the most versatile law enforcement agency across the land. Back in the day, Marshals were "in charge of federal executions and serving writs," says Turk. But over time, their duties evolved.
Besides protecting the courts, the Marshals have four other primary duties nowadays, including, but not limited to: Prisoner Transportation, Witness Protection, Asset Seizure, and Fugitive Investigations.
Through the past few centuries, the U.S. Marshals have assisted with transporting prisoners throughout the country. In 1995, the Marshals and ICE merged their air fleets together to create JPATS, the Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System, or "Con Air" as it's commonly referred.
The USMS now runs the federal Witness Security Program. According to the Marshals' website, they provide "security, safety and health of government witnesses and their authorized family members, whose lives are in danger as a result of their cooperation with the U.S. government." Since the early 1970s, nearly 10,000 citizens have participated in the program, and not a single program participant has been harmed while under the watchful eye of the USMS.
Another responsibility of the Marshals service is to handle the Dept. of Justice's Asset Forfeiture Program. After seizing property from those participating in illicit criminal activity, the Marshals sell forfeited assets -- and whatever profit they turn is used to further fund law enforcement initiatives.
But above all, the most publicized, well-known duty of the U.S. Marshals Service is the apprehension of fugitives. Day in and day out, Deputy U.S. Marshals put their lives on the line to take felons off the streets and make this country a safer place. In the Old West, Marshals called upon members of the general public to help round up fugitives and wrong-doers in frontier towns throughout the country. "In the old days, when we used the posses, we deputized the citizens," says Stacia Hylton, Director of the United States Marshals Service. "Nowadays, we special deputize local law enforcement. But the Marshals Service, just as it did in the old days, relies so heavily on our partnership with state and local law enforcement in order to complete our mission every single day," she says.
Yet even with all the deputies they had at their disposal, the Marshals found themselves unable to complete certain complicated missions without some specialized force ready to assist at a moment's notice. That's why in 1971, the USMS created the Special Operations Group, or SOG, for short. SOG is a highly-trained, elite fighting force, made up of the toughest and brightest men and women that the U.S. Marshals Service has to offer. Each SOG member is a deputized U.S. Marshal, and they perform their duties on a strictly volunteer basis.
SOG was formed in response to the civil unrest the Marshals found themselves a part of in the 1960s during the midst of the Civil Rights movement. Not only did the Marshals help protect James Meredith during the 1962 integration of Ole Miss in Oxford, Mississippi, but they also secured the line for King's March in Washington. "We were in places people didn't even think we would be," says Turk.
Once the Marshals established SOG, they found themselves utilized in missions throughout the country, and even the world. "Special Operations Group is constantly deployed in one mission or another within the Marshals Service, including overseas missions," says William Sorukas, Chief Inspector of the USMS Investigative Operations Division.
Not only is SOG used in instances of civil unrest, but they are also called to assist with major events such as the standoff at Wounded Knee, South Dakota in 1973, and more recently, at the siege at Ruby Ridge in 1992.
At the end of the 1970s, however, is when the Marshals really began to shape into the crime-busting agency we know today. "In 1979, there was a Memorandum of Understanding between the Marshals Service and the FBI that gave fugitive apprehension powers back to the Marshals," says Turk.
Throughout the past few decades, the USMS has arrested hundreds of thousands of fugitives, including hundreds of those featured right here on AMW.
And with loyal AMW viewers and readers of AMW.com, we hope that number will grow exponentially over the coming days, weeks, months and years. Since their understanding with the FBI came to fruition, the Marshals have been the primary go-to federal agency for taking down bad guys. "When you arrest a felon -- and a fugitive -- knowing that you're protecting others, I don't think there;s anything more gratifying. You know it's our basic DNA. It's who we are," says Dir. Hylton.