U.S. Marshals lack assets to guard federal judges as threats surge, report says

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U.S. marshals patrol outside the Washington, DC courthouse

Sarah L. Voisin | The Washington Post | Getty Images

The United States Marshals Service lacks sufficient resources to protect federal judges and prosecutors, even if threats and “inappropriate communications” to protected individuals have increased 81% since 2016, according to a new report from a watchdog.

The Marshals Service lacks sufficient “proactive threat detection” capabilities to meet its protective obligations, fails to provide judges with “critical home security devices and features,” and is facing serious budget and staff shortages, the report warns.

The Department of Justice’s Inspector General’s Office, which issued the report, concluded that “competing government priorities have hampered the Marshals Service’s ability” to fund improvements to judicial security. The Marshals Service is an agency of the Department of Justice.

“While the USMS has recently taken several important initiatives to address deficiencies in its judicial security capabilities, the USMS continues to face several serious challenges in its efforts to meet its legal obligations in this area,” the report said .

The report comes almost 11 months after the son of U.S. District Judge Esther Salas was murdered by an armed man at her home in North Brunswick, New Jersey, who also seriously injured her husband.

The killer, a lawyer named Roy Den Hollander, pretended to be a delivery man at her home. Hollander, who had argued a case in Salas’ court, was found dead after the attack, from what appeared to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Salas is one of more than 2,700 federal judges that the Marshals Service is responsible for protecting. The agency is also set to protect around 30,000 federal attorneys, the U.S. assistant attorney general, and federal court officials.

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“We concluded that the USMS has insufficient resources and proactive threat detection capabilities to fully meet its protective service obligations to judges and other USMS-protected individuals,” the report said.

“This is particularly worrying,” the report said, as the number of threats and “inadequate communication” against protected individuals has increased significantly.

In FY 2020, the Marshals Service responded to 4,261 such cases, or 81% more than the 2,357 threats or worrying messages in FY 2016, according to the report.

Since 2008, there has been an increase in these incidents of around 233%, the report said.

The Inspector General’s Office noted that the Marshals Service, which has nearly 3,890 deputy marshals, needs about 1,200 additional deputies “to fulfill its overall mandate”.

It also found that the agency’s “threat detection capabilities are insufficient to proactively monitor the current threat landscape, which has largely shifted to online and social media settings.”

The publicly released report obscured what percentage of federal judges choose to participate in the Marshals Service’s Home Intrusion Detection System program and what percentage of those judges activate this system each month or not at all.

However, the report found that “the HIDS program offers its users limited or outdated equipment options”.

That, in turn, could “deter judges from choosing the program or force them to choose an alternative security system that better suits their needs but works outside of the USMS’s purview,” the report said.

The Inspector General’s Office noted that the Marshals Service’s procedures for ensuring that judges, prosecutors and other protected individuals are regularly exposed to security measures outside of courthouses are “inadequate”.

Michelle Coghill, a spokeswoman for the Marshals Service, said in an email to CNBC, “US Marshals are responsible for protecting federal judicial proceedings, and we take that responsibility very seriously.”

“Ensuring that the judicial process is independent and free from harm or intimidation is of paramount importance to the rule of law and reducing violent crime,” said Coghill. “The integrity of the judicial process relies on the safe conduct of legal proceedings and the protection of judges, jurors and witnesses.”

She declined to comment on the report herself, except that the Marshals Service provided a response to the Inspector General’s recommendations and that the response was included in the public report. The agency agreed to each of these recommendations.

These recommendations include conducting a review of the agency’s threat detection and mitigation procedures, seeking input from judges to determine desired home security functions, and investigating upgrading current intrusion detection equipment.