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Shootings By DOJ Law Enforcement Agencies Shrouded In Secrecy

Updated: Dec 7, 2023


Elliott Cowand Jr/Shutterstock

Despite being pushed for decades by congress and a string of presidents to change their ways and commit to transparency, federal law enforcement agencies continue to use questionable tactics, have failed to adopt reforms, and release extremely limited information regarding uses of force by officers.


Between 2018 and 2022, over 200 people were shot by an on-duty federal officer, a member of a federal task force or a local officer participating in an operation with federal agents, according to an investigation by NBC News. 151 were killed.


The analysis revealed that officers with the Justice Department’s law enforcement agencies — including the FBI, U.S. Marshals, DEA, and ATF — have fired at moving cars, shot people within seconds of encounters without taking steps to de-escalate the situations, and rarely wear body-cameras.


But the shootings, which took place in rural towns and big cities, in shopping centers, outside popular restaurants and inside neighborhood stores, have remained mostly free from public scrutiny. They often occurred while federal officers were trying to arrest people or serve warrants, sometimes for low-level crimes. In 23 shootings officers opened fire during daylight in highly trafficked public places. Only two of the shootings identified by the NBC investigation resulted in criminal charges for officers.


The tactics by the federal officers are at odds with those of many big-city police departments across the country, which have increasingly embraced reforms meant to reduce unnecessary uses of force and increase transparency.


During President Joe Biden's administration, the Justice Department has updated its use-of-force policy for the first time in nearly 20 years, now requiring its officers to intervene when they witness excessive force and limits the use of so-called no-knock warrants and other controversial tactics. He also ordered agencies to “issue policies” within 90 days to equip federal officers with body cameras — which were banned until 2021 by the DOJ — but stopped short of ordering their immediate use. As of this fall, none of the Justice Department’s law enforcement agencies examined by NBC News have fully implemented the use of body cameras.


Critics say that the administration hasn’t done enough.


“There are no consequences for these federal agencies,” said Jonathan Smith, a former section chief in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “We often find that they’re engaged in behaviors that either violate the Constitution or that are contrary to the values of a democratic society.”


The tactics of federal officers have also sometimes put them at odds with local police chiefs who their agencies partner with.


After FBI agents shot a kidnapping victim in Houston, police chief Art Acevedo, who was also serving as the leader of Major City Chiefs, an organization of national police leaders. eventually rallied other big-city chiefs to threaten to leave task forces if the Justice Department continued to ban body cameras.


“The federal mentality isn’t one where openness and transparency is at the top of the philosophical repertoire,” Acevedo said.


Peter Carr, a DOJ spokesperson, said in a statement that “the Department of Justice recognizes the importance of transparency and accountability in its law enforcement operations,"


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