Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The U. S. Marshals: The Long Arm of the Law

Tradition vs Change

Senator Strom Thurmond (AP)
Senator Strom
Thurmond (AP)

In response to the issues raised over the Marshal's politicized office, Senator Strom Thurmond proposed to make it a career position rather than one that changes with the ebb and flow of political parties.

The primary issue is that many of the U.S. Marshals who come into the job do so because of connections rather than law enforcement experience. That means that more support staff are needed to cover for some inexperience and weaknesses. Making the position a career position, chosen through merit and advancement, would save a substantial amount of taxpayer money and make the management of the Marshals Service more efficient.

Although there is a national Director of the Marshals Service, located in Arlington, VA, only the President can authorize disciplinary action against a Marshal, which effectively undercuts the director's leadership. In addition, the position of Chief Deputy Marshal, which is a career position, becomes crucial for continuity in that district's law enforcement. In other words, the second highest position has more practical responsibility than does the highest position, and the Chief Deputy Marshal may have to report to an inexperienced leader.

Roger Ray has been in both positions. He ultimately served as a U.S. Marshal, and when his turn came to be replaced during the reign of a new president, he argued for reform. However, in retrospect, he does see the advantages of getting new qualified individuals into these positions and feels the president should continue to appoint the U.S. Marshals as they have over the past two centuries.

Yet many disagree, most notably, they say, because a law enforcement system should not operate by political favors. Historian Frederick Calhoun agrees. "The Service remained too politicized. The presidential appointment of the U.S. Marshals haunted the organization. It could never escape the taint of politics as long as its top district managers owed their appointments to political favors, not professional advancement."

Since the top position is transient, the Chief Deputy Marshal's allegiances are of necessity somewhat tenuous. That hardly supports the camaraderie needed for many of the tasks these officers perform.

Senator Thurmond calls the current organization inefficient and structurally unsound and the inherent limitations in power of the director's position means that the agency is loosely organized at best. Legislation to make the changes had passed the House of Representatives in 1997 but not the Senate. Thurmond hopes to bring it back to the floor and make the change effective for the new presidential term that begins in 2005.

"It is time," he writes," that we professionalized one of our most important law enforcement agencies."

Whether or not he's successful, it won't change the fact that the U.S. Marshals have been and will continue to be a fundamental part of American history.

Among the many duties performed by the Marshals, perhaps hunting down fugitives gets the most attention. Let's look at how the special task force successfully developed and closed a case.

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