SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – The oldest Federal law enforcement agency in the United States is also one of the most misunderstood.
When you hear U.S. Marshals you may think of wild west lawmen on horseback in old cowboy movies because they’ve been around since 1789. Now the horses and the six shooters are gone but Marshals are still on the job with the same mission: tracking down fugitives and bringing them to justice.
A recent Tuesday night meeting was the modern-day equivalent of rounding up a posse. Members of VFAST, the Violent Fugitive Apprehension Strike Team, operated by the U.S. Marshals Service were gearing up to go after a drug dealer suspected of killing a man the day before and fleeing to Salt Lake City.
“We have a homicide out of state that’s here right now we have eyes on,” one officer said.
“Over 90 percent of the fugitives we go after have a violent criminal history,” Matt Harris, U.S. Marshal for the District of Utah told Behind The Badge. “Child abuse, rape, attempted murder, murder, robbery. Those are the type of people we’re going for and of course, they don’t want to be caught and they become sometimes pretty creative at hiding but luckily, we’re more creative.”
The VFAST team is made up of officers from 25 different state agencies.
“I’m pretty confident that the best cops in this state work on this task force because you have to be special to do this type of work,” Marshal Harris said. “We’re asking these men and women to go after people who are violent and don’t want to be caught.”
That obviously leads to dangerous and sometimes deadly encounters. In August, a parole fugitive allegedly pulled a gun as VFAST members pursued him on Fayette Street in Salt Lake City before an officer shot and killed the suspect.
Deputy Nick Chournos is the Marshal Service’s Warrants Supervisor.
“It’s life and death and our team knows that,” Deputy Chournos said. “We can do everything right and still not make it home at night and that’s just the reality. We hope it never comes to that. It’s my worst nightmare to have to stand in front of somebody’s significant other or their children and tell them ‘hey your loved one is not coming home tonight’ but that is the reality we deal with.”
Apprehending the fugitive is just one step of the process. That person has to be booked into jail and given a speedy and fair trial and that’s where Meg Smith comes in. She oversees Federal Court Operations which includes protecting judges and getting defendants to and from court safely.
“I’m responsible for basically anything inmate or prisoner related,” Deputy Smith said. “This is kind of the bread and butter of what we do. We move I think it’s over 60,000 inmates in the country that are in our custody.”
With only 5 percent of Department of Justice employees, the Marshals Service accounts for 51 percent of DOJ arrests, and their efforts make all of us a lot safer.
“Just last year alone our task force arrested almost 200 people in Salt Lake City alone,” Marshal Harris said. “So that’s the impact that we do have.”
Whatever you do, don’t make the common mistake of confusing U.S. Marshals with Air Marshals. They are a completely different operation run by the Transportation Security Administration.