Tested: Simone Weichselbaum Of The Marshall Project Discusses U.S. Marshal-Involved Shootings
In late March, Tannya Jennings traveled from Brooklyn down to Charlotte. She came to North Carolina to celebrate her brother Frankie’s 32nd birthday.
"He and my son share the same birthday," she told Tested host Charlie Shelton-Ormond. "So, being that I'm the oldest sibling, two years apart from him. My son is like an angel all over again, because that's how my brother is to me."
But after Jennings arrived in Charlotte, her family was met with tragedy.
On the morning of his birthday, federal agents with the U.S. Marshals Service surrounded Frankie Jennings at a gas station. According to police, the agents were attempting to arrest him for several outstanding warrants. One of the deputy Marshals "perceived a lethal threat" and shot and killed Frankie Jennings.
"The fact that this happened, not just on his day, but on my son's day on his uncle's day, this is not going to be a memorable day," said Tannya Jennings. "So I want answers. I want the videotape. I want the name of the Marshal. There's a lot of things that I want my brother back to, but I will never get that."
The Charlotte Mecklenburg police department is investigating the shooting. No CMPD officers were involved in the incident, according to police.
U.S. Marshals are often tapped to go after dangerous fugitives across the country. But recently, Marshals have worked more closely with local law enforcement on special task forces to carry out local, not federal, warrants. The unidentified deputy Marshal who shot and killed Jennings was a part of the Carolinas Regional Fugitive Task Force.
On the latest episode of Tested, we spoke with Simone Weichselbaum, the national law enforcement reporter for the Marshall Project, about U.S. Marshal-involved shootings.
Simone and her colleagues looked into shootings involving U.S. Marshals and their task forces between 2015 and 2020. She says they had to use news articles, court documents, and police reports, because the Department of Justice denied their request for the information.
They found on average, U.S. Marshals shot 31 people each year, killing 22 of them. That’s a higher rate compared to two major cities -- Houston and Philadelphia -- which have roughly the same number of cops as there are agents and task force officers in the Marshals Service.
Our conversation with Weichselbaum is edited for length and clarity.
Your story, U.S Marshals Act Like Local Police With More Violence and Less Accountability, is incredibly well-reported, and reveals a lot about how U.S. Marshals operate. How did you come to work on this story?
"So police chiefs complained to me over the years that the U.S. Marshals are cowboys, they get away with murder, they said, and no one holds them accountable."
"And it got to the point where several cities said you know what, we're not going to pair our cops with these task forces anymore. And at the time, when I started reporting on this in 2019, the main issue was body cameras."
"So if a local cop works on a federal task force at the time, even if the city wants a local cop to wear a body camera, the federal agency, no federal agents, still to this day, wear body cameras. So recently, DOJ, because of all this pushback now allows local cops on the task forces to wear body cameras. But it's still not mandatory. And that does not apply to the agents on these task forces."
So what does the investigation process look like for these U.S. Marshal-involved shootings?
"So what I also learned in the reporting is, if there is an officer-involved shooting that involves a Task Force officer, discipline is not handed down by the US Marshal service. The US Marshal service is only responsible for its agents. It's not responsible for its Task Force officers."
"Most of the time, it's the local authorities who take the lead. They come up with an investigative report, and then they present it usually to the local DA's office, not the U.S. Attorney's Office and, for the most part, the local attorney's office clears them (and calls it) a justified shooting."
"It's sort of interesting to me as someone in New York national reporter, how the Jennings case never reached the national level. But I pay attention to you U.S. Marshal involved shootings, and there's really nothing new on it. And it frustrates me that when federal agents are involved in shootings, there's not much of a conversation."
Tested airs every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday on WUNC Radio. The podcast drops the same day. Subscribe and download, for an extended conversation with Marshall Project reporter Simone Weichselbaum.